Tord Gustavsen Ensemble and the Kit Downes Trio at The Forum

Bruce Lindsay By

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Tord Gustavsen Ensemble, Kit Downes Trio
The Forum
Norwich, UK
October 18, 2009

Pianist Tord Gustavsen is one of the more cerebral composers and musicians in contemporary jazz. His music is beautifully written and played—engaging, delicate and atmospheric—and although it always seems to be performed with restraint it can nevertheless develop a groove of its own, especially in the hands of Gustavsen's new Ensemble. Their gig, in the atrium of Norwich's Forum, was part of a major British tour.

After three commercially successful and critically acclaimed trio albums Gustavsen's first Ensemble recording, Restored, Returned (ECM, 2009), adds saxophone and vocals to the mix. Singer Kristin Asbj&#248rnsen is not present on this tour, but saxophonist Tore Brunborg was present and formed a crucial part of the ensemble's sound, performing on all but one of the tunes. The addition of Brunborg, on soprano and tenor, gave Gustavsen the chance to experiment with various combinations of players and to work with bass and drums as a rhythm section while Brunborg took on the duties of lead player. Some beautiful playing partnerships arose from this, such as the soprano and piano duet that opened the evening.

Although this tour is in support of Restored, Returned the set included only a few numbers from this album. "Left Over Lullaby" was the standout of these tunes, a beautiful ensemble piece, immediately accessible and engaging, with all four musicians playing with precision and sensitivity. An as yet unrecorded tune "Eternal Dance" was also a highlight—a more up-tempo piece, with some almost funky tenor and piano playing, it, too was immediately engaging.

The Ensemble also played tunes from Gustavsen's trio albums. "Draw Near" (from Being There, ECM 2007), introduced by Gustavsen as an "evening prayer," is a ballad whose lyrical beauty was enhanced by Brunborg's tenor. "Where We Went," also from Being There, was by contrast a faster, more urgent, piece with Gustavsen's playing displaying greater drive than at any other time in the set.

Throughout the evening Mats Eilersten on bass and Jarle Vespestad on drums anchored the music with absolute skill. Taking only one solo each, the players stayed out of the limelight but were always central to the success of the performance. Eilersten's touch was exquisite, light and controlled. Vespestad, especially in his use of cymbals, was precise and responsive, able to effortlessly create a groove that suited the needs of each tune.

Up and coming British band the Kit Downes Trio played the opening set. Pianist Downes is a Norwich native, so this was something of a homecoming gig for him. The band members displayed technical skills in advance of their years (all three are still in their twenties) and the tunes they played from their first album Golden (Basho Records, 2009) showcased these skills. Calum Gourlay, on double bass, is the band's central core. His playing underpinned the tunes while Downes and drummer James Maddren traded off against each other—Downes' delicate and studious playing contrasting with Maddren's intense percussion. Maddren has the ability to play in a solid and controlled style—his work on "Golden," played almost exclusively with brushes on drum rims, was a splendid example—but at times his style was more complex than the tune demanded. However, too much ability is hardly a problem, and the trio hold great promise.

The Forum houses Norwich's central library as well as a bar, a Pizza Express restaurant, art exhibition space and the local BBC radio and television studios. Such an eclectic venue showed itself to be an ideal place in which to present high-quality jazz: a warm and friendly atmosphere, excellent sound and, despite its high ceilings and glass walls, a fair approximation of a club environment. Pizza Express is to be congratulated on extending its jazz activities beyond London and the south, and for bringing the talents of the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble to Norwich.

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