Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Ground

Will Layman

This is a delicately balanced piano trio that blends slow tempos, gospel feel and delicious restraint into something lovely. You almost feel guilty for liking something so beautiful, but this music gets under your skin and into your head.

Tord Gustavsen Trio

The Ground

Label: ECM
US Release Date: 2005-04-05
UK Release Date: 2005-01-31
Amazon affiliate

OK, fine, but a Norwegian gospel pianist? Not exactly, but sort of. The cat plays with undeniable gospel feel, but not the kind of hot-gospel you'd expect on a Kirk Franklin album. He grew up playing hymns in Norway while also listening to Bill Evans. And that's what the man has done in The Ground (the sacred ground?) -- fused the simplicity and harmonic content of gospel music with the melodic concentration of the Bill Evans Trio.

Got it, man -- it's just another ECM recording. Weird, blurry cover photo. A Norwegian dude playing pretty music. Can't ECM stop making the same record over and over again? You got it on the cover. But this record and this trio distinguish themselves from the more tinkly-trinkly atmospheric ECM stuff in several ways. First, every tune has a memorable melody that seems to move your heart -- with accompanying and satisfying harmonic structures that given the solos some drama. This is not atmospheric music that merely sets a mood. It tells a story, though each story is more like a little Raymond Carver gem than a fast-paced adventure story. Is it a cliché to call it "spellbinding"?

I think so. Sorry. But this platter does cast a spell. I've listened to it a half dozen times and want to hear it again. It is hypnotic -- each tune at approximately the same slow tempo, each one featuring the same kind of interaction among the trio (playing unusually as one -- the bassist never playing too much and the drummer coloring the tunes as much as propelling them), each one moving with a glacial inevitably toward your pleasure. I won't damn it with the phrase "mood music" because it's too cannily composed for that, but the thing gets under your skin and makes you want to paint a chilly yet moving landscape in dark oils, that's for sure.

It makes you want to be a painter? Cut it out, now you're just being silly.

Sorry. But it makes you want to lock yourself in a room and, I don't know, maybe cut off your ear. Stop giggling.

Getting a grip here. How is it that an album of similar-sounding, slow songs doesn't get boring? Oh, crap. I knew you were going to ask me that. There is a cinematic quality to this disc. The songs are not long, and the solos do not go on forever, so each episode is concise and clear. But because the songs seem to connect in mood and tone, it is like watching a series of scenes that relate and develop. Each track is a frame that has shifted just enough to keep the image -- the audio image, I guess -- moving and therefore interesting. Plus, these musicians play together so beautifully. Harold Johnsen's bass is as funky and pocket-happy as James Jamerson, but in a Charlie Haden bag. And the drumming from Jarle Vespestad is free enough to suggest that this could never be a group caught at the local Holiday Inn. The combination suggests that the trio has been playing together for a long time and, by now, simply breathes together on every beat. Hold on, I'm gonna put the record on again right now.

If you love it so much, why not give this disc a more boffo score? I sense ambivalence. Or are you just sleepy? The trio's previous disc for ECM, Changing Places, was in the same style, so maybe I think this was a safe choice for Gustavsen. And maybe I'm just a mite suspicious of music that is so consistently pretty. There are moments on this record where Gustavsen's improvised piano lines -- which are always gorgeously controlled and played with a speech-like sense of dynamics -- seem about the break free. His left hand will be chording slowly, and the right hand line is turning over a melodic idea and seems about the spiral into a lyrical upward run that will break the tune open. At these moments, just as Gustavsen seems to be reaching for some ecstasy, he pulls back. The theme returns, and we're on to the next frame of the movie. What can I say? I'm half-Italian, so I want to hear more passion....

So you want him to be a little bit more like Keith Jarrett, don't you? Gee -- maybe.

Let Gustavsen be his own man! Up that score! It's a beautiful, controlled, dramatic album and all you can muster is a seven? Oh, OK. Make it eight.

You're a push-over. Don't cave in so easily. First impressions are usually correct. You took an SAT prep course, didn't you, or read that Malcolm Gladwell book, Blink? I'm not doing any more reviews with you, man. You are impossible. Plus you keep talking while I'm listening to The Ground. Shut up and listen!


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.