Stories from beyond; or Tord Gustavsen’s new unconventional jazz

The touching combination between Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen, drummer Jarle Vespestad and German-Afgan singer Simin Tander landed in Montreal last Sunday the 3rd of July for the last concert of their USA and Canada Tour, within the context of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. The trio presented at the Salle Ludger-Duvernay their latest work and Gustavsen’s new proposal, album ‘What was said’, which features a whole new musical direction based on ancient Norwegian hymns and Sufi poems interpreted in a soft, mystical way. The result is, to Gustavsen, an innovative sound that still and very deeply connects with his past and childhood.

 His fingers slowly approach the keys. With the tip he caresses them, and produces a sound that materialises, floating, getting lost in the air due to its softness. The clicking of the cameras is annoying, disturbing, as the piano sounds magnificently low. Incredibly intangible. The sounds are clear, but small. Passionate, and still difficult.

There is an aura that starts building around the three musicians. The red colour of the lights and the mystical staging contrast with the pure green colour of Simin Tander’s dress. She moves, meandering, like a snake, following the notes, the rhythm, hardly recognisable. And then Jarle Vespestad steps in. And the conjunction between the piano and the drums slowly, progressively, strengthens the tone. The touch evolves, turns into a hard approach, it is changing dimension.

It becomes epic.

“What you just heard are two ancient Norwegian hymns, based on folk tunes. They were translated into Pashtu, and they have travelled with us for a long time.”

The combination is impressive. The whole room breathes in a different state now. The creation of this trance is fed not only by the music itself but also by the relations between the musicians: subtle smiles, accomplice looks, quick admiration drifting from one to the other in a very calmed way, not warm, loud and extremely expressive like traditional black jazz.

The concert moves on and each one of the members of the ensemble empties their personality in the playing. Tord Gustavsen is precise, evocative, clear and soft. His approach to the piano is firm, but cautious, occasionally adding electronics. The Oslo-based pianist exhibits his high-quality technique in a modest way, feeding the trance, praising his stage companions and presenting the songs with a nearly whispered voice, loaded with a strange purity and a transparent love.

That playing is perfectly supported by Jarle Vespestad’s percussion. Being the only other instrument on stage –although Simin Tander’s voice should be considered as an instrument–, he combines with the piano in a fragile, yet strong way. He plays unconventionally, carefully using the parts of the drums set in a way to feed the difficulty of this music. When Vespestad approaches the drums, the whole idea of What was said becomes real: the epic, mystical, transcendental simplicity of ancient folk tones, Sufi poems translated into English, traditional tunes rooted in faith and hope, stories crafted to explore the mystery of beauty, with titles like What was said to the rose that made it open.

And it becomes Simin Tander’s duty to enlighten the path. Her role as a singer, and her voice being, perhaps, more tangible than drums or piano, are in the end the leading light. She uses her vocal chords, like Vespestad the drums, in a unique way. Her voice is not the prototype of beautiful voice; however, it is the way she uses it what makes it irresistible: she murmurs, produces guttural sounds, whispers, breathes heavily, whistles, hisses, shouts. And all of that while she moves arms, legs, hands. It is a complete insertion within the music, a feeling in all parts of the body, not only the one that produces the sound. And then, ultimately, she becomes powerful because she expresses a lot, she can approach the microphone either as if she was going to make love to it, either as if she was crying, either as if she was recriminating something to it.

After eight tracks the trio ends the concert, and the public, standing in ovation, warmly says goodbye. They abandon the stage slowly, after a reverence to the audience.
But they come back.

And play, and smile, and still feed the trance.

And say bye.

But come back again.

The Salle Ludger-Duvernay just cannot stop clapping.

Play, smile, leave.

Clapping. Shouting. Whistles.

Tord Gustavsen and Simin Tander are back. Once more. They play again. With that soft touch, that clear approach, that transparent purity. Not traditional, not conventional. Not the jazz of the smoking cave-like bars in the Village in old New York.

An internal jazz. A mystical music. A difficult state of mind.


Original publication in Couleurs Jazz.


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