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Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Ground

Will Layman

This delicately balanced piano trio blends slow tempos, a 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
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What is a Scandinavian pianist doing sounding so much like Keith Jarrett? Really, you are excused if at times the gospel-based, slow grooves of The Ground make you think of ECM stalwart Keith Jarrett. It's never a rip-off, as Tord Gustavsen is undeniably committed to this music, but there are moments when you spin your head around with familiarity, as the pianist plays these high-calorie gospel chords that move across the rhythm in an eerily Koln Concert-ish way. Of course, every record recorded by Manfred Eicher has that crystalline sound to some extent -- like jazz played on a faraway mountain, filtering its way through the cold air to reach you a minute or so after it was played.

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 give 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 inevitability 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!


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