Tord Gustavsen: Music with Bach and bite

Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen returns to the trio format for his latest album.

Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen has been fashioning thoughtful and acclaimed releases for some 15 years.

Following three group projects, his latest release for ECM, The Other Side, sees him back with the trio format. Joined by Sigurd Hole (double-bass) and Jarle Vespestad (drums), the collection combines the folk and church music of Tords youth, with subtle electronics for an album that edges awar from easy jazz labels.

Prior to an appearance at Warwick Arts Centre on 31 October 2018, he called BrumNotes to discuss Bach, his ongoing collaboration with Jarle, and having a number one album …

Why did you decide to return to the trio format now, after a decade?

I have always cherished accompaniment and interplay as much as soloing, so that’s the main reason for not doing the trio for a long time. [But] it felt like the right time to go in to the studio as a trio now, without feeling the pressure of following up something. It developed very naturally, unforced, this trio interplay …

How did you come to include Bach?

The semester before we went into the studio with this trio, I did a project with a choir and a fiddle player, in Norway, where the whole thing was improvising over and around Bach chorales, and these three pieces were included in that project. I didn’t set out to do them on the trio album at all, and I don’t think it would have worked so well if it was a thought-out concept or strategy. We were having a rehearsal and I just started playing one of them, spur of the moment inspiration, and I got these feeling, ‘Oh, this could actually be fantastic, as an addition, in dialogue with my compositions.’ It’s such a huge thing, it’s almost taboo to play Bach because his music was so complete, so perfect in itself, so any intention of improving Bach in any way would be nonsense. Also, most ways of improvising Bach tunes would most probably fail, musically and aesthetically. So we had to arrive at a point where we didn’t try too hard, where we played them with huge respect, but respect in the form of gratitude and freedom, not respect in the sense of anxiousness or trying too hard. When that happened, when we played the songs as just good songs, in the way a jazz musicians would normally play a standard – a song that had a history, had a composer sometime down the line, but that is basically common musical language that you use to say something new.

You’ve included three of Bach’s chorales …

Yes. One of them is a lament – O Traurigkeit – it’s about deep sorrow and the longing for release. It’s not like everything turns out well in the last verse, it’s actually not like that in life all the time, it’s about that. Jesu Meine Freude is about deep deep joy and the joy that lies underneath the ups and downs in life, I’d say. And then the third Bach choral, Schlafes Bruder, is a more paradoxical interpretation as that piece is also about longing for release and eternal rest, actually welcoming death in a way. But it’s played with a funky uplifting groove. It was really not planned, we just started playing a groove like that and I thought, ‘Um! Could this actually be something?’ I played the melody. If we’d set out to try to do this, it would not have happened. Then this paradoxical minor mode played over a funky groove developed into something of its own.

You’ve previously discussed how folk music also seeps into the trio, particularly via bassist Sigurd Hole …

[Sigurd] has a natural way of injecting modal Norwegian folk melodies into the music that makes the group’s connection to these roots stronger. The old Norwegian lullabies and dance forms find their way in now almost without us thinking about it.

Alongside Sigurd, the trio also features drummer Jarle Vespestad, who you’ve been working with since the first trio. How has your relationship changed since those early days?

Early on, in our playing of ballads, we discovered this sense of micro-timing, and loaded minimalism – the feeling that the less we play, the stronger it gets – and this sense has evolved ever since. Now, we are also stretching out and using more dynamics, but this fundamental experience of ‘essence’ and reduction is always our point of departure. Jarle can groove in such an understated way and play so quietly that all the timbres of the piano can be heard. That said, he has such technical ability. It’s fascinating that beyond his groups with me, he often plays complex music with fierce tempos and a lot of volume and noise. A funny thing is that he’s so attuned to the lyricism in the trio’s music that I can often hear him humming the melody as he plays. That’s rare for a drummer and something that, as a composer, I find touching.

Your second album with the Trio – The Ground (2005) – hit number one in the Norwegian pop charts!

It happened. It was an astonishing thing, I would never have expected that. It was also not that big of a deal – it happened for one week … but it’s still something to have on your biog. More importantly, we’d built something over the years, toured a lot and people were actually listening to music; we found something that is accessible to more people than much contemporary jazz, but still very much art music and still very much what we want to play – we’re not compromising or selling out to please someone, that would never have worked for me. It’s about taking seriously that we are at heart, romantic players, and when we really want to play, it’s open and explorative, but it’s also very melodically done. It’s about caressing and really cherishing good melodies.

Wednesday 31 October 2018, Tord Gustavsen Trio, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL. Details:

Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Other Side is out now via ECM.

For more information on Tord Gustavsen, see:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here