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It's So Cool to Be Norwegian

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The Ground,
Tord Gustavsen Trio

Last Monday, the Tord Gustavsen Trio from Norway stopped by DC on their North American Tour in support of their new ECM record, The Ground. At the well-filled Blues Alley they played the calming, generally slow, and marvelously melodious jazz that is made up mostly, if not entirely, of Tord Gustavsen's compositions, which often sound like improvisations. Slow, passionate, and filled with yearning was their opening number, At Home, which connoted the lyrical passages of Keith Jarrett's improvisations on the Köln or Vienna Concert albums, coupled with hints of Jacques Loussier's Bach transmogrifications.

The entire set was dominated by works that imperceptibly picked up speed and steam until—seemingly out of nowhere—they reached an irresistible, if mellow, drive, a melodic and rhythmic "slow burn." Almost as imperceptibly as the song's propelling parts came, they went. Ditto for Sentiment, which is from their new release. Also in best Keith Jarrett fashion, Tord Gustavsen hums, sings, and winces along with the wound and unwound phrases that he and his Trio's members cull from the music. Twins was welded onto Reach Out and Touch it, the former with a bit more energy than the others, the former with a large solo piano part by Jarle Vespestad, again not unlike Keith Jarrett, and ending with the most subtle, charming drum solo I've heard in jazz so far. Well... it could have, should have ended there, and had it not been for the continuation with a beautiful bit with an array of resolved chords, I would have considered it a missed opportunity.

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The Köln Concert,
Keith Jarrett

Curtains Aside and Still There made the Keith Jarrett affinity only more obvious. The way the Trio shifts keys or has long, searching passages followed by a series of resolutions makes the three Norwegians sound like the Keith Jarrett Trio, if the Keith Jarrett Trio actually sounded anything like Keith Jarrett. If you like Keith, then you will love the Tord Gustavsen Trio, which for all its similarities, is far too good to be considered a mere knockoff. Still, if May's Jazz Times, in their article "Quiet is the New Loud" is spot-on, stating that "Gustavsen chooses subtleness and beauty over contrast and bombast," I disagree (for by now obvious reasons) when they follow that with "and creates an utterly unique sound in the process." If there is any one thing their sound is not, it is unique. The point was proven when the intro to the third-to-last song of the second set took a several-minutes-long piano introduction that seemed lifted straight from the Köln Concert.

Meditative, ruminating, reminiscing are the qualities of the trio's sound, and the always elegant, felt, exquisitely subtle Mr. Vespestad on drums (looking like a smaller, lithe version of Bruce Willis) contributes perhaps even more to this than his colleague on bass, Harald Johnsen. Token of Tango and Graceful Touch came and went, the latter a "song of yearning," though that's good enough to describe them all. I was surprised that Tord Gustavsen was surprised that I heard Jarrett all over the place, but the humble musician, extraordinarily friendly just as his colleagues acknowledged him as a main influence, betraying a sense of flattery to be compared to Jarrett (who is far more popular in Europe than in the U.S.), rather than annoyance that I may have suggested lack of originality. I assume that if Gustavsen and Co. like Jarrett as much as I do, they would be flattered to sound like him, especially if that wasn't even what they tried to do.

This is one kind of jazz—well behaved, stylish (down to the impeccable suits the three young men wore), and beautiful—and it's not for everyone, I suspect. If your favorite record is Miles Davis, Live at the Newport, you won't be impressed. If you like intelligent and lyrical late-night jazz, make either of their records your next.

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