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Tord Gustavsen: The Richness of Simplicity

Adriana Carcu By

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What we do is art music and it can be analyzed as such, but it can also be a state of being, opening up every moment, rather than a story unfolding that you can contemplate from afar.
The quintessential quality of Tord Gustavsen's The Well (ECM), released at the beginning of 2012, immediately received elated reactions from jazz lovers and critics alike. Entwining a complex and very well-structured succession of moods, the album traverses the territories allotted to classical music and jazz, reaching far beyond those and leading the listener into a self-revealing experience of the most sensitive quality.

Conducted just before a March, 2012 concert in Heidelberg, Germany's Holy Ghost Church, this interview represents a rewarding attempt to explore the musician's elusive world of sound, which unfurls its magic effect along a journey that wavers between the stillness of meditation and the tender throes of quiet torment.

All About Jazz: If you were somewhere where nobody knew you (which is very hard to imagine), and you had to introduce yourself, what would you say?

Tord Gustavsen: I would say that I was born in Norway and that I have this constant duality of the urban and rural ways of feeling life. I was born in the city but grew up in the country. I love the stillness of the forest but I am not really a wildlife person. I like to be involved in the globalized society but to have the forest close by.

That's one thing. I think that musically we are situated differently in the global landscape, where everything is in principle available all the time. Our task is to make sense out of that, to try to capture some kind of essence that reflects where we are, here and now, and not sound post-modern, like a loose mix of everything. For me that is definitely happening when something is firmly linked and rooted in the musical experiences of my childhood. I can develop complexity and multilayered playing, building on that.

Our music is definitely a kind of contemporary jazz, but it is just as much linked to a chamber music attitude or to a singer/songwriter one, with the lyrical emphasis on the melodies. We have different links to both the pop and the contemporary classical music worlds, focusing rather on textures and sounds than on traditional composition. It is generally about the richness of what is seemingly a kind of simplicity. To filter things through a channel of very simplified childlike themes and open up the inherent complexity and richness found there, instead of trying to play everything you can and show off everything you know. We move ourselves towards this point of departure that is full of stillness and focusing on very simple melodies and then we build from there.

AAJ: Why do you play in churches?

TG: I grew up in church, and since early childhood I've been playing a lot of church music; I accompanied and sang in the choir. Performing concerts in churches is a very natural thing to me. I like those spaces a lot. We are equally at home in a church as in a concert hall or in a club, if it has a good piano and a silent atmosphere during the concert.

AAJ: Where would you place The Well in your creative universe? What is its significance?

Tord Gustavsen Quartet The WellTG: In a way, it is a very natural prolongation of my trilogy of trio albums, because it is basically the same ideology of playing together, taken further in terms of enlarging the soundscape with the saxophone, and at the same time it is a statement of this quartet as a band on its own. Since 2009, the quartet has been my main touring ensemble and most of the ideology was conceived for it. We do concerts in the duo, trio, quartet and quintet formula, and for me that is a beautiful combination of stability and flexibility, quite different from playing only in a trio as I did in the beginning. It is very different from having a new band all the time. It is the same people, the same repertoire and there is a strong organic continuity to it.

AAJ: Your compositions seem to be wrapped in a veil of sensitivity; they have a quiet inner balance. How much of that is yourself?

TG: I think they reflect me as a person. I like to have intensity and concentration. In my daily life, I need to have emotional intensity, elegance and space, and I need a lot of breathing space in my music. So this duality between raw intensity and elegance, or intensity and space, has to be there on both levels, as a person and as a musician. And I guess some of that will reflect on how we play and how we approach the instruments, and also on the unconscious signals we send from the stage. It is a very powerful thing when I feel that the audience is willing to go with us on that journey and enter that kind of musical meditation. That's when I feel that our concerts are really meaningful.

AAJ: How much is the result of other influences?

TG: I probably cannot really differentiate that because what is me, is of course an amalgam of early childhood influences with me being in the church, being in a meditation type of mood, and in touch with lullabies, devotional music, hymns, gospels and spirituals. That is a very important component of my personality as a spiritual person and as a musician. In later years, on top of that, there comes the listening to the whole history of American jazz, contemporary classical music, to the impressionist composers and to the folk music from many different parts of the world. All these influences are circling around in a frame of reference, a multi polar field of gravity with all kinds of gravitational forces.

I think that it is our task to try and unify those forces into something that becomes a voice, a musical universe that can come across as something of significance and bringing something of a personal message. Naturally, the modernist thinking that things can be absolutely new is long gone. There are so many different traditions, and so much of what feels like new is just a reworking of the old. And that's the post-modern situation. But, for me still the notion of a voice, and the notion of authenticity remain really important. I have to feel that what I am playing is honest and this comes close to the notion of beauty, which when I play I am trying to get into.

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