sun 28/11/2021

Tord Gustavsen Quartet, Milton Court | reviews, news & interviews

Tord Gustavsen Quartet, Milton Court

Tord Gustavsen Quartet, Milton Court

Norwegian quartet combines sublime precision with an increasingly diverse range of jazz styles

Tord Gustavsen, adding funkier flavoursHans Fredrik Asbjørnsen / ECM Records

Revelling in the acoustic precision of the recently opened Milton Court concert hall last night, Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen showed once more why his quartet’s combination of tersely lyrical melodies and syncopated rhythms is so appealing.

For his new album, some of which was played here, his typically European, restrained sound was, to a greater extent than previously, augmented by some distinctly funky passages, which were drawn out with immense skill and sensitivity from what had gone before. Several pieces shared both an extraordinary variety of style, and a seamlessly smooth construction. In a couple of places it could have been a guide to modern jazz performance.

Despite the occasional addition of transatlantic flavour, the quartet retained its consummate poise. There were no self-indulgent power-rock drumming solos, or blowzy ruminations on sax. For long sections one instrument dominated, while the others added only the subtlest details in the background. Every piece of emotional demonstration had to be earned. This music did not wear its heart on its sleeve; it seldom raised its voice, and only then when it was absolutely necessary to do so. For the most part, it was music of interior spaces, its moderately conventional form concealing, to some extent, the extraordinary inventiveness of their melody and rhythm.  

Often they would play what seemed to be a collage of several tunes, which tumbled over one another in a series of happy juxtapositions

Leading the way, Gustavsen did not disappoint at the piano, a model of introspective virtuosity, while drummer Jarle Vespestad tapped and tickled his way through some exceptionally intricate drumming solos. (Difficult though it was to imagine, Vespestad is usually known for the forcefulness of his playing.) Of the four, saxophonist Tore Brunborg sounded, relative to the general excellence, just a little out of sorts, his tone slightly husky in places. The ensemble was terrific, however, and the constant exchange of amused glances between players was both an engaging part of the performance drama and a compelling demonstration of the extreme levels of skill on display.

They knew their repertoire very well. One piece, “Eg Veit I Himmerick Ei Borg”, which drew the most passionate solo of the night from Brunborg, was an original Norwegian folk tune; the others had a similarly dense and allusive use of melody. Often they would play what seemed to be a collage of several tunes, which tumbled over one another in a series of happy juxtapositions.  

Milton Court was the perfect venue. The finest details were audible, and the size was just right, too: some of the definition would have been lost in the Barbican Hall. Even the dark wood furnishing was fitting, conferring an authentically Nordic melancholy. Gustavsen’s quartet likes to dress soberly, but the matching dark suits were, however, less successful: they resembled the cast of a low-budget British gangster film of the Guy Ritchie school, never a good look when you have a serious artistic point to make. They were forgiven many times over by a grateful audience. For a modern take on the European jazz tradition, this quartet is hard to beat.

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