Tord Gustavsen: Being There

Joao Moreira dos Santos By

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The only thing that is fundamentally important to me is to try to play music that feels as honest and true and fresh as possible.
Tord GustavsenIt's no surprise to fans of pianist Tord Gustavsen's trio that its most recent release, Being There (ECM, 2007), was selected as 2007 Album of the Year by the critics of UK's Jazz Review. Born in Norway, this jazz Viking may well be on a world crusade for soulful and meaningful music, armed only with his meditative piano and lyrical compositions.

AAJ contributor João Moreira dos Santos spoke with Gustavsen recently, about his background, how he came to be with ECM, the compositional process and future plans.

AAJ: Who is Tord Gustavsen?

Tord Gustavsen: I am a pianist and composer trying to unite beauty and emotional intensity—or, if you prefer, elegance and expressivity—in everything I do.

Biographically, I was born in Oslo, Norway [in] 1970, and grew up on the countryside in a little village before moving back to Oslo after school to study at the University of Oslo, and later at the Conservatory of music in Trondheim (the third largest city in Norway).

My main musical background was made up of lullabies, hymns and spirituals sung at home plus improvisation and composing my own songs from a very early age. Then, I worked a lot with classical piano music before going further into the specific history of jazz in my late teens and twenties.

Along with a very broad listening to folk music from many parts of the world, this makes up my musical frame of reference when I compose songs. In the trio we focus on melody and clarity almost like a pop band, on form as a contemporary music composer, and on improvisation as a modern jazz band.

AAJ: What piano players do you most admire nowadays?

TG: I actually listen more to singers and other instrumentalists than I do to pianists most of the time. My strongest inspiration comes from the great bluesy melody performers in early jazz, especially Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, plus from Wayne Shorter, both as a composer and an improviser.

But of course I also listen to piano players—I really connect to the very important late Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, to Norwegian Jon Balke, as well as Keith Jarrett, of course. And several others: Bobo Stenson, Kevin Hays, Marcus Roberts, to mention a few. And classical pianist Till Fellner as well as the legendary Glenn Gould.

Tord Gustavsen TrioAAJ: How and when did you discover jazz?

TG: If you define jazz in the broadest possible way, as improvisation and spontaneous playing, it was my father playing the piano with me and improvising together from when I was two or three years old.

But if you define jazz in a stricter way as being necessarily connected to the American jazz history from the 1920s and forward, then I really didn't discover it until I was 18 or 19.

AAJ: Before leading your own trio you played with Norwegian singers, in particular Silje Nergaard. How much of this experience do you incorporate in your music nowadays?

TG: A good question. On the one hand, playing with the trio is completely different. Much more space, more time to stretch out (not necessarily in the most obvious sense as outgoing improvisation, more in the sense of stretching the meditative states and making more profound statements of silence and nuance).

On the other hand, I learned a lot from playing with Silje and that will always be with me. I got the experience of playing bigger stages and touring all over the world. And I learned a lot about melodic clarity, believing in miniatures and appreciating strong songwriting.

AAJ: How and when did ECM find you?

TG: We recorded most of what was to become our first trio album, Changing Places (ECM, 2003), on our own in Rainbow Studio in Oslo—I felt it was time to record with this project, but I didn't yet know where it would be released. Then, Manfred Eicher, from ECM, came to the same studio to record something else the week after, and the recording engineer played him a couple of tracks from our session.

A few days later, Manfred called me up and said he wanted to release us. We went back in the studio with him a little later and recorded three or four more tracks that were integrated with the first session, and that was the first album...

Tord Gustavsen TrioAAJ: What does recording for this prestigious label represent to you?

TG: First of all, ECM has good distribution in many parts of the world—and this is really important. It is so difficult to get the music around without an established and professional international network. But also, the series of groundbreaking and profoundly important recordings on ECM from the 1970s onwards is, of course, a very meaningful and inspiring context to be invited into. But it's better not to think too much about that, and focus on the music we want to do here and now.

AAJ: Your third CD—Being There—has a very meditative atmosphere that reminds one of enchanted forests and magical places. How much has your music been influenced by the fact that you grew up in a rural environment in Norway?

TG: That's really difficult to say—I have no way of knowing how it would have been if I grew up somewhere else. But it's safe to say that the combination of a rural environment and global culture easily available in the city nearby (and later, of course, through travels and the Internet etc.)—make for a special combination of rootedness and openness—a combination of curiosity and calmness.

AAJ: Let's say I give you some ingredients: trees, clouds, sky, birds, water, wind, silence, contemplation... What percentage does it take of each of these to match the feeling of your compositions?

TG: I guess you should rather ask listeners than me. But forced to answer, I would say a large part contemplation, a little water, plus one or two birds and a sky with just a few clouds...

AAJ: I sense a very cinematographic feeling in your music. If you could call a movie director to put it into images what would you like to see?

TG: Difficult question. I sometimes find huge inspiration in watching films, though. And a few years ago I did some work as an improvising pianist with old silent movies at the Norwegian Film Institute, where they showed whole series of some of the most important German and Scandinavian film directors from the 1920s. Yes, I would probably choose one of the old masters to produce images to my music—but then again, they're not alive anymore...

