Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Ground (ECM 1892)

The Ground

Tord Gustavsen Trio
The Ground

Tord Gustavsen piano
Harald Johnsen double-bass
Jarle Vespestad drums
Recorded January 2004 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen has forged one of the true concept outfits of modern jazz. In the two years since his ECM debut, he, along with bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad, has looked behind the Scandinavian mirror into the roots that feed his spectrum. Navigating a growing network of original tunes, the trio comes into its own on The Ground, a timeless sophomore effort that implies many peripheral constellations even as it brightens the stars of its own.

In a press release interview, Gustavsen has noted the “hymnal” qualities of his music, which over many months of touring have taken on a collective purpose of their own. The end effect seamlessly combines the shape-shifting of opener “Tears Transforming,” which drifts freely between major and minor keys in a balancing act of inner peace, and the title track, which is the longest of the album yet is somehow also the most concise, for it indulges in the pathos of reflection with all the starry-eyed wonder of childhood. Both braid chains of circles and spirals, taking on fresh dustings of pollen, as if the scents of a thousand fields were mingling as one. This is the eponymous ground, where all fertile songs are born.

Johnsen and Vespestad are sidemen only insofar as they complete a triangle to which every side gains integral purchase. Melodically speaking, bassist and drummer contribute just as much color as Gustavsen in “Being There.” As also in its companion track, “Twins,” the musicians take obvious comfort in those nearly imperceptible moments that redefine us with every breath. Although Gustavsen’s status as leader is more than nominal (all the melodies are his) he tugs ever so gently at the reins to shape the flow at given moments. If anyone, it is Johnsen whose tread presses freshest into the soil, leaving Vespestad to brush away the traces, lest their path be followed.

Among its many virtues, The Ground includes such quintessential turns as “Colours of Mercy” and “Token of Tango.” Both play to the band’s blending strengths, while also giving just dues to the blues. Their encroaching sense of nostalgia only deepens as the album’s context grows. In this regard, the two-minute solo piano “Interlude” adds a touch of cabaret, while the dance-like “Curtains Aside”—with its rolling snare, lumbering bass, and bright pianism—breaks the fourth wall between artist and audience.

Above all, The Ground proves once again that Gustavsen’s trio is most assured at its tenderest moments. “Sentiment” and “Edges of Happiness” are but two examples. Each evolves from simple stirrings to windswept reverie, holding its peak only briefly. The lull is grand ruler. And just when you think the trio couldn’t get any gentler, they emit a signal like “Reach Out and Touch It,” and with it the realization that sometimes the most profound epiphanies are those left alone.

Accordingly, this album doesn’t have highlights so much as noteworthy shadows. Like the tune “Kneeling Down,” it offers respect to the art that moves its mind, body, and soul to such sonorous action without needing to proselytize. In the same way that turning a Rubik’s cube offers up endless possibilities yet maintains its shape no matter what schemes its colors take on the surface, The Ground holds true to its geometry even as rainbows ring their way down its skin.

A standout achievement for both the musicians involved and the label that has so graciously involved them.

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