Nordic jazz strikes a note
Tord Gustavsen tours the United States
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
Yes, being editor-in-chief of this newspaper can be quite wonderful, especially when you get to hear and talk with one of Norway’s very best jazz musicians. That’s what happened at Seattle’s Town Hall Forum on Feb. 18, when Tord Gustavsen performed in his trio as part of their 2023 U.S. tour.
The Forum at Town Hall is a mid-sized performance space with an intimate, personal atmosphere. This living room-like venue made for a perfect setting for Gustavsen on the piano, Steinar Raknes on bass, and Jarle Vespestad on drums. And Gustavsen definitely broke the ice when he asked the audience if there were any Norwegian Americans there, followed by an enthusiastic roar.
Gustavsen’s music has been described as “soulfully hip,” “haunting,” and “mesmerizing”—all true that evening—and I would add that it is a very Nordic sound. Throughout the evening, snippets of Norwegian folk songs and hymns could be heard in the trio’s improvisations. Many of them are tunes that he has known since he was a child. He told how he used to sit on the lap of his father, an amateur pianist, who would play tunes from the Norwegian hymnal for his son.
“I grew up playing church music,” he said, and he constantly returns to these beloved sounds, with melodies often rooted in folk music. Other influences include the American gospel tradition, African-American spirituals, and the American jazz canon.
There are also traces of classical music in Gustavsen’s music. He called out influences including Baroque composer J.S. Bach, the French Impressionists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and 20th-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
More recently, he has absorbed impulses from contemporary Norwegian composers who have cracked open the some of the constraints of classical composition.
First taught by his father and then self-taught as a pianist, the Oslo-based pianist received a formal musical training at the acclaimed Musikkonservatorium in Trondheim. He studied jazz there for a three years, followed by graduate studies in musicology at the University of Oslo. Before his musical studies, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Oslo, not without significance to his musical output. There is something intensely meditative and personal about his music, as if he is reaching out to his audiences’ innermost feelings in an effort to touch them in a transformative way.
Gustavsen describes his style as both “eclectic” and “organic.” He, of course, has also been influenced by contemporary jazz musicians in Norway, and these impulses are often absorbed directly as they collaborate and perform together on stage. Gustavsen likes to listen and watch other pianists to understand how they shape their tones at the keyboard, and then he strikes his own tones in his very special, personal way.
Watching Gustavsen play live is truly a unique experience. He often moves his body around in unexpected ways, leaning into the keyboard and tapping his toes. The Norwegian jazz pianist uses his body intuitively to achieve a technique. Although he admittedly “would like to move less,” things appear to evolve on stage as they must.
“I don’t think of myself as an entertainer,” he told me. “I play first and foremost for the music itself.” And while the trio practices together for hours on end and works up a set list for each performance, it is only an outline for what will later unfold on stage.
At their Seattle performance, I saw the musicians feed off each other’s energy, and the overall vibe of the audience. Gustavsen explained that they often change the order of the songs or take off in new, unexpected directions with their improvisations. He believes that this is what gives the music “an extra layer of meaning” and makes their live performances so immediate, so personal.
“You can call it obsession, the consistent and involuntary song of a melancholic soul,” The New York Times has written of Gustavsen’s sensitive musicality.
For me, playing the piano is very similar to a meditation or prayer,” the pianist has said. “It’s about opening up to the forces of beauty and transcendence. Music can be a kind of deepest reality that exceeds everything words can express.”
After having made the best of the pandemic and getting back on stage, I asked Gustavsen if he had any dreams for the future.
“My main dream to keep evolving with what we are doing now; it’s a blessing. There are no big dreams to do something else—we are doing what we love,” he said—a love that is heard through his music.
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.