Tord Gustavsen Ensemble: Restored, Returned (2010)
A spare beauty has characterized all of pianist Tord Gustavsen's trio recordings, and in this sense Restored and Returned is a natural continuation of his musical journey, with space and subtle dynamics characterizing these intimate compositions. What sets this recording apart from his most recent efforts is mainly the addition of vocalist Kristen Asbjørnsen, who brings a strongly personal, husky blues tone to the tunes she interprets, based on the poetry of W.H. Auden. Whether in duo, trio or quartet setting, the music is bound by a ruminative, brooding quality, as though looking into someone's deepest memories.
The opening "The Child Within" is not playful as the title perhaps suggests, but rather Gustavsen's minimal touches and saxophonist Tore Brunborg's contemplative tenor combine to create a kind of blue lullaby; one which inhabits a similar dreamlike space to Bill Evans/Miles Davis's " Flamenco Sketches"music as beautiful as it is fragile. There is an atmosphere of slow awakening from troubled dreams on the piano improvisation "Way In"; this duo piece pairs Gustavsen with bassist Mats Eilertsen, whose solo space has a deep, hold-your-breath intensity. On "Spiral Song;" a lovely drum intro from Jarle Vespestad paves the way for Gustavsen and Eilertsen's almost hushed, highly melodic dialog. Tenor saxophone enters like a softly padding cat, though a slightly more expansive statement from Brunborg, as he improvises on the melody, lends robustness to the tune.
Auden's words fit snugly in music which contains quiet power in its minimalist architecture. Asbjørnsen's voice balances nicely between sensual and fragile; like a latter day Billie Holiday, she delivers both a lived-in weariness and soulful cry that comes from the blues. On the title track there is a gospel air in her strangely hoarse, arresting singing, while on the delicate, slow groove of "Lay your Sleeping Head My Love," her rasping voice again has a sensual, imploring quality. On "O Stand, Stand at the Window," Asbjørnsen and Brunborg join in melodic unison, as Asbjørnsen intones weight to Auden's words: "I love you dear, I love you, 'til China and Africa meet, 'til the river jumps over the mountain and the salmon sinks in the stream."
The only trio number, "Your Crooked Heart," restates the melody of "Left Over Lullaby No. 1/O Stand, Stand at the Window," and the interplay between the three musicians carries a deep groove which contrasts nicely with the stripped down solo or duo pieces. The quartet piece, "The Gaze," has the drama and intimacy of a tango, while nobody is watching. The album closes with another wordless lullaby, whose undeniable beauty, yet ever-so-slightly unsettling atmosphere, underscores the ambiguity of much of the music on this recording.
There is a tremendous emotional depth to this music, which is at the same time subtly grooving. An Englishman's poetry of love spiced with the blues and with the air of timeless folk tunes adds up to music of notable charm and lasting effect.
Track Listing: The Child Within; Way In; Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love; Spiral Song; Restored, Returned; Left Over Lullaby No. 2; The Swirl / Wrapped in Yielding Air; Left Over Lullaby No. 1 / O Stand, Stand At The Window; Your Crooked Heart; The Gaze; Left Over Lullaby No. 3.
Personnel: Tord Gustavsen: piano; Tore Brunborg: tenor saxophone (4-8, 10), soprano saxophones (1) ; Kristin Asbjørnsen: vocals (3-8, 11); Mats Eilertsen: double-bass (2-10); Jarle Vespestad: drums (2-10).