Tord Gustaven Trio, St John the Evangelist, 8th October 2019
Tord Gustavsen trained as a psychologist before turning to jazz, and it shows. He opens the evening (and the 2019 Oxford Chamber Music Festival) at St John the Evangelist with a meditative JS Bach sonata – a composer he later refers to, in a hushed address to the crowd, as ‘a great Buddhist’. His treatment of the classical work is masterly, displaying its filigree like an exhibit in a beam of gallery light. This is a moment of intense concentration and care, inward-facing and exploratory.
But the scene extends outwards as Gustavsen lets in the daylight, revealing us to be not amongst the human architecture of a museum, but in a huge, unpeopled landscape of wild wind and distant sea. Again, we hear echoes of the classical in a fragment of a Norwegian hymn and, briefly, structured chords reminiscent of Rachmaninoff. Gustavsen doesn’t simply nod to these classical elements – he makes of them true jazz, while maintaining their own structural integrity. This is a masterclass in borrowing: his treatment of them is both respectful and refreshing.
Jarle Vespestad on drums draws colours from a rich palette, switching deftly from the wool-headed mallets of the opening piece to wire brushes and sticks; like a painter in oils, he is as much alive to texture as to tone. Double bassist Sigurd Hole is unable to play this evening, so a stand-in musician takes over sensitively, if unobtrusively – her lyrical bowed bass is sometimes a little lost beneath the showier elements of the piano, drums and occasional vibrating synth. But the trio are generous with each other, creating a unity of sound in which it’s sometimes magically difficult to pick apart who’s playing what.
The theme of this year’s festival is Scandinavia, ‘from Hygge to fire and ice’. We hear all of these elements in the music of the Tord Gustavsen Trio tonight, sometimes within moments of each other: a shift in a chord thaws a chilly sound by placing it before a midnight fire.
There are two encores. For the second – in response to a standing ovation – Gustavsen returns to the stage alone, picking from the piano another Bach-like piece: a lullaby this time. So we end with Bach, returning from the grand landscapes the trio have conjured back into the mind, and where everything began.