We have made a nice interview with Tord Gustavsen after his wonderful quartet concert in Ankara Nordic Music Festival, Turkey on October 30th, 2013. We had talked about his albums, ideas about improvisation, ECM, Manfred Eicher and many more interesting subjects related with jazz and music.
F.E: If you compare two cities, İstanbul and Ankara, what did you see differently in Ankara than İstanbul?
T.G: Now, I really didn't get to see much of Ankara but the first impression was that İstanbul is more chaotic, larger and even more intense. But I like them both...
F.E: Now let me start with a basic question about Turkish music. What is the first thing that emerges in your mind when I tell you Turkish music?
T.G: I think the first thing that comes to my mind is the swirling Sufi dance. Because that's also a visual memory. Second one is oud players, flutes, clarinets, ney (reed) flute. I have several recordings with folk musicians whose names I don’t remember. And I have one recording on ECM with oud player Anouar Brahem and clarinet player Barbaros Erköse. That's one of my really favourite ECM recordings.
F.E: Then your perspective is build up on musicians you know from ECM.
T.G: Yes, partly.
F.E: Do you know any other Turkish musicians besides ECM?
T.G: I have listened to many but I really do not remember names.
F.E: In a music theory book that is trying to explain types of musical structures to beginners, I have seen that the author has used buildings to symbolize different types of musical structures in compositions. For instance big palaces with many stages are used to describe symphonies, while a bebop jazz trio composition resembles to a modest American cottage house. Now which type of the building would you choose to describe your compositions?
T.G: Wow, that’s a good question. Maybe the compositions themselves – most of them are like – it’s more like song writing than composing in the classical sense of the world. All the tunes come from small cells of melodic movements and harmonic landscapes. Some of them we just do like that very almost simplistic, very silent, whereas others, we build larger forms of musical architecture – we do that spontaneously - so one thing can be like just a small cave for meditation in mountains one day, the next day it can be…
F.E: Contemporary art centre?
T.G: Yeah, it can be that, it can be an art centre with many rooms. Because sometimes the tunes get like different sections – there may be an unaccompanied bass solo which is one room and a large saxophone-piano collective improvisation doing another’s room and we come back to the small cell. To me, of course, the church or the chapel or the small mosque where you really can get in touch with the stillness and meditate. That’s the best metaphor for playing music to me and it’s the best metaphor for most of the songs too.
F.E: And that’s a great answer. Many jazz musicians are trying different configurations to present their music: solo, duo, trio, quartet... In your case we see many different configurations: duo with a vocal, a basic trio, quartet with the saxophone added and an ensemble with a vocal. As a jazz musician I think you like to improvise and improvisation is at the centre of jazz. Considering your improvisational power and the level of the energy you are uploading to the audience, in which configuration do you feel yourself more comfortable and more like you?
T.G: It's a very difficult question. What I feel is each configuration has its own uniqueness and finds its own balance between crystallizing an identity or approach with the freedom of improvisation and openness or spontaneous change. So this continues the dialogue between forming identity and allowing always improvisation. That happens in different ways in different bands, and to me it's a very fascinating process. I really like the groundedness of good arrangements, of doing things in similar ways night after night, but I also need the freedom of finding new ways every night. So it is not a matter of being as free as possible, it's a matter of really finding a good synthesis of freedom and structure or freedom and form. So I think the quartet has one way of doing that. For number of years I played almost only trio and that was a very important phase. But after the bass player in our trio passed away, it did not feel right to just make another trio with a new bass player. It felt much more right to include another instrument and make another kind of sound for a while. We do play some trio tunes with the quartet bass player Mats Eilertsen on the album that comes out next year, though. This album starts in trio and ends in trio. So we have like a returning to the piano trio. Furthermore, I think that duo interplay is very much at the heart of me as a musician. It's very intimate. The stretching of time that you can do in a duo is a very fundamental passion for me.
F.E: Did you do the duos only with vocals, with Solveig Slettahjell?
T.G: Yes, most of my duos have been with vocals – with Siri Gjære, Kristin Asbjørnsen and now Solveig Slettahjell – but I have also played in duo with Tore Brunborg and couple of other instrumentalists.
F.E: I think you also have works with Silje Neergard. Considering all of your works I can say that the ones with Silje Neergard are a little bit on the popular and entertainment side more than jazz. What do you think about your works with Silje?
T.G: It was a very important phase for me, it was the first band I did that got real international exposure, lots of touring around the world and the skill of taking any spot that you are offered for a short period of time and say something important there and then. These short piano solos there they were... It was really important for me to do that and to learn how to say something right away. That's one thing. Another very good thing is that Silje writes really good mid-tempo tunes and ballads. So I really liked her tunes even though they are not as close to my heart as the tunes I wrote for Kristin Asbjørnsen on my own album, or the tunes I do with Solveig. And when it comes to up-tempo playing, I like to build musical energy from the low. It has to come from silence. That’s when I can go all the way up. And this was not Silje’s way – her up-tempo thinking was perhaps more on the side of entertainment.
F.E: But your works with Solveig are totally different. Both of you are coming from Church. I think you really feel like at home, maybe at your childhood together.
T.G: Oh, yes!
F.E: And I think, besides Solveig, Sjur Miljeteig, the trumpet player from Norway, was with you during the recording of Natt i Bethlehem as well as in the new album Arven.
T.G: Yes, but only on a couple of tunes for this last album. Also the brilliant violin player Nils Økland is on that album in couple of tunes.
F.E: Were you planning to release these albums over more international labels?
