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Tord Gustavsen
- "Dilemmas in music and relationships"

This interview with the Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen took place some months ago. Now, as 2007 comes to an end, there finally is time to scribble down and publish what we talked about. For several years the "Tord Gustavsen Trio" worked as the backing band for the famous Norwegian jazz-singer Silje Nergaard but themselves didn't get much recognition as a group then. Why? The answer is simple: only few people really take notice of the rhythm section performing behind a great voice.

Tord Gustavsen

However, since two years, pianist Tord Gustavsen and Harald Johnsen (b) and Jarle Vespestad (dr) who accompany him on tours and worked with him through the process of recording three albums, follow their own way. Several months after its publication the latest CD of the trio, "Being There", still receives high attention in Germany. No wonder, for the music is very much grounded, and at the same time full of intensity and reflection.

Carina Prange met Tord Gustavsen in a Café in Prenzlauer Berg…

Carina (referring to Tord Gustavsen's cup of green tea): Hey, that looks rather healthy!

Tord: Very healthy, yes! But I wouldn't drink it, if I didn't like it. You should only do the healthy stuff you really like—otherwise it is not healthy for the mind.

Carina: Yes, I agree!—Okay, let's start with a look back. When and why did you decide to start a trio on your own after several years as Silje Nergaard's backing band?

Tord: Well, the idea to go further as a trio started quite early actually, when we also played with Silje Nergaard. I felt that there was something special there when we began to play less and less and began to let the silence speak within the music. There was something there that I really felt was worth going further with. Worth exploring also as a band, as a project on it's own. And then during that time we already did a few trio-concerts on our own. I think, it must be five or six years ago now. And gradually the material developed and I felt ready to record it.

Tord Gustavsen

Carina: The titles of your albums, "Ground" and "Being There" thematically appear to be very "in the moment". What is the message behind them?

Tord: There isn't really something like a fixed or very concrete message. But certainly the title "Being There" sums up some of the visions of making music that we share in the trio: It is about a radical presence in the musical moment. About really taking in the depth and the nuances and the possibilities of the small details and daring to take seriously what is there. And go with it—instead of forcing all different kinds of music into the music all the time! It's about "being there" and being almost humble towards the musical moment and cherish it.

Tord Gustavsen Trio - "Being There"

Carina: You write all the compositions for the trio. Do you compose especially for this line-up or do you just follow your imagination freely concerning the directions your compositions take?

Tord: A little bit of both actually! Some of the tunes are definitely composed with this very trio in mind. When you work together year after year you get a clear intuition as to what kind of responses the others will give to an idea. And so it becomes possible to shape the ideas around the points of departure that I know Jarle and Harald will probably like. Points where they probably will bring in something magical.

But at other times it is more about just taking down a melodic idea that comes to me. And offering it to them, saying, can we use this? Sometimes they will say yes—most of the time they will. But other times they will answer, this is a good song, but it's not for us! And also of course, a lot of times we surprise each other—that's the beauty of working together year after year.

Not only do you get to know each other musically, also you develop a potential for going further and for surprising each other with things you could not have thought of beforehand! And what's even more interesting, when I come up with something in a concert situation, the song turns into something I didn't expect, based on what happens between us.

Carina: For your cand. phil. degree in musicology you wrote about "The Dialectical Eroticism Of Improvisational Music". Is it possible to explain in four sentences what this is about?

Tord: I could try! This university project was a way of bridging a theory that I had been reading about in psychology with the very intimate and physical experience of being a performing musician. I felt that some of this so called "dialectical psychology of relationships" had a huge potential for explaining the dilemmas you face, when you make music together. And also for offering some perspectives and some means of handling these dilemmas.

The dilemmas are things like: You have to be really intimately involved in the moment, have to be very close to the music. But at the same time you have to have perspective. You have to be able to observe the music, so to speak, from a distance—in order to be able to shape it and to correct the course you are on when it's not going right. You have to be able to feel the piece as a whole, and also have to be able to feel the concert as a whole. And you have to make your choices in the moment as they relate to the whole. So that's one kind of dilemma.

And related dilemmas are: You need to work on the "gratification", you need to have the music satisfy you. Otherwise music is an alienating thing, just an experiment. And then it remains abstract without becoming organic music! So gratification and emotional fulfillment is important to me. At the same time you need to be able to rise above it, so that you can build tension over time. You need to build curves that move and develop towards gratification in a longer perspective. These are just two examples of the four or five "basic dilemmas", that this psychological theory poses, that I really feel are also extremely relevant to me as a musician.

You need to have both sides in these dilemmas. But in a certain way these sides are contradictory. It's not easy to be both inside and outside, it's not easy to be involved in a steady groove and at the same time challenge this groove and introduce new elements. And the thesis was really about describing these dilemmas and drawing up the parallels between the theory from psychology and the experiences from making music. And suggesting a couple of practical means of employing the theory for developing as a musician.

Okay, that wasn't in four sentences, but anyway…

Carina: To name a few, you approached dilemmas like "closeness vs. distance", "moment vs. duration" and "gratification vs. frustration"…

Tord: Exactly!

Carina: … and several more. Are human beings and especially musicians sort of bi-polar creatures?

Tord: Yeah! Existence and relationships, being in music and being in this world with others involve really force fields of paradoxes—or of dilemmas! And to me, in many different aspects of life, the important thing is to have organic synthesis. And not be caught in something like a dull "middle of the road"-thing.

When you need intensity, then you need reflection. It's dangerous to get inbetween, but still you need both! So it's a matter of finding ways of moving among these dilemmas dialectically, so to speak, to really involve both sides to a full extent.

