Tord Gustavsen Ensemble at Royal Northern College of Music

David McLean By
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Tord Gustavsen Ensemble
Royal Northern College of Music
Manchester, England
October 21, 2009

With the imminent release of Restored, Returned (2009, ECM) exclusively in the UK, Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen makes his British live debut with his new ensemble at Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music as part of a set of exclusive dates throughout the country. Returning percussionist Jarle Vespestad is joined by fellow esteemed countrymen bassist Mats Eilertsen and, augmenting the original trio setting, saxophonist Tore Brunborg to round out Gustavsen's new group. Delivering a program of older trio material and selections from the new album, the quartet weaved a hypnotic spell of space, texture, heartfelt emotion and nuanced expression on those fortunate enough to behold.

Beginning with a spellbinding rendition of "Tears Transforming" from The Ground (2004, ECM), the opening crystalline notes ringing out like a lost siren call enveloping the theater, it became immediately apparent as the rest of the quartet surrounded Tord's haunting melodic figure what a stellar line-up Gustavsen's ensemble contains.

Mats Eilertsen is more than just an adequate replacement for former bassist Harald Johnsen and will be familiar to ECM listeners through is work with both Jacob Young and , the latter also joining Eilertsen in the ground breaking Anglo-Norwegian collective Basic Food Group. Alternating between subtle low end work and percussive and circular grooves, Eilertsen is both a sympathetic and inventive bassist. Given time to shine when opening "Left Over Lullaby," his solo was serpentine and flecked with Indian melodic modes, running up the neck with dazzling flair.

A regular collaborator of both Jon Balke and Arild Andersen, Tore Brunborg plays both soprano and tenor saxophone provides a solid counterpoint to Gustavsen's sombre yet expressive lines. Trygve Seim clearly bears his influence, Brunborg's earthy and breathy tone really embellishes the piano work with a richness and sensuality that doesn't detract from its original strength and highlights the groups Scandinavian folk roots. His searching voice, particularly on "Were We Went," in which each octave variation was explored emphatically, makes him a welcome addition to the pianist original trio format.

One could spend thousands upon thousands of words to attempt to ascribe some sort of definition to the workings of Jarle Vespestad, one of the most in demand European drummers and recent Supersilent alumni, and still come up short. Absolutely mesmerizing to watch, Vespestad's mixture of the subversive and the cerebral is matched only ability to perfectly match any mood he encounters. The range of Vespestad's techniques is too numerous to list, but highlights included cymbal screeches that were melodic and at one point wafting his brushes at the overhead mics to create the required texture. His work is filled with a spaciousness and subtlety that is the perfect accompaniment to Tord's compositions; used to particular effective this evening. Performing what could only be described as an anti-drum solo in the closing moments of "Were We Went," exchanging the percussive for a deeply textural probe into atmosphere and space which utilized the acoustics of the RNCM theater brilliantly, Jarle was close to stealing the show.

It is of course Mr Gustavsen's work that drives the group's music. A piano style that is unique its in combination of Nordic-cool and Mediterranean flavours that manages to be meditative yet seductive, sombre yet full of beautiful optimism, Tord Gustavsen has managed to create a sound that somehow marries these disparate elements and makes them extremely accessible. The genuine emotion felt is audibly and visibly clear. Tenderly warm chords on "Child Within" frame smooth saxophone oscillations that eventually give way to Gustavsen's trade-mark upper register work, evoking a last tango with a lost love. There is a new found rhythmic element displayed in Tord's newer material, "The Swirl/Wrapped In A Yielding Air" bares some comparison to label mate Nik Bartsch more distilled work, popping and fizzling disjointedly, the pianist gyrating in unison. "Internal Dance," a composition yet to be recorded, continued in a similar fashion; the group dancing tarentels around Tord's jarring and rhythmic root statements.

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