'The Ground' is the eagerly awaited follow-up to Changing Places, the most successful ECM debut of the last decade! With 'Changing Places', young Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen not only captured the imagination of the world's jazz critics but immediately secured a huge international following. BBC Radio 3's Late Junction named the album 2003's `Record of the Year'.
Gustavsen's trio was already known from touring the globe backing popular singer Silje Nergaard, but it was the universality of the pianist's writing, the melodic hook-lines of his pieces and their deceptive simplicity, as well as a sense of easy, lilting groove that has helped the music speak to a vast audience.
Although Gustavsen's sound, with its emphasis on quietude and contemplation, partly reflects Scandinavian directions, the trio is the least "Nordic" of all ECM's Norwegian groups. Its big influences are from early jazz, gospel music, the blues, Afro-Caribbean music, and from such singers as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. These earthy influences, filtered through a European sensibility also touched by impressionist composers gives the Gustavsen Trio its unique cachet.
'The Ground', as its name implies, is yet more earthy than it predecessors and its blues influence nearer the surface. The sound is mellow, caressing, sensual. The melodies are strong and simple - once heard they remain in the mind. The music's clear structure allows Gustavsen, bassist Harald Johnsen and "expressive minimalist" drummer Jarle Vespestad plenty of space for improvising that is always restrained, subtle and tasteful.
Personnel: Tord Gustavsen - (piano), Harald Johnsen - (double-bass), Jarle Vespestad - (drums)
Following up the excellent 2003 debut Changing Places is a difficult task. This Norwegian pianist has written another collection of extremely carefully-judged illuminations, produced by Manfred Eicher and recorded in Oslo's Rainbow Studio. As before, the combined effect is supremely calming. It has a kind of pre-meditated tentativeness; adeliberate uncertainty.
Gustavsen describes his pieces as often having the character of 'wordless hymns', growing out of the blues or gospel traditions. But some of these melodies have a Moorish or Oriental exoticism, just as much as they sound like products of the Stateside plantation or church.
The pianist prefers his trio's improvisations to grow organically out of the entire tune, not demarcated into specific 'solo' durations. Gustavsen employs what could be deemed the essential vocabulary of lounge piano to sensitise his studied phrases, turning them into something infinitely more profound.
Often, the listener can home in on very tiny details, not noticed at first. On "Twins", drummer Jarle Vespestad has a delicately rubberised skip to his snare work, whilst bassist Harald Johnsen catches an odd pinging repeat during "Kneeling Down".
Some of these numbers sound strangely familiar, as if Gustavsen is investigating standard material, or even works that have a life in film or on television. When his perverse Americanism does surface, it's because he's hinting at shadows of bland notes, transformed into fittingly romantic moods.
The soloing is so decelerated that it sounds like composition. The writing could be fixed, or very fleeting and insubstantial. The trio's gift is that it's impossible to know for sure, and even attempting to do so is a dubious proposition. Why try to quantify an atmosphere? Who needs to grip hold of a category? This album doesn't elicit a fixed, strong response, like its predecessor. It floats between shallow and deep. --Martin Longley
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