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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2019

John Kelman By

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The double bassist launched his own Elvesang imprint in 2018, bravely making his first release for the label a solo bass recording, Elvesang, released the same year. Recorded in a small wooden church, as the All About Jazz review describes about an album that placed amongst the year's best recordings:

"A wooden church may, for some, be far from an ideal recording facility, but it was clearly the perfect place for Hole to shape Elvesang. The intrusion of outside sounds, ranging from thunder and bird sounds to gentle rain on the roof, only add to the album's overall nature-driven ambiance, made all the more so by the room's lovely natural reverb. It may be a bold move for Hole to make his first release under his own name a solo bass record, but even when it reaches beyond melody to more adventurous texture and color, Elvesang is an album of profound beauty and, more often than not, calming quietude. A recording that trades nuanced, delicate evocations for the merely obvious, Elvesang is all the more impressive—and captivating—for it."

Unfortunately, Hole was unable to make this transatlantic tour for family reasons, and so Gustavsen has been forced to recruit more than one substitute. That the pianist's Montréal show would be the first and only appearance by Gjermund Silseth (Mari Boine, Karl Seglem, Hildegunn Oiseth) made the performance all the more special. He may not share the intrinsic chemistry that has evolved between Gustavsen, Vespestad and Hole since the younger double bassist joined the trio, but he acquitted himself with confidence and creativity as a member of a trio where listening and engaging at a deep level with his trio mates is a necessity. Silseth also delivered a series of fine solos throughout the set, ranging from brief passages to his extended a cappella feature near the main performance's conclusion.

During a first-time performance of the trio's imaginative interpretation of a rural Norwegian folk song, Silseth demonstrated tremendous facility con arco, as he seamlessly moved between normal registers and delicately executed harmonics, with copious reverb causing many of his phrases to sustain through subsequent lines to create a more expansive melodic and harmonic tour de force. Cheers The only constant in all of Gustavsen's ECM recordings, Jarle Vespestad is a drummer who would surprise Gustavsen fans, were they to investigate his other work. Beyond being a charter member of the innovative noise improv group Supersilent, alongside trumpeter Arve Henriksen, keyboard wizard Ståle Storløkken and producer/engineer/guitarist/electronic manipulator Helge Sten (AKA Deathprod), Vespestad left that group after 12 years and eight albums but remained a member of multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen's completely unfettered, progressive/jazz-leaning band of effortless complexity and instrumental mastery, Farmers Market, last heard on its particularly potent Slav to the Rhythm (Division Records, 2012).

That most recent Farmers Market album, compared to his work with Gustavsen, only serves to demonstrate the full breadth of Vespestad's capabilities. On one hand, he's muscular and virtuosic; on the other, all about subtlety and nuance. Vespestad seems to ferociously attack his kit with Farmers Market; with Gustavsen he often plays so quietly that it feels like he's barely whispering on his kit. Moving from turbulent rubato to firm groove, Vespestad used a reductionist kit with just a snare drum, bass drum and single floor tom, alongside a high hat and two cymbals.

While, in his early days with Gustavsen, he sometimes used small chains to evoke the quietest of colors from a cymbal, other times using a "stick" made of cardboard to match the pianist"s softest touch, these days, in addition to his hands/fingers, Vespestad employs a variety of wooden sticks, brushes and mallets. With the significant contribution of his sound engineer, Vespestad was able to evoke deep-in the-gut timbres from his cymbals (sometimes sounding like gongs), or the most delicate tone from his floor tom (other times, a thunder-like complexion), as he struck it with a mallet, only to immediately mute it with the palm of his hand.

Vespestad rarely solos, and last night's show at the wonderful Gesù theater inside the Église de Gesù was no different. But when he took an extended improvisation during the same Norwegian folk song that featured a cappella features for Silseth and, ultimately, Gustavsen, he demonstrated just how much was possible, even with such a small kit.

Gustavsen has come so far since those early days with ECM near the turn of the millennium. He's still exploring relatively slow tempos when there are tempos at all; like many of his Norwegian colleagues, Gustavsen and his group are all masters of rubato playing. Still, these days he's as likely to investigate dynamic and turbulent maelstroms as he is more delicate elegance. The pianist occasionally expanded into brighter tempos as well, but while nuance and understatement remain fundamental cornerstones to his playing and overall aesthetic, Gustavsen has become a much more potent player as well. The pianist took full advantage of his instrument's entire range, sometimes barely touching the keys but elsewhere attacking them with sheer physicality as he stood up, swaying, at times, with a clear or inner pulse.

The set, lasting slightly over ninety minutes, was largely drawn from The Other Side, though with more muscle at times and even broader dynamics during, for example, the rubato tone poem "IIngen Vinner Frem Til den Evige Ro," the pianist's collaborative interpretation of a Norwegian traditional folk song. His trio set also featured, as with The Other Side, imaginative looks at a number of compositions by Johan Sebastian Bach, including back-to-back looks at a profoundly lyrical "Schafes Bruder," supported by Vespestad's pliant pulse and Gustavsen's slowly building solo; and an equally melody focused but more brooding "Jesu Meine Freude / Jesus, del Eneste," blending one of the Baroque-era composer's six most recorded motets with a Norwegian hymn composed by Oscar Löfgren and inspired by an early 20th Century sermon at an Oslo church, which turned into one of the concert's most flat-out gorgeous moments.

In addition to interpretations of hymns and Bach compositions, Gustavsen included originals like The Other Side's melancholic opener, "The Tunnel," and a rare look back in time with Being There's closing "Wild Open," which rendered his gospel and church roots most clear, both driven by Vespestad and Gikseth's gentle rhythmic support.
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