Tord Gustavsen’s fifth album for ECM, his Quartet’s debut, is immaculate; rather too immaculate for my tastes, unless I’m in a particularly restful and contemplative mood.
The Well begins with a “Prelude” of hymn-like solemnity, just piano and a bass bowed so subtly that its intonation hums with vocal warmth. “Playing” then sets Gustavsen’s piano dancing lightly across brooding rhythm interplay, while yet more dappled piano introduces “Suite” with pitch-perfect lucidity.
Saxophonist Tore Brunborg’s first appearance comes two minutes into the album’s third track, and his subsequent contributions are measured out just as judiciously. I am ambivalent about Brunborg’s playing for Scent of Soil, the group he co-leads with singer Kirsti Huke. There, as here, he sometimes sounds too much like Jan Garbarek, sometimes not.
At its best, however, Brunborg’s playing has an affecting, and no boubt deceptive simplicity. Witness his tenor breaking like sunrise to warm the first pianistic glimmers of “Communion”’s dawn. The diffraction effect of Jarle Vespestad’s cymbal scrapes and Mats Eilertsen’s heat-haze bass are just as perfectly judged. It’s in painterly, aestival sequences such as this, drawing Gustavsen’s music away from its habitual introspection, that the quartet is at its most persuasive.
The album’s dual highlight is a second take on the same theme, “Communion, var.”, which Brunborg introduces with a delicacy of intonation to rival Andy Sheppard’s, in his playing with Trio Libero. Here, in a duet for bowed bass and piano, a subtle and arresting Middle East flavour is imparted to the overall chamber jazz aesthetic.
If the two “Communions” are the tracks that sell me on this album, the most immediately appealing is probably “Circling”, thanks to its haunting melodic hook, which Gustavsen works into a beguiling melody to the accompaniment of deftly stroked bass and brushed drums.
“Inside”, the album’s last track, concludes with the immaculately circumscribed flourish of a drum solo that crackles with a kinetic energy that’s often hinted at but mostly untapped on this sometimes confoundingly frigid album.
Under-utilised as he is, it’s the expressive minimalism of drummer Jarle Vespestad which animates this music. He was a vital presence in Supersilent (until he left in 2005), and he sounds great here in partnership with double-bassist Eilertson, who used to play alongside Supersilent’s Arve Henriksen in Iain Ballamy’s Food.