Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen became something of a rock star in his own country after Changing Places (ECM, 2003) came out two years ago. The fact that a jazz recordparticularly such a mellow, understated onecould rise above a mess of mass-market pop came as a surprise to just about everyone involved, but I guess it's a sign that the Norwegians have pretty good taste in music after all. The rest of the world caught on a little more slowly, but Gustavsen ended up doing quite well internationally with his debut, now well over the 60,000 mark.
Thus The Ground, his sophomore trio release, aroused some pretty high expectations (and rocketed to the top of the Norwegian charts in its second week). Fortunately, Gustavsen and his trio grew wiser and stronger in the two-year interval between these recordings, aided by quite a bit of touring along the way. The relaxed, confident playing on this record is evidence that Gustavsen is here to stay. The mellowness is back, and many listeners will relish the way themes unfold without calling much attention to themselves, but this is serious stuff that rewards careful attention and involvement.
What's most striking about the way Gustavsen plays is the liquid, flowing quality of his motion. The pianist places careful emphasis on timing and dynamics, which means you can often catch a ripple or a glint of sun along the way, but the melody is always moving forward. It's never in a hurry, never surging like surf over a waterfall, just flowing like a riveraround curves, through passages narrow and wide. Together with regular bluesy colorations and gospelly phrasing, there's something spiritual about this collection of brief meditations. It's hard not to be swept away.
Bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad are very much in tune with Gustavsen's vision, interacting in the moment to flesh out the greens and blues that color this recording. But the pianist is really the center of the action, and you'll find yourself anticipating his movesoften successfully, because the inner logic is quite intuitive, but never predictably so. That's the sort of clever balance Gustavsen crafts and it's what draws me most magnetically to his music. I suspect it will take many spins before this record ever grows tired.
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