Tord Gustavsen Quartet: The Well

John Kelman By

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Tord Gustavsen Quartet
The Well
ECM Records

Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen may not have attained the level of success, say, of a Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea with his 2003 ECM debut, Changing Places, but it clearly struck a popular chord, as well as garnering no shortage of critical acclaim. Subsequent touring around the world, including a number of North American dates, honed the trio that would subsequently release The Ground (2005) and Being There (2007). But with its third ECM release, those who follow the German label knew that Gustavsen's next record would have to introduce a change. Sure enough, the pianist—whose playing and writing is reflected in his soft-spoken and considered nature—explored a variety of contexts ranging from duo to quintet on Restored, Returned (2010), including a move into vocal music with singer Kristin Asbjørnsen, in whose group Gustavsen had played for some time.

Gustavsen toured North American in the summer of 2010 with the instrumental four-fifths Restored, Returned's quintet—including a sublime performance at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival—and it's this same quartet that, well, returns for The Well, an album that focuses more emphatically on the quartet's gradually evolving chemistry. Drummer Jarle Vespestad is the only carry-over from Gustavsen's trio discs, and while bassist Mats Eilertsen and saxophonist Tore Brunborg may be new to nascent Gustavsen fans outside their native country, these three players actually intersect quite regularly on the small but vibrant Norwegian scene, with Brunborg also playing in the bassist's quintet responsible for last year's exceptional SkyDive (Hubro, 2010).

The Well is no less exceptional. Gustavsen's has always gently and elegantly melded gospel elements with hints of Spain, European impressionism and Norwegian traditionalism, all refracted through a jazz vernacular. But if the added voices gave at least some of Restored, Returned a more simmering energy, The Well further capitalizes on Brunborg—whose playing is as thoughtful, nuanced and chops-averse as Gustaven's, yet commands attention with every note. The saxophonist first came to international attention with Masqualero—retrospectively an unanticipated all-star collaboration with trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and pianist Jon Balke, led by bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen—but Brunborg's international cachet has expanded in recent years between touring with Gustavsen and drummer Manu Katche, on whose groove-centric Third Round the saxophonist also participated.

As with over-simplifications like describing all music from the Scandinavian country as "Nordic cool," Brunborg may have unmistakable roots in saxophonist Jan Garbarek, but less in his tone and choice of notes than his attention paid to their absolute purity. Like Gustavsen, Brunborg is the antithesis of cool, his gentle lines and warm tone defining much of The Well alongside Gustavsen's delicate touch, uncompromising lyricism and painstaking emotional tenderness.

The overall ambiance of The Well is one of meticulous beauty, where interpretive freedom abounds, but not in an unfettered, stream-of-consciousness fashion. Eilertsen—whose profile on the label has risen in recent years on albums including pianist Wolfert Brederode's Post Scriptum (2010), guitarist Jacob Young's 's Sideways (2008), and the egalitarian collective The Source's self-titled 2006 outing—brings a similar selfless approach to the music, his full-bodied arco introducing "Inside," which ends The Well on a brooding, introspective note. Vespestad's background may include more expressionistic tendencies as a charter member of noise improv group Supersilent and the outrageously comical yet musically deep Farmer's Market, but here he's as whisper quiet as ever; even his mallet-driven solo, which ends "Inside" and is the last thing heard as the album draws to a close, is the epitome of discretion.

The entire group is so careful in its decision-making that, in lesser hands, it could render an album like The Well safe and lackluster. Instead, with a quartet that appreciates the value of every note, communicates on an increasingly profound level and understands the tremendous power of quietude and decay, The Well may not be exciting, but it is both boldly beautiful and dramatic, without ever resorting to obvious tactics. 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.

Tracks: Prelude; Playing; Suite; Communion; Circling; Glasgow Intro; On Every Corner; The Well; Communion, var.; Intuition; Inside.

Personnel: Tord Gustavsen: piano; Tore Brunborg: saxophone; Mats Eilertsen: double bass; Jarle Vespestad: drums.

Track Listing: Prelude; Playing; Suite; Communion; Circling; Glasgow Intro; On Every Corner; The Well; Communion, var.; Intuition; Inside.

Personnel: Tord Gustavsen: piano; Tore Brunborg: saxophone; Mats Eilertsen: double bass; Jarle Vespestad: drums.

Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: ECM Records | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream

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