January 28, 2014
One week from today (February 4) ECM will release the sixth album of jazz led by the Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen. The title of the new CD is Extended Circle; and, as is usually the case, it is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Gustavsen has commented that the title “refers to the view of things not being linear.” He has elaborated on this point as follows:
The modernistic notion of linear progress is dead… But still we want to move in creative circles or spirals, coming back to musical and spiritual issues from ever-new angles, developing the musical approach or ideology with – hopefully – a deeper insight, a deeper set of experiences and skills.
Gustavsen may not be the first composer to have ventured into this terrain of metaphysics, but he may be the first jazz leader and composer to have done so. The language of the above passage reminds me of the use of a labyrinth for Christian mediation. The most famous example of such a labyrinth can be found on the floor of Chartres Cathedral; but, in my home town of San Francisco, Grace Cathedral has two of these labyrinths, one within the sanctuary and the other outdoors at the main entrance. In both cases one enters from the periphery of a circle and follows a path to the center that is so convoluted that one loses all sense of any distinction between outside and inside.
Gustavsen is the composer of eight of the twelve tracks on his new album. He is also responsible for an arrangement of the Norwegian hymn “Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg” (a castle in Heaven). His bass player Mats Eilertsen provides the transition between two of Gustavsen’s tracks near the end of the recording; and the remaining two tracks are the collaborative effort of his entire quartet, whose other members are saxophonist Tore Brunborg and drummer Jarle Vespestad, dealing with the same theme in two different contexts.
One can appreciate the extent to which each of these tracks constitutes a reflection on Gustavsen’s spiritual issues. From a musical point of view, each of the compositions may even be imagined as a traversal of a labyrinth (although, given the duration of the tracks, that labyrinth would be much smaller than the one in Chartres). What may be problematic, however, is that each of the tracks tends to feel like the same labyrinth, so to speak. This endows the entire album with a sense of stasis, which may reinforce Gustavsen’s declaration of the death of linear progress but may not sit so well with those who believe that declaration to be premature.
It may be that Gustavsen’s metaphysics can be better appreciated in the immediacy of performance than through his new recording. Five cities will be able to explore this hypothesis when the Tord Gustavsen Quartet follows up on the release of the new album with a visit to the United States. The specific dates and venues are as follows:
February 21, New York, New York: Saint Peter’s Church
February 22, Chicago, Illinois: Constellation
February 23, San Diego, California: Athenaeum
February 25, Portland, Oregon: Portland Jazz Festival, Mission Theater
February 26, San Francisco California: SFJAZZ Center