One of the reasons I love London is access to contrasting arts. Thursday night was Sleaford Mods at the Roundhouse. Today is a Norwegian jazz duo playing a matinee performance with an Afghan-German singer.
Tord Gustavsen is one of those Scandinavian ECM musicians that I have become so fond of in recent years. The problem is that even London sometimes isn’t a big enough draw to attract them from the continent. However, this is the London Jazz Festival season so we’ve gone from famine to feast.
He’s been recording on ECM in a mixture of formats in various years – trio, quartet and bigger ensemble. This year he released “What Was Said”, a collaboration with his usual drummer, Jarle Vespestad and Simin Tander. Simin is the daughter of an Afghan journalist father and a German teacher mother. Born and raised in Cologne, she originally was training to be an opera singer before realising she enjoyed non-classical forms of singing more.
Gustavsen describes the “What Was Said” project as follows:
For the repertoire of the new project, Simin and I have been working with Afghan poet B. Hamsaaya, translating and shaping a selection of hymns that I grew up with in Norway into Pashto. This process has been challenging and really fruitful. We have gone quite far in interpreting the lyrics in a more ‘integral’ manner, reaching into a space where I feel that Sufism and Christianity actually meet.
Gustavsen is one of a number of pianists that record regularly for ECM at present who approach the jazz piano from a Bill Evans or even classical perspective, rather than a blues angle. More melodic than Vijay Ijer or Anat Fort and less rhythmic than Nik Bartsch, Gustavsen’s music is approachable.
So on in an icebox of an auditorium on an Autumnal afternoon, we gathered for a matinee performance by the trio. Gustavsen and Vespestad were dressed in sharp grey suits with Tander between them in an elegant red full length frock. They were all three mesmerising in different ways. Gustavsen was reaching across himself, adding electronic embellishments from keyboards and devices balanced on his Steinway. Vespestad got the most out of his relatively minimilist kit. Using a range of sticks, some twig thin, he added both rhythm and texture. He played the bottom of his snare drum, he dragged his stick across his ride cymbal and high hat. During a new song, “Sorrow and Joy” he played his kit with his fists and fingers. We were lucky enough to be on the second row and could see the subtlety which he brought to his playing.
Simin Tander was bewitching though in her London debut performance. She and Gustavsen both explained how much of the day’s material was derived from Norwegian Lutheran hymns. Whilst it may sound pretty dry, the translation into Pashto lent it a richness and otherness that elevated the music. What was incredible was that Tander speaks neither Norwegian nor Pashto, an Afghan and Pakistani language. It shows the quality of the delivery and the beauty of the language that nothing was lost. The meaning of the lyrics was translated by the performance. Gustavsen admitted that the hymns had been somewhat cropped as generally speaking, a beautiful first verse was followed by warnings about sinning and hellfire and damnation in the following verses, which were consequently edited out.
Tander’s performance was highly physical from a full throated roar, through melody to off mike vocalisations. One could see her whole body be part of the performance, her breathing and movement as much of a part as her voice.
The highlights were many in the 75 minute set. “Your Grief” was performed in English brought to a dramatic conclusion. “Imagine The Frost” was fragile and the title track of the LP, “What Was Said” concluded with a drum and keyboard battle over a Bach choral, which was a hell of a lot better than it sounds. “A Castle In Heaven”, a funeral song typical was almost like a Portuguese Fado blues, as performed by Mariza. The encore was “The Source Is Now”, probably the most approachable track on the LP.
My other half N came along. She’s got a low tolerance for discordant jazz and is a pretty good barometer of accessibility. She was transported by the performance and we’ve spent a couple of hours since replaying the LP during these cold November evenings.
It really was one of the gigs of 2016. The added nuance that it was such a successful melding of Christian and Muslim heritages, of jazz and Afghan singing just adds to the enjoyment.
It brings us together and in the current environment, that can be no bad thing.
Here’s a Youtube clip, which doesn’t quite do the gig justice.
“A Castle In Heaven”, that Fado like highlight from the show. This clip is from what appears to be the Dutch equivalent of the Andrew Marr Show. As such it is a little antiseptic plus Jarle’s presence on drums is a noticeable absence: