Review: Tord Gustavsen, Southampton

Michael Tucker finds the ’chilled out’ music of popular Nordic pianist Tord Gustavsen at a packed Turner Sims Hall a touch too cool for its own good

Following a sold-out show in London, which precipitated an extra matinee performance, Gustavsen’s highly regarded all-Norwegian quartet with Tore Brunborg (saxes), Mats Eilertsen (bass) and Jarle Vespestad (drums) attracted the biggest audience I’ve seen for quite some time at the Turner Sims, almost filling the hall.

As Gustavsen revealed in one of the several well-judged, sometimes pleasingly humorous announcements he made to contextualise music taken from both his recent Extended Circle disc and earlier and related releases on ECM, this was his fourth appearance at this excellent Southampton venue.

Judging from the sustained warmth of the welcome the leader and his colleagues received as they came on stage (or the similar response which led to a final encore), the mellow, often minimalistic blend of gospel and hymnal, blues and Norwegian folk elements which has marked what one might call the crossover success of the Gustavsen phenomenon has clearly gone down as well with the paying public as it has with a range of critics.

While I’ve enjoyed aspects of Gustavsen’s ECM releases, I wouldn’t count myself among his most fervent fans. Yes, he has a fine, two-handed touch and can modulate voicings and dynamics in sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic service of an overarching melody; yes, his often deeply meditative yet sometimes rocking music can draw upon the sort of archetypal sources which one might assume should feed music of no little magnetism. But there’s something about the patiently tempered precision and slow-burn arc of this pianist’s poetics that, sooner or later, has me reaching for the off switch on the CD player.

In the case of this two-set concert, the fact that Vespestad several times draped a large towel over parts of his kit struck me as an apt image for that dampening of the spirit which  – in contrast to the rest of the seemingly unreservedly enthusiastic audience, it must be said – I found myself experiencing as the evening wore on.

Each musician played with consummate taste, and Brunborg in particular showed much dynamic sensitivity, sometimes moving (unobtrusively) across and around the stage to ensure his lines fed the ensemble to best effect. Time and again, however, I found myself thinking of earlier and, for me, far more charged or vibrant moments from  – most obviously – Jan Johansson and Georg Riedel, or Jarrett and Garbarek, Stenson and Christensen.

For all the (unremittingly) pleasant nature of the concert, I wished that the group’s lyrical, sometimes church-touched melodies, mid-range interaction and democratically apportioned solos  – with Brunborg mainly on tenor and Eilertsen supplying arco as well as pizzicato lines – could project a more diversely engaging energy: that, e.g., the folk elements in the mix might be given a rougher, more rhythmically staggered or tonally ambiguous edge. I say this with some reluctance, given that in Brunborg and Eilertsen the Gustavsen quartet includes two of my favourite players of recent times: however, overall I found too often that the music was uncomfortably close to blandness – not so much “chilled out”, as the programme notes had it, as a touch too cool for its own good.

Photo by John Watson

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