Dan Atkinson and the folks at Athenaeum Jazz scored another programming coup on Feb. 23, bringing the renowned Scandinavian group (and ECM recording artist Tord Gustavsen Quartet) into the Music and Arts Library in La Jolla for an intimate and enthralling performance.
Gustavsen’s art closely mirrors the ECM adage of “the most beautiful sound next to silence.” Indeed, silence was almost an additional member of the group. Special accolades must be awarded to drummer Jarle Vespestad, who navigated the often pianissimo dynamic with an acute sense of detail, frequently using a feathered touch on the bass drum that evoked the sound of a human heartbeat.
The pianist began “Tears Transforming,” with soft, rippling harmonies, setting the stage for tenor saxophonist Tore Brunborg’s dramatic, breathy, melodic entrance. Over the dark pliancy of Mats Eilersten’s whole notes and the martial cadences of Vespestad, Brunborg and Gustavsen brought the music to a slow boil, raising the intensity incrementally from hush to scream with sharp accents and tasteful multiphonics.
The slow trance of “Suite,” built from somber arco bass and scraped cymbals with saxophone tone sculpture and sparse harmonies was typical of the sonic pallet the group favored. Gustavsen is a very unselfish player, often lurking in the background to conjure elliptical directions for further development. After a thick, ropey bass solo, the pianist finally let loose with multi-noted cascade of lyrical velocity, leading the band into a vaguely Latin groove.
Also intriguing was the episodic “Where We Went,” which began with soft percussive input from each member and transformed into a meaty improvisation that proved sometimes the tastiest meals are the result of a prolonged simmer. Vespestad’s drum solo was an essay in drama minus histrionics that had the sold-out crowd leaning forward to catch each gesture.
By keeping the volume low, the Gustavsen group were able to focus on nuance and detail that higher octane performances often miss. Vespestad occasionally used drumsticks as thin as spaghetti strands for intricate ride cymbal articulation and the intuitive melodic interplay between Brunborg’s honeyed tenor and the pianist’s joyful counterpoint was firmly grounded by the indigo throb of Eilersten’s pulse.
This concentration on a true group sound was rare and beautifully showcased in the acoustically pristine confines of the library, making each moment of the concert one to remember.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.