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Tord Gustavsen with Simin Tander & Jarle Vespestad: What was said

Ian Patterson By

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An exciting new trio sees Tord Gustavsen and Jarle Vespestad combine with German-Afghan singer Simin Tander to submit Norwegian church music to the push and pull of improvisation and the spell of thirteenth century Persian Sufi mystic, Jalal al-Din Rumi's poetry. What might seem like an esoteric experiment, in fact follows logical currents. Gustavsen's ensembles have often exhibited folkloric colors, while Tander's unique improvisational idiom on her debut Wagma (Neuklang, 2011) and her Pashto-sung arrangements of Afghan poems on Where Water Travels Home (Jazzhaus Records, 2014) have established her as a singer of poetic sensibility and some originality.

Tander will likely be a new discovery for many and her interpretation in English of the Rumi poem "Your Grief" introduces a voice of haunting gravitas—smooth as flint and lingering like curling smoke. The minimalism of Gustavsen and Vespestad's accompaniment frames Tander's emotive delivery, so too does the absence of a bassist -the first time, at least on record, in Gustavsen and Vespestad's long association. The space serves to accentuate the simple beauty of Gustavsen's arrangements and the emotional weight in what are essentially devotional songs.

"I want to walk with you on life's road, my heart wants to follow you until death, like the small flower reaching for light and day, my heart and my breath yearn for You, oh God, blossom in me, let nothing separate me from you," is the translation from the Pashto on the brooding "Journey of Life," where tribal drums give way to church organ-like, bass synthesizer. Whatever the language, however, Tander's seductive whisper leaves no doubt that these are songs of love.

Earthy poetry and heavenly inspiration fuse persuasively on "What Was Said to The Rose/O Sacred Heart"; Tander captures the sensuality of Rumi's lines, while the rumbling instrumental coda, based on a composition by sixteenth century composer Hans Leo Hassler, bristles with the austere majesty so often the preserve of hymnal music, whatever its provenance.

There's less of Tander the improviser here than on her own records, though glimpses of her art filter through on "I See You," where her staccato guttural and hummed intro paves the way for a haunting Pashto rendition of a traditional Norwegian tune. Equally affecting is her balladry on "Imagine the Fog Disappearing," a lovely tune that rises and falls on the wings of Gustavsen and Vespestad's improvisation, and on the hymnal meditation "Castle in Heaven."

Subtle electronic textures throughout signal a potentially exciting new avenue for Gustavsen to develop, though here the effect is quasi subliminal, as on the delicious slow funk instrumental "The Way You Play My Heart," one of two Gustavsen originals. "Rull," which Tander also sits out, is a melodically uplifting tune as memorable as anything Gustavsen has penned.

This change in dynamics acts as a palate cleanser prior to more bewitching balladry from Tander, first in English on the delicate "The Source of Now is Here," then in Pashto on the traditional Norwegian tunes "Sweet Melting" and the powerful "Longing to Praise Thee." "Afterglow/Sweet Melting" closes a captivating recording on a hushed note, with Tander's caressing vocals underpinned by sympathetic mallets and Gustavsen's feathery touch.

Lyrical and emotionally potent, What Was Said taps into the essence of devotional music and poetry with quietly mesmeric results.

Track Listing: Your Grief; I See You; Imagine the Fog Disappearing; A Castle in Heaven; Journey of Life; I Refuse; What Was Said to the Rose / O Sacred Head; The Way You Play My Heart; Rull; The Source of Now; Sweet Melting; Longing to Praise Thee; Sweet Melting Afterglow.

Personnel: Tord Gustavsen: piano, electronics, synth bass; Simin Tander: voice; Jarle Vespestad: drums.

Title: What was said | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: ECM Records

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