Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen may be the king of scandiwegian cool. Still, the restraint he exercises communicates a broad gamut of feelings, the like of which are rarely heard in any artistic context. In many ways, Gustavsen is a Bill Evans for the 21st Century; he is good at getting to the heart of the matter. On this latest album, the first since 2018’s The Other Side, Gustavsen is joined by a new bass player Steinar Raknes, a fellow Norwegian who uses electronics to alter the sound of his instrument. Drums, meanwhile, remain the domain of long-time ally Jarle Vespestad without whom Gustavsen’s albums would not be the same.
The feel of Opening is more sombre than its predecessor. Not that Gustavsen was ever overly lively and upbeat, but there is a touch calmer here. His albums have always encapsulated the ECM sound, and the crisp clarity, precise reverb and ‘inky black’ backgrounds are once more to the fore on this recording. It’s so much a part of Gustavsen’s sound that it’s hard to imagine how a different label would treat such finely nuanced work.
Album opener ‘The Circle’ is a melodic piece with shining piano over plucked bass and soft but solid drums and percussion. It’s very much the Gustavsen style of sublimity masked as simplicity, but all you have to do is close your eyes, and the feeling behind those notes transcends language and gets straight through. ‘Findings / Visa från Rättvik’ is an early highlight, its drum and bass intro (the instruments not the musical style) build atmosphere and we get the first exposure to Raknes’ bowing technique that features highly on this album. Then the piano starts to swirl, and the cymbals splash around it to create an ethereal yet solid sound that’s entrancing. The title track combines electronics with instrumentation to create the effect of a looming storm. Still, instead, it brightens up as the deep ambience ebbs away before the piece reaches its denouement relatively too early.
‘The Longing’ is even shorter and downtempo with beautiful chords lightly embellished with sticks on cymbals, the piano shimmering gently. The bowed bass on ‘Shepherd Song’ is augmented to create an effect like low backing vocals before the perfect chords of Gustavsen’s piano come in and bring something very similar to a groove, a rarity in this artist’s oeuvre. It almost makes the track sound like a regular jazz trio, but the nuances of the playing put it on a higher plain.
The bowed bass is heavily reinforced on ‘Helensburgh Tango’ which creates scale over a brooding snare drum that rustles like a rattlesnake over the occasional low kick drum punch. Like ‘Re-Opening’ which follows this is more of an ensemble piece, yet when the piano finally gets into the spotlight the beauty starts to flow; you can’t beat the keyboard for delivering the emotional quotient.
‘Findings II’ evokes a starry night with sparkling notes over quiet backing, the quietness of the piece revealing the depth of the soundstage that ECM likes to produce with subtle use of echo and reverb. ‘Stream’ brings us back to more familiar territory for Gustavsen, here he invests what appears to be the lightest of phrases with meaning while the bass brings chunky bodaciousness to keep things moving in the right direction. ‘Ritual’ marks a distinct change in style, with Raknes seemingly cut loose to deliver something like an electric guitar league on the bass, the sound being reminiscent of Dan Berglund formerly of E.S.T. This track is borderline aggressive, but thankfully Gustavsen is no Jon Lord.
The album ends with two folk tunes, ‘Fløytelåt / The Flute’ is beautifully delicate with what may be the bass producing a whistling backdrop in the Ennio Morricone style on the intro and Gustavsen channelling the good stuff in full effect. The Finale ‘Vær sterk, min sjel’ brings us back to the pianist’s comfort zone with an open-hearted, warm and optimistic tune that will let you drift in perfect ease.
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