Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2019

John Kelman By

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Still, Montréal audiences are known for their enthusiasm, and this night was no different. Just about lifting the roof off Monument-National, it was clear that there would be no way for Gadd not to return for an encore, the band delivering something completely unexpected: a take on Bob Dylan's minor hit, "Watching the River Flow," initially released as a single only, but subsequently included on the iconic singer/songwriter's Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II (Columbia, 1971) and later included on the bonus discs in the The Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1 (Columbia/Legacy, 2013) megabox, it was a feature for Hays...the singer.

Hays proved a more-than-capable singer whose bluesier approach had little to do with Dylan's inimitable vocalizing; it also turned into a swinging, walking blues for Landau's final (and, yet again, impressive) solo of the night and a feature from Hays where he scatted along with his grand piano lines. The song was firmly anchored by Johnson's unshakable yet ambling lines and Gadd, who did more with the bell of his ride cymbal, a bass drum and a snare than many drummers do with massive drum kits.

Gadd's kit was, in fact, relative basic, with his snare (he kept a couple onstage), high hat and medium-sized bass drum augmented by two rack toms and one floor tom, in addition to four additional cymbals. Not a small jazz kit, to be sure, but still a more modest one than used by many. Gadd also had an electric metronome onstage to his left, where he'd dial in the precise tempo for each song in an earphone, before counting in the band. While there can be a certain excitement generated by counting a song in with an approximation of the tempo used, say, on a recording, it's also a crapshoot, sometime just too slow or fast enough to completely lose the groove,

With Gadd and his band so deeply committed to feel, to dynamics ranging from subtle to more dramatic, and from solo approaches that favored tone, spontaneous compositional form and the value of space (which made any move towards greater virtuosity all the more dramatic), it's no surprise that Gadd wanted to make sure the tempo was precisely what it needed to be.

It was a stunning performance from a group of veterans with nothing to prove but still plenty to say. Whether they were drummers, bassists (sitting beside Canadian singer Nikki Yanovsky's current bassist), horn players, keyboardists or guitarists, or whether they were simply fans of one of the last half century's greatest drummers, the Steve Gadd Band delivered for its audience on all fronts...and then some.

Tord Gustavsen Trio
June 28, 2019, 6:00PM

If Steve Gadd's show was, amongst other things, a clear lesson in the value of dynamics, Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen's early evening performance at the exceptional Gesù venue was an even deeper, more sublime exploration of dynamics and the greater potential of relatively slow tempos. As a roughly 400-seat theater inside a church that has great sight lines and is one of the best sounding venues used by FIJM, it was the perfect venue for the pianist, no stranger to FIJM but who hasn't come with a trio in eleven years,

Gustavsen was one of the third wave of Norwegian artists, also including Nils Petter Molvaer, Trygve Seim, Trio Mediaeval and Frode Haltli and given broader international, exposure by Munich's ECM Records, first emerging in 2003 with Changing Places. One of the label's more successful artists of the new millennium, Gustavsen's résumé reaches farther back, including work with singers Kristin Asbjørnsen, Solveig Slettahjell and Silje Nergaard.

When he emerged on ECM with Changing Places in 2003 however, he immediately established a reputation for himself as a pianist exploring a narrow area of tempo and a range of dynamics so subtle that just the slightest elevation was surprisingly dramatic. While these characteristics might seem limiting for some, Gustavsen's primary touchstones, including Norwegian folk music and hymns, European classicism, American gospel music and the nexus between Caribbean music and New Orleans jazz, provided the pianist a firm foundation over which he and his trio could slowly evolve.

Gustavsen, double bassist Harald Johnsen (tragically, passing away in 2011 at the too-young age of 41) and drummer Jarle Vespestad slowly expanded their purview into newer terrain on 2005's The Ground and 2007's Being There, the trio's growth not unlike the expanding ripples from a stone thrown into a pond.

That a subsequent album with his quartet (featuring, in addition to Vespestad, double bassist Mats Eilertsen and saxophonist Tore Brunborg) was titled Extended Circles (ECM, 2014) came as really no surprise to any familiar with the pianist. It was, indeed. is as clear a definition of Gustavsen's overall approach to slowly building upon the new ground covered with each successive release.

Whether interpreting music ranging from Johan Sebastian Bach to the late Leonard Cohen, cresting spontaneous compositions drawn from the ether or contributing his own darkly lyrical compositions, Gustavsen's playing has also evolved over his nearly two-decade relationship with ECM. Never one to rely on overt, excessive virtuosity, he"s nevertheless a masterful player capable of more expansive, prodigious displays, but only on occasion and only when it feels right. His control over dynamics—not just going from a whisper to a roar but with inflections that are all the more dramatic for their nuanced subtlety—has become even more focused, more firmly controlled over the years. And if he began to introduce subtle electronics into the mix just a few short years ago, not unlike many other Norwegian musicians including Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset and Hakon Kornstad, they've gradually become a natural extension of the grand piano that is his main instrument: more like a physical extension of his body, his mind and his soul.

With The Ofher Side (ECM, 2018) representing his first trio album since Being There (but releasing four additional recordings featuring different lineups in the years between them), and with Johnsen now gone, Gustavsen recruited double bassist Sigurd Hole to round out his new trio, still including Vespestad. A longtime member of Eple Trio, featuring drummer Jonas Howden Sjøvaag and (ECM label mate with trumpeter Mathias Eick) Andreas Ulvo, Hole has released, so far, five albums with that trio, including the particularly special In the Clearing / In the Cavern (NORCD, 2012).
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