Jazz CD Review: Tord Gustavsen Ensemble “Restored, Returned”

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble

Restored, Returned (ECM)

By Fernando Gonzalez

Perhaps, as the saying goes, you can’t be too rich or too thin. As for everything else, you can have too much of a good thing. Restored, Returned, the latest recording by Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen is a case in point.

Gustavsen established his reputation with a remarkable trilogy of piano trio recordings – Changing Places (2003), The Ground (2004), and Being There (2007), all on ECM. In those discs, his playing and his writing brim with intelligence and elegance. His is a music of deceptive simplicity. The pieces often suggest ambiguous short stories told in whispers, paced and shaped by nuance and details. It’s a music that depends as much on what is said as to what is implied, and requires from the performers as much smart listening and interplay as technical ability. Not surprisingly, Gustavsen worked on those recordings with the same partners, Harald Johnsen, acoustic bass, and Jarle Vesperstad, drums.

But for  Restored, Returned, Gustavsen expanded the group, adding a vocalist and a saxophonist. Given his esthetics, it’s an interesting, and risky, move.

Having a voice and a saxophone — both melodic and leading instruments in jazz — necessitates a change in the architecture of the music. And words, even if drawn from the elusive poetry of  W.H. Auden, offer, literally and figuratively, a text and with it, a well-defined foreground and background, as well as certain conditions for the arranging and the playing.

Most of the 11 tracks on Restored, Returned, are lullaby-like pieces set at a slow to medium tempo and treated with the pianist’s patented gospel-influenced touch.  Four songs have lyrics from Auden’s “Another Times,” others include wordless vocals, and there also are a few instrumentals.

Rather than jazz or pop tunes the tracks with lyrics suggest art songs, and vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen interprets them with a theatrical, melodramatic flair.  She has a clear tone with a raspy edge that evokes at times a young Ricky Lee Jones, and her singing in the country hymn-like “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” is at once sensual and distant. In the title track, Asbjornsen paces her performance beautifully, singing the opening verses over a minimal, rubato accompaniment, a high wire artist doing her act above a void. As the song takes on a hymn-like quality and rises, so does her singing, suggesting both strength and fragility.

On instrumental pieces such as “Spiral Song,” “Your Crooked Heart” and ”The Gaze,”, Gustavsen’ group — Tore Brunborg, tenor and soprano sax, Mats Eilertsen, acoustic bass, and Vespestad, on drums – often evokes Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet, especially given saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s obvious influence on Brunborg’s tone and approach.

There is much to be enjoyed in Restored, Returned. But the sameness in the moods and tempos brings diminishing returns. And there is a point here where smart becomes precious and then, as a listener, you are just hoping for an explosion, a mistake, a goof, something perhaps utterly meaningless, but fun. Beauty in  Restored, Returned is so perfectly constructed as to make it airless and as such, uninhabitable.

Who knew, maybe you can be too rich.

The Tord Gustavsen Ensemble is coming to the United States for two concerts: March 28th at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and March 31st at Merkin Concert Hall in NYC.

For video excerpts from a November 2009 performance, an interview with Gustavsen about the project and other info check http://player.ecmrecords.com/gustavsen

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