Listening to…..the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble….

Like many listeners around the world, I was readily captivated by the music of Tord Gustavsen’s Trio.  Through three albums, starting with 2003’s ‘Changing Places’, they (TG, Harald Johnsen & Jarle Vespestad) produced a delicate jewel-like music of considerable and lasting appeal.  Inevitably they were compared with their Swedish contemporaries in EST, but Svensson’s trio were (literally) plugged in to a more ‘rockish’ sensibility and embraced a far wider dynamic spectrum than Gustavsen’s group.  The expression ‘chamber jazz’ was bandied around when discussing the Gustavsen Trio and I didn’t really take on board what that signified until I saw them live at the Midland Arts Centre here in Birmingham a few years back.

To be honest, it was a hugely unsatisfying event on every level because it was clear that this band had only the most tenuous of connections with the improvisational aspects of jazz.  This was, to all intents and purposes, a recital rather than a gig and it caused me to rethink my attitude to the band.  The three CD’s weren’t in any way devalued because they still sounded great, but I felt that in the space of those three albums, the TG Trio had mined a very narrow vein to exhaustion and were going to have to come up with something new for their next project.  Ironically given the fact that EST were often spoken of in the same breath as the Gustavsen band, I had come to a similar conclusion about them – albums like 2007’s ‘Tuesday Wonderland’ suggested that Esbjörn & the boys were starting to retread old ground and would need a rethink before they proceeded – but as we now know, fate intervened tragically for EST before they really had to address that problem.

Tord Gustavsen did, however and the result is this year’s ‘Restored, Returned’ project (ECM) attributed to the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble and featuring two differing attempts to escape from the corner they seem to have painted themselves into.  The first taps into Gustavsen’s background as an accompanist for female singers – like  Kristin Asbjörnsen, who features heavily on this CD, sometimes with lyrics and sometimes with wordless vocals.  Female jazz singers are not my cup of tea really;  like opera, I find the whole thing too stylised and mannered- Sarah Vaughan & Ella Fitzgerald wrote the book on all this stuff over half a century ago and only Susanne Abbuehl of contemporary jazz singers seems to be doing anything new or different.   For me, Asbjörnsen just sounds tired and a bit uninspired.

Gustavsen’s other gambit is to introduce the sax playing of former Masqualero member Tore Brunborg, whose patient and studied style is a good fit for this band, even though he veers too close to Jan Garbarek territory at times..  Even so, there is a sense that the basic trio are only really comfortable when they are playing as a trio – once Brunborg joins in, it’s like the rest of the band are walking on eggshells.  This quartet (with Mats Eilertsen once again replacing Johnsen on bass) played live here recently but I wasn’t seriously tempted to go to the gig/recital.  Good reports came back though, so maybe the other musicians have learned to relax and play with Brunborg now.  Also, I think Eilertsen’s more effusive style might  help to force the others out of their shell a bit.

‘Restored, Returned’ is not an album I would listen to very often when there are so many other more cogent jazz recordings available to me.  It will be interesting, nonetheless, to see where Gustavsen goes from here, whether he adds Brunborg as a permanent member or maybe tries another instrument – guitar, perhaps or trumpet, to see how that fits in with his music.

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