Tord Gustavsen Trio

Carina: Let's get back to your musical work. For some albums you worked together with the "Nymark Collective" and with "Skruk". What are these projects about? How important in comparison is your own music, your trio at the moment?

Tord: The trio has really been the main project for the last few years. Also the project that I have involved myself in most widely, both in terms of time and artistic involvement. Still, over the years I have been doing lots of different projects. I think, definitely doing different kinds of things has been important in making up who I am now. Even though these days focus and concentration seems to be the most important things. It's still really good to have a few occasional side projects to complement working so intensively with one project.

So the "Nymark Collective" is a band that we have been working with for a long time actually. These days we perform not very often, but this summer we'll do a couple of concerts in Norway. This band has been a very important—how shall I put it?— "workshop" for me. When it comes to grooviness, when it comes to being fed by the sensuality of complex New Orleans type grooves.

We have been working on second line grooves and Afro-Caribbean grooves and on finding ways to relate to that in a way that it's not like a museum. We are trying to play old-fashioned jazz but still taking it much more seriously than many others of our generation's musicians do. So I have found that the early blues and the really good funky New Orleans music mean just as much to me as Bebop and contemporary American jazz. There is a force field of sensual energy in that music, that really gives a lot to me as a musician today.

And I think, you can hear some of that in the trio-playing, too, although on a more abstract or a more restrained level. There is a lot of bluesy phrasing. There is a lot of twists and turns in the grooves, especially between Jarle, the drummer, and me, where you can not really tell if it's, like we say, a "swing" or a "latin" division of the meter. That is something that for me comes from listening to the really cool second-line grooves. There you cannot tell, whether you're listening to a good marching band or to a good funk band. Because the meters, you often cannot tell if the groove is straight eighth or swinging eighth! It's a somehow muddy and very complex rhythmic universe, that these songs exist in. We use some of that inspiration in the trio also, although the overall energy or texture of our music is very different.

Tord Gustavsen

Carina: Another look back… At the university you first received a degree in Humanist and Social Studies. Why did you change your main interest to jazz?

Tord: Well no, I did not change my main interest! Music has been a basic part of my existence ever since early, early childhood. So I have been playing the piano all the time. All my life, so to speak. (laughs) But I didn't really plan to do music full-time. There was not really any role models for that in my family or in my immediate surrounding. So that's definitely a change.

I studied psychology and sociology at university and I loved those subjects. But I found myself playing more and more with forming new bands. And music took up more and more of every-day life, not only evening time (smiles), but all day long! So I kind of understood that I had to give music a full-time attention—at least for a while—and see what happens. And then I was accepted in the conservatory of music in Trondheim. That's basically when this full-time thing shifted.

Carina: Could you imagine to have two jobs? Like Eddie Henderson from "The Leaders" who for a steady income worked as physician and at the same time as a musician, because that was where, as he said, his heart was?

Tord: I could not imagine working with something without having my heart there! But, well, who knows? At some point I might, for instance, want to do more research in musicology. Or I might want to work in an organization of some kind. That might well happen. But right now, I can't really see it happening—because days are really filled with what we do! Touring and rehearsing and with the organizational side of it all. It's almost a full office-job in itself. (laughs)

Tord Gustavsen

Carina: As teenager you played the piano for the church choir. How much influence did that have on your musical development?

Tord: A huge influence, I would say. Although for a while I worked mainly in other directions. And I didn't really think that this background was important. But gradually I became more and more aware that to go further and to challenge yourself, and to explore new territory, is a lot more organic—at least to me it feels a lot more organic—, when it connects to something that lies deep in your musical roots.

So with the trio—from the first CD into the second—we went in a very fruitful paradox, I think, between on one hand going further and higher up, in a way of a more "airy" or more free kind of improvisation.

But at the same time several of the tunes became more "basic". They became simpler and had a lot more gospel- or hymn-typed foundation in them, hence also the CD-title, "The ground".

Basically that was a very fulfilling and a very meaningful process to me of connecting more deeply into this basic, sensual, almost simplistic musical roots. And allowing myself to stretch for new territories on that basis rather than trying to deny this background.

Carina: Are the Norwegian gospel choirs—if you can use the term "gospel" here—are they more influenced by American black music or by Norwegian folk music?

Tord: Well, you have all different kinds of things. When we are talking about these choirs, some are heavily influenced by American black gospel music and others are more like European church choirs doing hymns. And both were, you know, important parts of my childhood and early youth. Lots and lots of musicians in Norway have this background of playing in church bands.

Carina: It is written in your liner notes that "restraint is one of the music's hallmarks when it comes to the music of the Tord Gustavsen Trio" and that "it's about loving every note". That leads to my last question: Do you have a sort of philosophy for life?

Tord: Hmm, well… I think I do, but it's not necessarily formulated very clearly. But you could summarize it in the album-title "Being There". It is about taking life in. And about appreciating the depth and the fullness of every moment instead of always being on the run for something, instead of always thinking: oh, the real life is somewhere else! … if I just met the right friends, if I'd just get to this record label or if I'd just have more money or… —you know! Trying to appreciate what is there and trying to make the most of it, that's one good philosophy of life at least. And also a philosophy of music.

Carina Prange

CD: Tord Gustavsen Trio - "Being There"
(ECM Records ECM 2017 172 3517)

Tord Gustavsen im Internet: www.tordgustavsen.com

ECM Records im Internet: www.ecmrecords.com

Fotos: Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen

Mehr bei Jazzdimensions:
Tord Gustavsen Trio - "Changing Places" - Review (erschienen: 28.5.2003)

© jazzdimensions 2007
erschienen: 21.12.2007
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