T.G: Not really because they are mainly in Norwegian lyrics.
F.E: While I was trying to find albums of Norwegian musicians that are not released over international music labels I generally see the name “Curling Legs” whose albums are hard to find especially in countries such as Turkey. I am not sure whether you have any record from them but can you tell us about this record label and its relation with Norway?
T.G: I actually never recorded for them but many people did. They helped facilitate quite a few important and very good Norwegian recordings.
F.E: And they are not a commercial label?
T.G: No and I don’t know how well they are distributed internationally. They did licence some of Solveig’s things on ACT. Those first records were on Curling Legs in Norway.
F.E: Did you have records from another label from Norway before ECM?
T.G: Not under my own name. I have recorded with other projects for a couple of other labels. Changing Places is the first album under my name, and that was on ECM.
F.E: This question will be about Manfred Eicher. I guess you know the movie “Sounds and Silence” of ECM. There are many wonderful scenes from recording sessions of several wonderful ECM musicians and in this movie I saw Manfred Eicher’s wonderful obsession in recording music. I am also a fan of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, who is another fantastic pianists of the label. During Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin’s scenes from the studio, as far as I have seen there are parts where Manfred Eicher is showing to the musicians where the sound of a percussive kick should be started. He looks like trying to teach the timing. Considering the style of the music you play – low level records full of many sounds with tails and sounds waiting each others to fade - I think you are very suitable with Manfred Eicher’s obsession in sound. How did you find each other? Do you really think Manfred is the best producer to record your music.
T.G: That’s a big question! For the first album, most of which we recorded on our own, I didn’t really think at first that it would fit on ECM, because at the time I was listening a lot more to Caribbean music, to old blues recordings and I thought that what we did with the trio had a lot of that in it, and it didn’t fit with ECM. But I felt it was time to record it, and we did it in Rainbow Studios in Oslo. Manfred came there to record something else a week after. The engineer played one track from our session of Changing Places. And then Manfred called me up and he wanted to release it. I was surprised. But in retrospect I see that our aesthetics and our playing resonates well with parts of the ECM history while also forming a separate path there.
F.E: Was everything exactly the same with the album’s first recorded version? Nothing touched to it?
T.G: We met in the studio and recorded a couple of more tunes and mixed it together. What was really interesting was the musical direction we were heading. Manfred was really important in helping us see that direction and make it even clearer, stripping away all kinds of unnecessary up-tempo tunes or un-authentic contrasts coming from thinking that “Oh, you need to play a fast song every now and then not to bore the audience…” It’s a matter of going for the core, trying to find the essence. Trying to play only from what you feel is a real musical message where you can say something important. Trying to play what feels essential... Manfred said “These couple of up-tempo tunes… They are good music but they are not essential here, let’s just take them out, the record as a whole get stronger when we do only the slow tempos. And then that was really “Wow”. We were already going in that direction because I really felt “we need to start to record slow.” But I needed to realize that this could actually be the whole thing. And then we need to see what kind of dynamics, what kind of contrasts or what kind of musical drama will feel right, will feel really coming from within, will feel like not being forced. But after that – from the second album onwards – it’s mostly been the other way round. Manfred often encourages ‘waves’ and dynamics when we are playing in a very simplistic way. So he takes another position and introduces a kind of outside eye to the music that is really helpful to make us challenge ourselves and our concepts.
F.E: Was he trying to sell more or just to hear what he wants to hear from you?
T.G: He only wants to hear what he gets a kick out of right there and then.
F.E: To impress the audience?
T.G: I believe he is only thinking of himself as a listener. But when we are done with the recording and are thinking about the order, he might say “this is a good starting song.” I don’t know, in the back of his head it might say “maybe many people will like this song.” But at the same time he suggested a totally improvised piece with lots of weird sounds as track number 2 on previous album – and that’s probably one of the least commercial thing you can do.. And basically, he thinks about the album as a musical journey where you get much more from hearing it from beginning to end than hearing the tracks separately.
F.E: And I think he never wants to break his general rules for any musicians: whenever a music listener buy an ECM album, Manfred, I think, wants him/her to listen what he/she gets used to: a musical journey.
F.E: I think we can continue this beautiful interview all night but we should stop at a point. Lastly, considering the fast and a little bit chaotic life style of people especially in big cities of Turkey and Norway’s life which is in slow tempo and dignity, do you think it is strange that Turkish listeners love to listen to your music? What do you think about that contradiction?
T.G: No it is not strange but touching. In one way the music is localized, but it is also a very global language and lots of scales or modes are similar between folk music from different parts of the world. I feel an instant connection myself these days to for example Persian music, I play with a fantastic Iranian singer sometimes. In one way it is culturally far away, but it just feels very natural. It’s probably because it resonates with something which is already deep inside, or the contemplated traditions of all religions: the Sufi, the meditations, the folk music based hymns from Norway…
F.E: It is something over nations…
T.G: Yes and the need for concentration and stillness of hearing every sound very clearly is something that many many people in modern day life feel longing for. If you live in a big city it is difficult to find it.
F.E: Sounds and Silence…
T.G: Yes and we are definitely a part of that mission to try to bring that possibility to people to make every note count and make the silence count just as much as the notes.
F.E: Wonderful. Maybe that’s why home is always the place for me in this noisy and crowded city to run and hide and listen to your music. Thanks for this nice interview and your wonderful performance tonight at the concert. I think, thanks to you and your musician friends, this year – being the first- happened to be a wonderful start for Ankara Nordic Music Festival.
T.G: Thanks for all your interest in our music, it is touching.