In search of slow jazz

New Norwegian jazz has been closely associated with Bugge Wesseltoft and Nils Petter Molvær's flirtation with electronic music and Jaga Jazzist's avant-garde jazz ensemble. But ECM-released Tord Gustavsen Trio has found a niche of its own as explorers of slow jazz.

Tord Gustavsen, 2003

"We are exploring slow tempos. There is still so much expressive variety, rhythmic intensity, and creative interplay to be discovered within this framework. Lots of jazz bands believe they "have to" play fast songs, just to avoid boring their audience. We are more interested in the finer nuances than the large contrasts."

And I believe him. Sitting at a cafe in Oslo, pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen seems to be the kind of person who avoids fast changes, quick paces, even fast music. Talking a bit slowly, almost difficult to hear, using words such as beautiful and melodic to describe his music, it is hard to imagine Gustavsen as part of the electronic jazz generation. BBC Jazz has called the trio's debut album Changing Places "a truly beautiful record that (if there's any justice) will find a place as one of ECM's finest releases of the last few years, and probably a place in your heart too. Gorgeous." The second ECM release from the trio is expected this fall.

Tord Gustavsen Trio is doing a concert in Oslo, a rare opportunity for Norwegian fans after they started touring abroad. The trio, Tord Gustavsen (piano), Harald Johnsen (bass), and Jarle Vespestad (drums) toured the US extensively last fall, visited Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland in February, and is heading for France and the British Isles in April and May. All the great reviews at home and abroad as well as the ECM label have opened up doors for the young jazz musicians.

"ECM's most important role for us is their world-wide distribution. The label is available almost all over the world. If you are signed to a small Norwegian label, distribution is more of a problem. Another advantage with ECM is of course being connected to the great tradition represented by their impressive catalogue. It's a lot of important music history there. And this in turn sometimes makes journalists threat our music more seriously because of the label and its reputation even if they don't know our names. However, it can also be limiting. Partly undeserved, ECM has among some people been associated too heavily with a certain sound and musical approach. But luckily for us, it seems that most people have listened openly to our music," Gustavsen says.

With wide-open ears and minds, we have heard a new, but still old kind of melodic jazz. It is mellow and meditative, with a clear touch of blues. If you listen carefully, you will also recognize gospel in certain parts of the compositions, Caribbean music in other parts. New York Times creatively called the sound "a nightclub made churchlike by softness of sound and touch."

How would you describe your music?
"All three of us have a fondness for melodic and beautiful music, but we are also deeply attracted to improvisation and creative interplay. We also share a radical openness towards different kinds of music. We are not recording our melodic and lyrical music to satisfy anyone else -- marketing divisions or managers or the like -- it's simply a matter of us being honest towards ourselves and what we would like to listen to ourselves," Gustavsen says, who has composed all the songs on the debut album.

Gustavsen, Johnsen, and Vespestad met while they were studying at the famous jazz course at the Conservatory of Music in Trondheim, Norway (now under the administration of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU). After finishing school, they have played with numerous projects individually and together (Supersilent, Bugge Wesseltoft, Farmers Market, Jan Erik Kongshaug Group, Live Maria Roggen, Kristin Asbjørnsen, etc.), several of them involving singers.

"The trio has also played a lot with Silje Nergaard. It has made our interplay solid, and we have a unique chemistry after playing together for several years. Accompaniment has been a good school for us, and interplay with singers is still one of my passions."

Gustavsen is meeting us in between sound check and preparations for tonight's concert at Cosmopolite. As he arrived the café, he carried a small silver suitcase, looking kind of mysterious. Eventually, he discloses the mystery.
"When we travel so much, there is no guarantee that the piano is as great at it should be. The least I can do, is to bring my own, excellent microphone", Gustavsen says with a little smile.

He started playing the piano when he was four, kindly guided by his father. Gustavsen continued playing in churches and with different choirs, while also composing his own songs. When we ask who his main inspiration sources are, he stops talking, and seems to disappear, but only for a short while.

"Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett -- they are pillars I can't walk by. Jan Johansson and Jon Balke have also been important to me. But singers and horn players are equally important to me; especially Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Generally, I've listened a lot to the American Spirituals and early Blues traditions. The heritage from the early jazz is something I deeply respect. I am also very much inspired by European art music, such as the Impressionist and Neo-classical composers Ravel and Shostakovich." But Gustavsen is also listening to more popular music. Several singer/songwriters are among his favourites; Joni Mitchell, Eva Dahlgren, Leonard Cohen, Silje Nergaard, and Siri Gjære.

"Much of my melodic thinking has developed through these singers", Gustavsen says. And apparently, Gustavsen has succeeded in developing his own "voice". "Is this the greatest new voice in jazz piano?" an American reviewer asked. "Such statements are scary, Gustavsen says modestly. Our music is of course closely related to a set of traditions, and also I am really sceptic towards the whole concept of objective newness. It's a question of trying to make your music as fresh and honest as possible, not necessarily new."

Nevertheless, when mixing different traditions, something new might appear.
Minimalistic and open landscapes of sound, melancholy, and gospel, but also happy energy are what to expect from Tord Gustavsen Trio's second album, coming this fall.

But now he has more urgent matters ahead. Hurrying slowly, Gustavsen has emptied his glass of water - the sound check at Cosmopolite is waiting for the pianist and the excellent microphones.

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