Last year saw Pianist Tord Gustavsen releasing his new ECM album, “The Well”, to international acclaim and raving reviews. On his 5th album on ECM, he completes a format journey from a set trio (3 albums) to a 5-piece ‘ensemble’ (2009 album, “Restored, returned”) and has now included saxophone player Tore Brunborg into the all new Tord Gustavsen Quartet. We met up with him to ask him why he seems addicted to these changes?
– It has been a long trip, it has gone from three albums and 6 to 7 years of touring with a hardcore trio format to an ensemble that is of a flexible size and at the same time a regular group, says Gustavsen. – I have a duo, with Tore, the trio, all together in a quartet and we have also had gigs as a quintet and even with Nils Økland as a sextet. It is a good thing, this combination of the flexibility and the freshness that lies in hearing the music with different sound pallets, a lot of the music and repertoire overlaps between the constellations anyway and the players know the music. So I really enjoy that doubleness to it.
Is it you as a person or the music itself that is the common ground for all the band constellations?
It is impossible to part the two, but is a very interesting question. I do play a bit differently, I guess, from setting to setting. The biggest difference is of course to have another melody instrument or not, but the focus in the musical dialogue is the same, regardless. I do believe that I am the most important link between all the different parts of the ensembles.
Do you take less space then, when you have more people to leave it to?
A little bit, I guess. To some, the saxophone will take a large space in the total sound, but what we do is something quite different from the traditional soloist/support thing, all the time there are questions and replies and counterpoint co-play between us all. All the musicians, they are all strong voices with a noted humility in their playing, they all listen more than they play, actually.
You habitually present new material first in concerts, then work on it together, then you enter the recording studio. How much does the music change from those early gig versions to the final recordings?
Some of the pieces change a little bit, some change a lot. Some of them find a form where we improvise a lot on the small nuances, while others change a lot in the main shape. That means that the studio process is fascinating. If you enter the studio without any visions, without any direction, it might turn out to be completely without character. But still, if you show up in the studio without any regard to the flexibility of what will happen there and then, it might turn out stiff. So some of these pieces turned out very differently from what I had thought, while others were recorded in ways that look like what they have been when playing them live. That is an extremely exciting process, with so many attentive musicians involved. There is a strong feeling of recording live in the studio, that I feel suits the music very well. We did some different versions of most of the pieces, and sat down to choose afterwards. It is not only a question of which version is best in itself, but which versions that fit the album best as well, if you look at the album as a travel. We work towards the album as a unit, and even though the pieces might be listened to as singular mantras, it is very much our intention to see the album as a whole, as a musical trip, and that this will give it an extra added value.
We need to talk about the music in itself. For me, as much as I enjoy the great music, it has been quite fascinating to read all the reviews of “The Well”, that both internationally and domestically range from conclusions like “Now, Tord is really dark” to “Now, Tord is really light”! There is a long range and indeed distance from lightness to darkness, have you noticed this yourself, these two extreme, opposite views from the critics?
Yes, that is extremely fascinating indeed. One meets music depending on where you are yourself and that becomes much attenuated in a situation like this, where both the audience and critics may experience the exact same sound as completely different emotional expressions. And also whether our music is, say, Nordic, cold, or at the other extreme, very emotional and warm, those two positions interchange and cross into each other all the time. To be frank, I do enjoy that a lot. One thing that means a lot to me when talking about music is to transcend the segregation between cool elegance and warm emotionality in music. I experience the fact that I need both things 100 % in order to be content. There has to be a total emotional input and empathy. But you also need to be a certain defined elegance, a small distance. That has to be there at the same time, or the music will become poor. In that regards, it is very interesting that people hear and define those aspects in different ways.
I guess it might be hard for you to define that yourself, but have you given it any thought, whether you are ‘darker’ or ‘lighter’, whatever that might be, on this album?
I feel that I am more dynamic, even though there is still a main focus on slow tempi and we never delve much into fortissimo, but the range of the playing seems larger and more complex, even.
Is this because of what you mentioned earlier, that you in the quartet format have one more voice to carry the melody?
Yes, indeed, that the call and response thing between us has many aspects. At the same time, some of the pieces are extremely stripped down and simple. So it is my experience that the range of dynamics and textures are bigger this time. But if they are darker or lighter, I really don’t know. Some things are maybe done in a more abstract way. The melody lines are lyrical and even singable, but they are being contrasted by abstract and maybe even darker passages, so there might be a point there.
You are travelling abroad all the time, this late winter and spring sees you giving concerts in France, Austria, Germany, the UK and of course at home. Is there a difference, if not in the audience, but in how they, your audience, construe the music?
I find that there is more of a difference within a country than between countries. At times it might have to do with the differences between big cities and small towns, but we just played Paris, last weekend, and the reception we got there was just as warm as what we got in Much Wenlock, a village near Wales, so it is not always the size that defines it. It is my experience that when the audience join us on the trip that goes to the place where you open up to let the small details become big, and let the meditative travelling happen together, what happens then, that feeling, is global. That is the strongest aspect of it, that it is the same all over. Granted, it does take some extra to get a Japanese audience to applaud ecstatically, but after a while they started doing so as well, towards the end.
Do you believe there are many in the audiences, the people who come to see you, who do not know you?
There is indeed a mixture. There is an interesting point here, that they come from both a more typical jazz background, there is some crossover from the chamber music/classical music audience and there are people who listen more to singer-songwriter/pop music, but with an open mind. When they hear a good melody they will go for it. That means that the energy of the audience will vary with regards to the kind of background people will have. I find it extremely meaningful, that we cross those borders quite clearly. We do perform, most of the time, in classical concert halls and chamber music venues, and churches, more than jazz clubs.
Do you feel that those kinds of venues, given the settings and traditions, are in any way restraining, as opposed to playing in a more relaxed club setting?
No, not really. Of course, of you are being alienated and things are stiff there, then there is no fun in it. But that might happen everywhere. A club can have an intimacy and spontaneous energy that can be great sometimes, but it is a matter of getting in touch with the music itself and try to get it to open up.
Then you can be at home anywhere…