Tord Gustavsen’s new trio project builds upon the subtle understanding of his long musical association with drummer Jarle Vespestad, introduces the entrancing German-Afghan vocalist Simin Tander, and, alongside new compositions and improvisations, explores the tradition of Norwegian church music in an untraditional manner. “Simin and I have been working with an Afghan poet,” Gustavsen explains, “translating and shaping a selection of hymns that I grew up with in Norway into Pashto.”
Born in Cologne to an Afghan journalist father and a German teacher, Simin Tander has been attracting attention on the European jazz scene, with innovative performances which find her moving between English and Pashto and invented languages of her own. Gustavsen: “I liked the sound of the Pashto language itself and coincidentally was encountering it at a time when I was becoming increasingly interested in Sufi poetry.”
So Tander also sings – in English – the revelatory lyrics of Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-73). Gustavsen sets the Rumi renderings of Coleman Barks, creative paraphrases in free verse which make the great poet of Konya seem like a literary ancestor to Walt Whitman. The lyrical reach of the album is rounded out with a setting of a poem by US writer Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82), who also counted Rumi amongst a vast range of influences, and was himself a pioneer in delivering verse to the accompaniment of jazz improvisers. In the sources that Tord Gustavsen has intuitively brought together for his programme in What was said there are connections being made at a number of levels, as a sense of extended dialogue opens up, and poets talk to each other across the centuries…
Outside the limits of language and as interplay of sounds, the combination of the intimacy of Tander’s voice, Gustavsen’s melodically inventive piano and discreet electronics, and Vespestad’s patient, textural drumming has an emotional persuasiveness of its own. “Of course to me it’s a dual intention. This is a devotional project, and the way in which the words transcend the boundaries between forms and traditions is important for me. But it’s also fully OK to approach it as a pure musical experience. The sounds have texture and content. For anyone who feels invited to dive deeper, the lyrics and translations are there, but this is not the kind of music where you have to read in order to listen.”
In the trio, singer Simin Tander rises to the challenge, as Gustavsen says, of being “both a soloistic interpreter of melody and an ensemble member, singing accompanying motifs, and contributing to improvisations in which the three of us are equals in terms of sharing ideas. She has a unique way of improvising, finding sounds that really work, staying with them, developing them very gradually. She has a discipline that really appeals to me and Jarle.”
Drummer Jarle Vespestad has been an important part of Tord’s music throughout his ECM history, and plays on all of his albums for the label. Over the last decade and more Jarle and Tord had occasionally played duo pieces as part of group performances as well as many piano and drum interludes. The extent of their resourcefulness was put to the test in 2014 when a Paris release concert for Extended Circle had to be played as a duo show after saxophonist Tore Brunborg and bassist Mats Eilertsen were stranded in Northern Norway by a plane cancellation. This was initially daunting since the concert was broadcast live on French radio: “We were really thrown into it, but it proved to be such a cool experience. It felt like there was a whole orchestra there. The context opened up the lower part of the drum kit in a new way. Jarle, with his extreme ability to be grounded, was really making all the dark sounds and textures of the drums shine. While we were playing I was thinking: ‘I want to do this on an album!’, because it was so rich.”
In the last year and a half Tord Gustavsen – somewhat to his surprise – has expanded his own textural range with the addition of electronics, using a Moog system which allows him to trigger computer based sounds and samples from the acoustic piano. On some pieces, he also uses a bass synthesizer. Throughout the album electronics are frequently almost a subliminal presence, felt as much as heard, but new sound-colour hybrids blossom as Gustavsen combines, for instance “the warmth and the sustain of a synth pad with the minimalism of a single piano line in the top,” or casts a euphonic halo around a piece, deepening an atmosphere. Restraint has always been a hallmark of Tord’s acoustic piano playing and a similar rigour is applied in his use of electronics. “The acoustic piano is a universe of exploration, and I’ll never be through with that journey, but the electronics are speaking to me much more than I could have anticipated. In fact, using them has influenced the acoustic piano playing, too. It’s as if I’m approaching the piano from a slightly different angle now. This too has been very fruitful.”
What was said was recorded at Oslo’s Rainbow Studio in April 2015, and produced by Manfred Eicher.