The evolution of Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen and his relationship with ECM Records has always been more about expansion rather than linear forward motion. The closing sentence of an All About Jazz
review of The Well
(2012), in fact, says it all: " If Changing Places
 announced an important new pianist on the international stage, nearly a decade later Gustavsen's The Well
reaffirms a trajectory which may move forward in circumspect increments, but move forward it does, with the inevitability of ripples in a pond."
It's no surprise, then, that the third album to feature the pianist's recent quartet is called Extended Circle
, as it possesses numerous meanings, all with their own significance, amongst them the growing community of players with whom he has interacted over the past decade, as well as the culmination of Gustavsen's two ECM tryptichs, beginning with the trio recordings Changing Places
, The Ground (2005) and Being There
(2007), and continuing with the quartet sessions Restored, Returned
(2009), The Well
, and now, Extended Circle
But most importantly, Extended Circle
refers to the manner in which the introspective and thoughtful Gustavsen has patiently evolved his music, largely mining a narrow range of tempos but demonstrating just how much can be found in such a seemingly restrictive context. Gustavsen's recordings have become instantly recognizable, and for a number of reasons, but not one of them have to do with predictability. Instead, with a background of interests, ranging from Norwegian traditionalism and romantic classicism to the gentlest hints of gospel and the pianist's own defined nexus where Caribbean music and New Orleans jazz meet, Gustavsen has, with the assistance of first a fine trio and now an even more accomplished quartet, created a body of work that, rather than pushing ahead in straight trajectory, truly does expand in concentric circles, like ripples on a pond. Extended Circle
is the third recording to feature saxophonist Tore Brunborg
and bassist Mats Eilertsen
both leaders in their own rightas well as Jarle Vespestad
, a former founding member of noise improv trendsetter Supersilent
and ongoing drummer with the genre-defying Farmers Market
, whose Slav to the Rhythm
(Division, 2012) was easily the group's best in an already superb discography. Together, through recording and regular touringincluding an impressive stop
at the 2010 Ottawa Jazz Festivalthe quartet has collectively assumed Gustavesen's penchant for slow growth, delivering often meditative music that is, however, increasingly demonstrative of a slow burn that's all the more dramatic for its sometimes subtle, other times more overt contrasts.
The depth of interaction on Extended Circle
has also reached a new level. Two versions of "Entrance" may be the first time a collective writing credit has appeared on a Gustavsen record, but it's really a spontaneous composition that demonstrates just how mitochondrial the quartet's interconnectivity has become. This is free improvisation with a purposewhat Gustavsen calls a "module-based collective composition"and if it lacks clearly defined form, it possesses a mood, an ambiance and certain structural touchstones that make clear just how deeply the members of this group are listening, and how essential that quality is to this music.
Elsewhere, Gustavsen compositions like the gently propulsive "Staying There" are almost song-like in their spare melodism, with Brunborg speaking volumes with the subtlest of inflections, while "Devotion" is a slowly intensifying rubato tone poem that more explicitly suggests Extended Circle
's intrinsic spiritual nature, with Eilertsen's arco creating melodic counterpoint to Gustavsen's eastern-tinged modality.
And while Gustavsen has always been about slow tempos, the quartet's interpretation of the traditional Norwegian hymn, "Eg Veit I Himmerik El Borg" (A Castle in Heaven) demonstrates that simmering heat is not beyond its reach. Vespestad's gentle but frenetic drumming and Eilertsen's soft but insistent support provide a foundation over which Gustavsen's meditative ruminations float initially, but gradually pick up steam over the course of five minutes, as Brunborg's tenor building from a whisper to a scream before returning to the hymn's singable theme.
All of which makes Extended Circle
's suite-like 50-minute program Gustavsen's most diverse and satisfying to date. There's no danger of the pianist losing the pensive patience that defines so much of his work, but as his career has progressed so, too, has Gustavsen concentrically expanded his purview. His initial concept may remain at the core of a gradually expanding series of stylistic circles that stay true to his core aesthetic, but the evolution Expanded Circle
demonstrates is equally the inevitable consequence of regular recording and touring with this group of hyper-talented musicians.