...It’s the space between notes that count in Tord Gustavsen’s universe.
Thomas Barlow 2007
As with many an ECM artist, it’s the space between notes that count in Tord Gustavsen’s universe. Yet despite being the darling of Eurocentric jazzers and a chart-topper in his native Norway, the pianist’s ‘melodic minimalism’ still courts differences of opinion.
If a Zen master were to take up jazz piano, the results might sound something like Gustavsen’s work. Being There, his third in a trilogy of ultra sparse trio recordings, continues to challenge any notion that jazz denotes virtuoso thrills, emotional fireworks and story-telling solos.
In fact the record’s slow-motion lyricism and softly propulsive melodies feel like a lesson in ice cool mindfulness. The beautifully understated opener ‘At Home’ is a case in point, as the pianist applies his tantalizing presence to every restrained note, whilst moments such as the Spanish tinged ‘'Where We Went'’ provide evidence that the trio are exploring a more kinetic, albeit quiet, kind of intensity.
Bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespstad hang on every note the leader plays, carving out a recording that is delicate, poignant and accessible. Gustavsen’s gentleness is his strength, yet it also means that often there is barely any narrative quality to his playing – subtle dynamics, just about – but mostly a focus on re-imagining melodies and suspending time.
This, depending on where your tastes lie, is either spellbindingly beautiful or, after an hour, frustratingly repetitive.
The aforementioned opener and soulful, ballads such as ‘Wide Open’ most definitely belong to the former category. Ditto ‘'Draw Near'’, which also hints at Gustavsen’s fascination with the psalms and hymns. Yet despite the gorgeous baritone notes that adorn melody of ‘'Blessed Feet'’ (proof that the man knows how to write a tune), there is a flatness when the leader turns up the heat with bare-bones Jarrettisms and dry grooves from the rhythm section.
It is difficult to imagine fans finding anything less than beauty and magnetism in Being There. The rest of us will need more convincing that Gustavsen’s vision of hypnotic understatement really works.