Tord Gustavsen’s 4-night Run Illuminates Intimate Facets of Montreal Jazz Fest
Picking up the baton from bassist Stanley Clarke—who served as the Invitation Series artist for the first four days of this year’s Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (June 28–July 1)—Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen settled into the intimate confines of Montreal’s Salle de Gesù for four nights from July 4–7, with each performance featuring a different musical configuration.
Gustavsen opened his Invitation Series run with the quartet featured on his recent ECM release The Well: saxophonist Tore Brunborg, bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad. Though there were echoes of Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet of the ’70s with Jan Garbarek (Vespestad’s purring snare recalled Jon Christensen from that earlier ECM era), this group demonstrated a more contained twilit aesthetic. Gustavsen’s patient approach, very much in the moment, never forcing any driving agenda, worked gorgeously in tandem with Brunborg’s tenor. The latter has absorbed the questing folk artistry of Garbarek, yet he refrains from upper-register eruptions that would threaten the melancholy equilibrium of Gustavsen’s compositions. As such, with Eilersten’s bass steering and responding like a deep rudder, the ensemble is quietly spellbinding. Such is the leader’s sensitivity of touch that he would render Jarrett a bull-in-a-china-shop by comparison. To Gustavsen, each note seems to hold sacred power.
During a solo concert later in the week, under the evocative illumination at Gesù, with spotlights cast like sunrays from a lofty church window, he communed, archbacked, with the solitary gravitas of the Phantom of the Opera. During a Gustavsen trio performance the previous night, opera was, in fact, overtly referenced when intriguing electronic musician/saxophonist Håkon Kornstad suddenly sang an extract from Gluck over a wash of sound from piano and his own looped saxophone.
Given his reverent pas de deux with the specially requested Steinway, Gustavsen surprised during his solo recital by pulling out a melodica to sketch a Lutheran folk song from rural Norway.
The final engagment of the Invitation Series reached an exquisite peak when Gustavsen met compatriot singer Solveig Slettahjell.
With an angelic voice, Slettahjell sang both in Norwegian and English, revisiting sacred songs from the CD she made with Gustavsen in Bethlehem and delivering a heartbreaking rendition of Abba’s “Winner Takes It All,” a soulful “Wade In The Water” and trumpeter Sjur Miljeteig’s ethereal ballad “Leave Me Here.”
At L’Astral on July 4, Gustavsen’s labelmate, Swiss pianist Colin Vallon, made his debut at the festival with his trio of bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Samuel Rohrer. His hair tied back sumo-style, Vallon didn’t veer a million miles from Gustavsen’s pellucid piano style, yet at the same time reminded of the somewhat scientific approach of another ECM regular, fellow Swiss musician Nick Bärtsch. Vallon prepared certain strings of the piano to deaden and alter the resonance, which at select moments resembled tumbling kids’ blocks or even a gamelan ensemble. Pedal points and rocking bass lines underpinned what resembled the riff from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” set against a tangy drum solo. Vallon displayed specific strategies for each hand, the right occasionally taking over the bass as the left spanned the melody. Some of this had the air of work-in-progress and contrasted with the more lugubrious selections on Vallon’s third ECM CD, Rruga. Such is the luxury at L’Astral with the two-set format and less cloistered atmosphere.
One of the most anticipated sets of the week followed, back at Gesù. Sadly, due to economic woes, serious Blue Note jazz signings are now few and far between; thus, last year’s release from Thelonious Monk Competition winner Ambrose Akinmusire aroused a stir. The 28-year-old trumpeter opened his performance audaciously in a stripped-down duo setting with pianist Sam Harris. Akinmusire returned to this intimate pairing several times, clearly at home with near soliloquies, notably on a stunning rendition of “Regret No More” where he textured his tone with half-valved smears and bends that emulated some of mentor Terence Blanchard’s signature techniques. The inner warmth of Akinmusire’s tone reflected the humility of his stage persona, which reminded of trumpeter Christian Scott’s chummy introductions to band members. Bassist Harish Raghavan seemed sheepish in response to the leader’s encomiums, possibly since Justin Brown’s relentless bass drum rendered him all but inaudible.
Tenorist Walter Smith III proved a dutiful sideman, notably on the Herbie Hancock-ish “Richard,” which stopped on a dime to rapturous applause. The group encored with an uptempo romp through “The Walls Of Lechuguilla,” during which Akinmusire further exercised the tonal liberties that make his playing richer than average. Such titles as “Song To Excel To” and “The Fire Next Time” revealed the Californian trumpeter’s revelry in his craft. His balladry displays the distilled grace of Roy Hargrove, and he doesn’t shy from a dark dirge, paying respects to Joni Mitchell’s melancholy individualism on “Take Me As I Am,” dedicated to Michelle Mercer’s book about Mitchell.
It is evident how the audience sitting relatively on top of the musicians around the proscenium at Gesù adjusts the mood of the room from the raised-stage, cabaret-style experience at L’Astral. Certainly Gesù proved the ideal spot to witness both Gustavsen and Akinmusire weave their magic, infinitely preferable to the stadium embankment of Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, where Stanley Clarke presided earlier in the week.