Tord Gustavsen QuartetPhotos – Michael Findlay

Towards the end of his last Melbourne Jazz Festival performance, softly-spoken Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen joked that he would play another song from “his liturgical corner, which is fairly wide open.” Most of Gustavsen’s compositions possess a meditative spirituality, something akin to a Jenga construction the pianist creates by carefully placing each pristine note of minimalist jazz on top of the other as he builds up this owers of song. The music is meditative yet at times playful; the compositions inspired by folk music at first suggest a mood of bucolic lightness but then they usher you into a mossy cave in the mountains, at the end of the day when everything is suddenly still and the light is otherwordly. You’re never quite sure where you are, but the effect is sublime. You just have to trust.

A surprising aspect of Gustavsen’s concert is that it’s more powerful live than in recording, due to the almost Zen-like quality of his playing, superbly complemented by saxophonist Tore Brunborg, bassist Sigurd Hole and drummer Jarle Vespestad.

Vespestad’s precise playing makes him one of the most exacting and expressive drummers in the world of contemporary jazz. At times he seems almost to be merely waving his sticks and brushes across his kit, almost in fear of hitting the cymbals too hard, while at others he uses his hands and fists on snare and toms (muted by what appears to be a tea cloth). The effect of this soft approach is to make you listen, hard, to pay careful attention to a percussive subtlety rarely experienced in concert.

Gustavsen’s music makes you think of the Heart Sutra that states, ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’, as space plays such a major role in its compositional fabric. Gustavsen wrings every nuance out of the notes, unafraid of extensiveness, at times standing and playing with force and then leaning back tocoax the sound from his instrument.

The opening notes of the lullaby The Child Within create an ethereal stillness, accompanied by the sustained drone from the electronic box alongside his piano. Brunborg’s saxophone draws on a breathy tonal palette that rises into a clear and penetrating sound, reminiscent of Jan Gabarek.

The closing numbers of Evening Prayer, based on Norwegian folk rhythms, and The Mission, conjure hope from the depths of despair in hymnal tribute to Gustavsen’s heritage, creating a sacred, sonic geography of stillness and light. Ravishing stuff. And oh, how they rock their 'Nordic cool' image! An absolute high point of the Jazz Festival. We were so inspired we bought a CD and even got it signed.

2015 Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Tord Gustavsen Quartet

Venue: Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Date: 4 June 2015
Tickets: $69 – $30

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