AAJ: A UK newspaper wrote "Gustavsen's tunes are hypnotically strong." Can you comment on this?

TG: Well, basically this is a huge compliment. Even though I don't really pay that much attention to critics, I was very happy when I read that particular statement. Melodic qualities in the music are extremely important to us. And if we are able to let the simple yet subtle tunes shine through with some kind of forcefulness in a seemingly mild musical environment, then we've reached one of our major goals.

AAJ: What is your composing process?

TG: Sometimes very intuitive—a melody just comes along when I'm in the touring bus, in an airport, or out walking; and it's a matter of "catching" it and refining the idea. Other times, ideas come at the piano, and I spend a lot of time juggling the original idea and trying different ways to expand and develop it.

align=center>Tord Gustavsen Trio
Tord Gustavsen Trio l:r: Jarle Vespestad, Tord Gustavsen, Harald Johnsen

AAJ: How do people react to the trio's music live?

TG: It's really fascinating how very different groups of audiences react—we can reach out to jazz "experts," as well as the general lovers of a good melody, as long as they are open for joining our musical journey.

In any case it is a matter of getting into the meditative state with us—we don't use much contrast; most of the tunes are slow in basic tempo and build gradually; the concerts are all about the small details and about concentration. Still, we can be groovy in our own way, and the music is certainly not just melancholy—to me, it embraces all aspects of emotion and life although in a subdued and mostly quiet way.

So, people who demand that a jazz concert should be eighty percent loud and fast, or that meditation on beauty is not possible in modern art music, they probably won't like us that much. But the people who join us can often react very emotionally and intensely—it's a very rewarding thing to talk to people after the concerts sometimes.

AAJ: What can they expect from your concerts?

TG: Apart from what I've already said, it just remains to mention that we will probably be playing tunes from all of our three albums as well as some brand new compositions. Some of tunes will be easily recognizable for people who already have the CDs—where as some will come in quite different versions. The music never stops developing and changing—that's one of the most fascinating things about touring so much with the same band and growing together as a musical organism.

AAJ: What are you looking for in the future with the trio?

Tord Gustavsen TrioTG: We are playing with the trio in Germany, Australia, Italy, Norway, USA, Canada, France, Poland and Belgium this year, in addition to the tour in Portugal—so the trio is still very active.

I've also initiated a new ensemble this year, and a duo with saxophonist Tore Brunborg. And, the trio has also established collaboration with the three fantastic singers in Trio Mediaeval; a very interesting meeting point between classical singers and my composing.

So, what 2009 and the future beyond that holds in terms of recording and further touring remains to be seen...

AAJ: You are involved in musicology, especially in the psychology and phenomenology of improvisation. What have did you find out through your PhD thesis?

TG: That is too big a question to answer in depth here, but I can say in summary that the thesis was about exploring the intense dilemmas or paradoxes in improvisation between the need for simultaneous closeness and distance; for being in-the-moment and shaping music over time; for instant gratification and building tension over time; for combined stimulation and stabilization.

In all these paradoxes, you need to have both sides fully and not get lost in one of the sides, nor end up in a boring, middle of the road, situation—you really need to move dialectically, with synthesis of oppositions.

AAJ: How is jazz doing in Norway?

TG: It's doing quite well—lots of very good bands operating in many different musical directions from free improvisation via modern acoustic jazz to electronica, and also a few people breaking the boundaries between jazz and pop music without sacrificing honesty and artistic integrity.

AAJ: A mandatory question: what is jazz for you and how much of it is involved in your music?

TG: I am a bit tired of this question—but still I understand that it has to be asked from time to time...

Tord Gustavsen

The only thing that is fundamentally important to me is to try to play music that feels as honest and true and fresh as possible. There will be traces of historic American jazz (and even the blues and spirituals) in what we do. But our music will first of all be a product of everything we listen to in a globalized world—a world where your personal synthesis defines you, where West African folk music, Scandinavian traditional dance forms and lullabies, Baroque cantatas and fugues and Ligeti's sheets of sound are just as important as jazz heritage.

Jazz today is at a very fascinating crossroads between staying in touch with its pure history and being a part of different scenes—contemporary music, pop music and world music scenes. This complexity can be confusing, but it is precisely in this complexity that the music develops, with individuals developing their own synthesis and cultivating unique voices.

Selected discography

Tord Gustavsen Trio, Being There (ECM, 2007)
Ana Maria Jopek, Id (Izabelin, 2007)
Kristin Asbjørnsen, Factotem (Milan, 2006)
Tord Gustavsen Trio, The Ground (ECM, 2005)
Silje Niergaard, Nightwatch (Emarcy/Universal, 2004)
Stian Carstensen, Backwards into the Backwoods (Winter & Winter, 2004)
Tord Gustavsen Trio, Changing Places (ECM, 2003)

Photo Credits
Bottom Photo: Dragan Tasic
All Other Photos: Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen

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