In his compositions, Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen successfully melds brooding Nordic lyricism and modern jazz to strains of Scandinavian folk music; African-American gospel; European Protestant hymnody; and Afro-Caribbean melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Whether performing in his own 21st century trios and quartets or in collaboration with others, Gustavsen's understated approach is roomy and spacious; it often sounds otherworldly, as evidenced by his ECM trio trilogy Changing Places, Ground, and Being There. His 2016 vocal quartet offering What Was Said depicted a very original musical setting for the poems of Rumi.
Gustavsen was born and raised in the rural Hurdal, Akershus, before settling in Oslo. His education includes a degree in humanist and social studies from the University of Oslo, and he studied jazz piano, theory, and history at the Conservatory of Music in Trondheim and musicology at the University of Oslo, where he was also an adjunct professor of jazz piano and theory between 1998 and 2002. Before recording as a leader, he was part of Aire & Angels with Siri Gjære, and the Nymark Collective. Regarding the approach to musical theory he's developed, Gustavsen has stated in more than one interview that his main field of interest is "the psychology and phenomenology of improvisation," from which he draws "heavily on the psychology of relationships developed by German psychoanalytic Helm Stierlin and Norwegian psychologist Anne-Lise Løvlie Schibbye, both of whom offer a very exciting approach to the ancient notion of dialectics." On his website, Gustavsen published details of his thesis Improvisasjonens Dialektiske Utfordringer (translated: The Dialectical Eroticism of Improvisation). Before becoming a bandleader, the pianist was an active member of his country's jazz scene and contributed to recordings by the Silje Nergaard Band, the Ulrich Drechsler Quartet, and others, helping him to establish a reputation as a soloist and ensemble player.
In 2003, the pianist signed to ECM. His trio with drummer Jarle Vespestad and bassist Harald Johnsen released Changing Places, which was followed in 2005 with Ground (which won the national Norwegian jazz prize for best album). In 2007, he issued the final part of the trilogy, Being There, as Johnsen had been killed in a car accident and Gustavsen saw no reason to continue the trio. These three albums established the pianist's reputation across Europe as a formidable soloist and composer. In 2010, he delivered Restored, Returned, featuring vocalist Kristin Asbjørnsen and saxophonist Tore Brunborg in settings ranging from duo to quintet. The album won that year's Spellemannprisen (the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy) for best jazz album. Gustavsen issued his first quartet recording, Well, in 2012, featuring the returning Brunborg on tenor as well as new bassist Mats Eilertsen and Vespestad on drums, and offering a collection of melodic abstractions in various group settings. Extended Circle was released in January of 2014, with material ranging from traditional hymns ("Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg") to nearly funky blues ("The Gift").
After touring internationally on both the festival and club circuits, Gustavsen and his ensemble (with German-Afghan vocalist Simin Tander, with whom he has worked since) reentered the studio and recorded his Rumi homage, What Was Said, before undertaking festival appearances together. Released by ECM in early 2016, it made several year-end best-of lists by critics and media outlets. Two years later, Gustavsen returned to the trio format with drummer Vespestad and with bassist Sigurd Hole replacing the departed Johnsen. Produced by Manfred Eicher, Other Side featured original compositions, J. S. Bach chorales, and ancient Norwegian hymns. Gustavsen's use of minimal, subtle electronics resulted in a deeper soundscape with a more pronounced bass floor; the album was released in August of 2018.
© Marisa Brown /TiVo