Tord Gustavsen Quartet – The Well (ECM)

TDQ Well 90  Tord Gustavsen’s excellent serving of chilled jazz is already on my short list for the best of 2012.

4.5 stars

11 tracks / 53 minutes

The place where music is conceived can have a radical effect on the style that emerges. The dust and bustle of Brazil’s cities bring us samba’s energy and passion; Jamaica’s laid-back warmth comes out in the carefree rhythms of reggae; and Scandinavia’s cool climate, with its snow, ice and Northern Lights shows itself in the pace and spaces of this superb collection.

Nothing has chilled my body, stilled my soul and – to a lesser extent – thrilled my mind as much as this since Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson collaborated on the excellent Frio Suite.

The cool is there in “Prelude,” the virtually solo piano piece that opens The Well. Its melodious composition, all mood and emotion, is like a film soundtrack looking for a movie.

ECM is probably Europe’s finest contemporary jazz label. Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen is its highest-selling artist, and it is plain to hear why he is so popular. From start to finish, the only oddity among this lyrical collection is the 74 seconds of “Glasgow Intro,” a snippet that must be important to the artists, but one that offers little interest to the listener.

Otherwise there is much to laud. Everything on “Playing” runs along Jarle Vespestad’s drums like trains on a track, giving it the feel of a jazz bolero (a style he almost replicates in one or two other places).

“Circling” brings out Gustavsen’s oft-noted gospel edge and is the most striking work on the album. It might not stand out as much in other settings, but its warmth makes it feel like an axis around which the rest of this disc spins.

The Well’s longest track, the eight-minute “Suite” begins as a Satie-like piano piece, played with a classical feel. After a while, the tune goes underwater and jazz improvisation takes over, the tenor sax coming in to solo around its memory. Given that the only instruments credited on the album are piano, saxophone, double bass and drums, the low, faint cello-or-duduk-like tones that accompany Gustavsen must be bassist Mats Eilertson bowing and Tore Brunborg’s sax whispering (he does something similar on “Prelude,” where he creates a just-audible vocal hum).

Technically, two of these works are trio pieces. Gustavsen has worked with various combinations of musicians over recent years, but this quartet is flexible and sensitive enough to work as an ideal format.

Despite its consistent mood, this is no themed album, but one that includes commissions for 2011’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival and the Oslo International Church Music Festival. The latter brings us “Communion,” a piece that appears here in two forms. Its nuanced palette offers shades of reverence and moodiness as its theme slowly emerges from ambience.

Just about everywhere you turn on this disc, there is something special: the perfect form of “On Every Corner;” the title track’s improvisation and attention-grabbing bass; and at various points, the sound of musical breath being held.

As often, label boss Mannfred Eicher has captured a pristine sound, not just as chilled as a mountain stream, but also as clear.

This is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys jazz that feels ambient without drifting into boredom; melodic without spoiling the mood; and intelligent, but still glistening with emotion. It will surely be on my shortlist for 2012’s best releases when December comes.

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