Music Review: Tord Gustavsen Ensemble at Merkin Hall
On Wednesday night, Norwegian ECM pianist Tord Gustavsen led an ensemble of five musicians through a sublime program of European jazz.
The players here were Tore Brunborg on tenor and soprano sax, vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen, Mats Eilersten on bass, Jarle Vespestad on drums, and Tord Gustavsen on piano.
The group’s musical base lay in a cool, Bill Evans-related zone, but with an epic, tidal dynamic and flowing stylistic palette, incorporating folk melodies, bluesy orientations, cavernous textures, and sung poetry.
I’m usually not the biggest fan of jazz vocals, so I came to the show slightly apprehensive, but Kristin Asbjornsen’s gorgeous contributions raised the music to new heights of meaning and human emotion. Although there were a few effective moments of bluesey, American-style jazz singing, most of her work lent an ethereal feel, with evocative lyrics (such as W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby,”) and wordless passages of reverb-drenched vocal atmospheres.
Tore Brunborg’s tiny saxes lent the ensemble an airy, ethereal haze missing from Gustavsen’s outstanding trio recordings, and Mats Eilersten played inventive bass lines including a surprising solo song transition.
Drummer Jarle Vespestad of Supersilent showcased his supremely delicate touch, letting tiny cymbal gestures build into rich sonic textures.
Tord Gustavsen was, of course, the backbone, and the only performer to play on every song (the program featured various combinations of these players). He elegantly slid from the seductive, contemplative lines of “Being There” to syncopated stabs of improv ecstasy. Gustavsen played with a devoted emotion that led his group to do the same.
The ensemble sounded full and beautiful in the hall. Their current album title track “Restored, Returned,” which I questioned on the recording (and now enjoy most), was simply fabulous live, an immense, anthemic crescendo of everything the group had to offer.
My personal experience and connection with the music may mean more than any comments I can offer about the individual musicians.
The concert led me through a range of strong emotions, the clearest of which was simply joy. I’ll definitely check out Gustavsen’s group the next opportunity I get and recommend that anybody who loves this music do the same.