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ECM considers pianist Tord Gustavsen to be the least "Nordic" of the several Norwegian artists on its roster. This is because his compositions, while typically pensive and austere, have also endeavored to incorporate the deepest roots of jazz in Afro-American blues and gospel. Musical and philosophical sophistication commingles with raw emotion and lyrical melodies, creating a sound that is at once cerebral, spiritual, and visceral.
The style that he and his longtime (relatively speaking, as Gustavsen is only 35) trio first unveiled on their 2003 debut Changing Places continues to be expanded here. "Tears Transforming" parallels the work of Erik Satie and Amelie composer Yann Thiersen: deceptively simple, intensely moving. Like Satie and Thiersen, Gustavsen develops an atmosphere as well as a sense of progression through his slightly ambiguous variations in the repeated melodyvariations expressed through a meticulous choice of notes. At one beautiful point on "Tears Transforming," he absently walks his fingers into the upper register and then trails off, like a broken whisper or a memory too painful to recall.
One of the more prominent illustrations of his debt to blues and gospel can be found in the ninth track, "Edges of Happiness," a subdued call-and-response format tinged with both hope and sadness. Like the song itself, the bluesy solo is short and spare but affecting. There are other cross-cultural influences too. "Twins" has an exotic Persian flavor. And one isn't left wondering how the dark "Token of Tango" gets its name.
Throughout much of the disc bassist Harald Johnsen is content to echo Gustavsen's melodic variations and accentuate his chiaroscuro shadings. Once again the technique seems simple enough, but it takes a keen talent and a sure sense of interplay to avoid sounding dull or amateurish. Drummer Jarle Vepestad is rather freer in his approach. In these intimate musical spaces he really maximizes every part of his kit for a rich, enveloping, three-dimensional sound. His cymbal/snare staccato on "Tears Transforming" (though it only appears for a few bars) and his thoughtful punctuations on the otherwise oversentimental "Curtains Aside" are album highlights.
For such a modest and restrained album, The Ground will, like any memorable work of art, evoke a host of emotions in the listener ranging from elation to despair. While in their grip, it's still possible to appreciate and savor the individual technical proficiency and unique trio dynamic that makes that all possible. This is a disc you don't want to miss.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.