Tord Gustavsen Trio, Lichfield Festival

The quiet ecstasy of the wordless hymn
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The Independent Culture

Even in the quietest moments, the Tord Gustavsen Trio swings. On their two ECM albums, the Norwegian group's repertoire of stately hymns, ghostly tangos and pellucid ballads carried at least the trace of a gently animating rhythmic pulse, even a kind of funk undercurrent. Heard live, they almost rock. When there's an up-tempo tune to get busy with, Gustavsen's piano solos become positively abandoned, his open palms slapping at the keys in the avant-garde manner of Don Pullen or Cecil Taylor. As he stands up from his stool, the better to give the notes some stick, the normally rather shy Gustavsen appears to take on the ecstatic persona of Keith Jarrett.

Because the group plays so quietly, without amplification, emotional intensity can be communicated with great subtlety. When the magnificent drummer, Jarle Vespestad, wants to punctuate a musical phrase meaningfully, he pings a cymbal with his fingertip. If he needs to get really loud, he might consent to using a drumstick, but more usually gets by with the pitter-patter of brushes or his hands. Like a caged parrot, the snare drum wears a towel over its head to dampen any unwelcome squawks. On double bass, Harald Johnsen has developed a rich vocabulary of low-volume slides and slurs, although he too can get as heavy as any electric funkateer if needed. On ensemble grooves, the band put you in mind of a Miles Davis rhythm section, but at a fraction of the decibels.

This opening date of a short summer run of festival appearances (before the trio returns for a major British tour in the autumn) at Lichfield's Garrick Theatre was a dream of a performance by a dream of a group. By matching the indeterminancy principle of the best live jazz with the impeccably designed acoustic environment of their albums, where Gustavsen's original compositions create a perfect blend of ambient "furniture" music and strong, spiritually inclined themes, the trio has propelled itself to the top of the jazz tree. If there is another jazz group playing this well at the moment, I'd be very surprised.

The repertoire covered material from both albums, Changing Places and The Ground, as well as a few new compositions. But whether they were playing Gustavsen's "wordless hymns", or more conventionally jazz-inclined tunes, everything remained all of a piece, and everything swung. While the band are still evolving, and this was a far more confident appearance than when I saw them last year, what strikes you perhaps most of all is firstly how tastefully they have chosen their influences (Gustavsen's piano playing has a very strong gospel-jazz lilt) and, secondly, how they have now truly outgrown them. The Tord Gustavsen Trio sounds like no one but itself.