A crystalline ECM piano trio makes another crystalline, ECM-ish piano trio record. Again.
Being There is the third CD from the Tord Gustavsen Trio, who hail from Norway. Like the prior two discs (Changing Places from 2003 and The Ground from 2005 -- both also on ECM), this is a collection of exceedingly beautiful, contemplative music. Like the prior two discs, this music moves like a glacier. Like the prior to two discs, Being There has a distinctive sound filled with silences punctuated by echoing church sonorities.
The positive take: this completes a trilogy of discs setting forth this popular trio's distinctive sound.
The negative take: Oh my goodness, these records all sound the same -- AND they all sound pretty much like Keith Jarrett! Kind of like our man Tord is ripping off himself ripping off Mr. Jarrett. Glacially.
The truth sits somewhere in the middle, I suppose.
The trio does have a remarkable sound -- light, spacious, absolutely locked in and together. But that sound is inevitably reminiscent of Jarrett at his most icy and minimal. Gustavsen, as a pianist, has an eerily controlled, vocal approach that allows his lines to sound as if they are murmured across a pillow at midnight. But the emotional range of the music is limited to murmurs and whispers. The music is controlled and cinematic -- quietly sculpting ice sculptures in your head. But the music is so studied and still that it usually seem like movie music -- not art that stands alone but art that melts, sensually into the background.
How you feel about this music will probably drift one direction or the other. Me? I'm tired of it. Let's look at "Still There". First, it is very nearly completely . . . still. The tempo is so slow as to barely exist. The pulse does not swing, though Gustavsen's piano is phrased with a liquid jazziness. Harald Johnsen on bass and drummer Jarle Vespestad provide support that whispers as quietly as possible, as the pianist's voicings ring glacially in the sonic air. The deliberate slowness of the track makes it hard to hear the melodic movement as a connected line of music. Rather, each chord sits alone in your ear. Each one is gorgeous but . . . so what?
"Blessed Feet" is the closest thing on the disc to a jumpin' swinger. Vespestad kicks a light funk groove, then Gustavsen states a hip, below-Middle-C melody, harmonized in gospel chords. It is still a deeply laconic kind of groove, but when the improvisation begins, Gustavsen throws in a touch of grit and builds its heat. Nevertheless, the "climax" of the solo gets your oven up to about 325 degrees -- enough to bake some brownies, maybe, but just barely.
What it comes down to, perhaps, is a matter of definitions. Though the Tord Gustavsen Trio seems like it should be a jazz group -- based on its instrumentation and the label for which it records -- it is not exactly jazz, or perhaps jazz of a different kind. The band states melodies and then improvises on the structure, sure, but the solos do not really tell stories the way a Sonny Rollins solo might. Rather, Gustavsen's solos are mostly exercises in texture -- more like abstract sculptures than like short stories. On "Cocoon" his solo begins with repeated notes in the high register, Morse Code taps that gradually turn into arpeggios. Lower chords follow, leading to a statement by Johnsen. Little of it feels dramatic -- no tension, no narrative drive.
Finally, for all its beauty, this music has a muted sameness even just within this collection. Only "Blessed Feet" and "Where We Went" provide a contrast of tempo or intensity. When you listen to all three records as a body, the sameness is overwhelming. Imagine watching every episode of Law and Order, back-to-back, . . . in Norwegian. "Man," you'd say to yourself, "every one of these shows moves at the same pace and hits all the same sensory notes." And since you can't follow the story . . . .
Maybe I'm missing the point. Maybe this is some kind of Norwegian make-out music. Maybe its sensuality and subtle differentiation is lost on a kid from New Jersey who used to date girls with Big Hair. Maybe "Karmosin", with its slow climb of tinkling melody, is as exciting and dramatic to some people as a great Wayne Shorter solo, with Art Blakey behind him stoking the fire ever-hotter with each four bar phrase. Maybe this is caviar and I just like Big Macs.
Maybe one Tord Gustavsen Trio album -- beautiful, icy, crystalline -- is all you'll ever need and this one is a good (or as weak) as any.