Tord Gustavsen Trio: Opening (ECM 2742)

Tord Gustavsen Trio

Tord Gustavsen piano, electronics
Steinar Raknes double bass, electronics
Jarle Vespestad drums
Recorded October 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 4, 2022

A new Tord Gustavsen Trio album is cause for quiet celebration. In that regard, ECM’s characteristic five seconds of opening silence feel most appropriate, at once an obstacle to and a cushion for our expectations. With the introduction of new bassist Steinar Raknes, the feeling of revival is palpable.

Melodies are treated as structural suggestions rather than prescriptions, allowing them to travel as a cartographer would, knowing the general layout of the land but never the details until they fall under foot. Being invited along for the journey is an honor I do not take for granted. Neither do these introspective artisans take the creative act for granted, as “The Circle” proves with open arms. It is the embrace of a friend we haven’t seen since the world became socially distanced yet whose presence never left, our ears receiving the kiss of something wondrous. Despite the slight reshuffling of personnel, the communication between Gustavsen and his bandmates is as organic as ever, each signature floating in and out of focus with an overall coherence.

The pianist’s writing is once again the center of this solar system, its light shining brightest on “The Longing.” In only two and a half minutes, this anthemic interlude charts an album’s worth of space and is the epitome of what this trio can accomplish. Other peaks in the proverbial valley include “Shepherd Song” and “Stream,” where soloing is always connected by a wind of regard. Just when it seems Gustavsen might fly off on his own, he reunites with his earthly shadow, never losing sight of home. In the latter tune, I cannot help but feel mourning for the late Harald Johnsen, who once stood where Raknes stands now. Like the Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke, Raknes leaves slow explosions of floral life, fading as quickly as they blossom. What’s astonishing is how he, Gustavsen, and Vesepstad do all of this in real time, patiently crafting (if not letting themselves be crafted by) a gentle tug of war between echoing and foreshadowing. Such is the progression of life. Raknes must also be commended for bringing electronic enhancements to “Helensburgh Tango” and “Ritual,” in which his bow evokes the guitar of Terje Rypdal à la The Sea (in that same vein, Vespestad’s rolling snare and cymbals nod deeply to Jon Christensen). What sounds more aggressive on the surface, however, bleeds internally with humility.

A few improvised pieces keep us centered while revealing older inspirations and traditions. From the initial examinations of “Findings,” for instance, emerges the Swedish folk song “Visa från Rättvik,” while the album’s title track cloaks itself in a Gurdjieff-esque meditation. Both tracks have their counterparts, offering plenty of carpet on which to step, and not a hardwood floor in sight.

The final two tracks are the only ones not written by Gustavsen. Geirr Tveitt’s “Fløytelåt” (The Flute) takes us into a folkish vastness, widening the path for the metaphysical denouement of “Vær sterk, min sjel,” a Norwegian hymn by Egil Hovland. A conservative yet wholly appropriate statement on which to end, it moves in unison of steps. Here, the widest door is opened, even if the musicians feel no obligation to tell us what’s on the other side. That’s for them to know and us to find out.

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