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Album Review

On his earlier ECM trio albums, pianist Tord Gustavsen composed in a very spacious and songlike manner that reflected his previous work touring with vocalists. On 2010's Restored, Returned, he experimented with this approach by adding Kristin Asbjørnsen's voice and Tore Brunborg's saxophones to the mix, and showcased his compositions in everything from duo to quintet settings. On The Well, Gustavsen brings back Brunborg on tenor, as well as the rhythm section, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and drummer Jarle Vespestad. The songlike lyricism that has become his signature is underscored on The Well, but opens onto a wider harmonic field held in dynamic check. The album opens with "Prelude," a trio piece, where Gustavsen explores, in haunting minor-key formations, a lyric frame that is as intricate as it is warm and soulful. On "Suite," Gustavsen introduces the tune solo, with a simplicity and lyricism that are deepened when Eilertsen enters playing arco. When the rest of the band joins in, these melodic dimensions become expansive: tones, colors, textures, and dynamics shift incrementally. The trio piece "Circling" is one of the album's centerpieces, literally and figuratively. Its slow, reverential, gospel-like melody shuffles along with Vespestad's brushes and the stately pace of Eilertsen's bass. Gustavsen pointilistically moves around his lithe, graceful, harmonic sketch, playing at its edges and moving inside, exploring the elements he finds there. The title cut, the other pillar of this album, commences with a mysterious, nearly floating lyric figure stated on piano and answered by Brunborg's warm, welcoming tenor before it enters the realm of something approaching drift. That said, the focus on melody is quietly intense, even as the track becomes more abstract toward the middle; bass, piano, and saxophone all trade fours in rotation, answering and questioning further. Brunborg even moves toward blues in his solo. Playing quietly does require tremendous energy and discipline, and often runs counter to the improviser's instincts. On "Communion [Var]," Gustavsen plays almost the entire piece in p and pp. Brunborg's tenor speaks in halting tones that carry a skeletal yet nearly hummable melody accented by occasional entrances by Eilertsen's arco bass. Ultimately, The Well ends at "Inside," where virtually everything that has been previously explored is given (slightly) freer rein, exhibited by the minute-long bowed solo by Eilertsen that introduces the tune. Brunborg's economy on tenor is remarkable; rich and full, he doesn't need to "blow" because he can make it sing. On The Well, Gustavsen has taken his lyric approach to jazz and pushed it into more open and abstract terrain, which is more haunting and mysterious than anything on his previous offerings, yet refrains from ponderousness due to its remarkable restraint and symmetry. ~Thom Jurek, Rovi

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The Well, Tord Gustavsen Quartet
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