In an interview, poet WH Auden once said that if somebody should set his works to music, “well let them if they want to”. This from someone whose words were given the musical treatment many times – notably by composer Benjamin Britten – and it’s a comment that well suits pianist Tord Gustavsen, whose latest album is entirely inspired by Auden.
The introduction of lyrics gives Gustavsen an excuse to break with the trio tradition of previous albums, including Tore Brunborg on reeds (an ECM old-timer with bassist Arild Andersen) and singer Kristin Asbjørnsen. Bassist Mats Eilertsen replaces trio member Harald Johnsen. The result is an album where silences are less centre stage and more attention is paid to dynamics. The jazz elements implicit in Gustavsen’s previous works are allowed to bear fruit.
The album’s title is a quotation from the Auden’s Song, and the title track is the only one of the vocal tracks reading a complete poem. References to the poems (all from Auden’s 1940 collection Another Time) are scattered across the remaining instrumental titles (Your Crooked Heart; the Lullabies possibly inspirational leftovers from the poem Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love). Asbjørnsen sings with unrefined intensity and intentional abandon, enhancing the urgency and longing in Auden’s poetry, turning it at times into an anguished, rasping cry. Her bluesy, cloudy huskiness carries gospel influences, and she improvises in the true sense of the term by treating her voice as a musical instrument, stretching it to the limit.
Auden’s relationship with landscape goes well with Gustavsen’s writing, whose overcast moods evoke a Norwegian setting. Tore Brunborg expressively renders it with his heartfelt personal sound – albeit in some way comparable to Jan Garbarek’s. Eilertsen on bass and Jarle Vespestad on drums go beyond their remit, receptively laying the ground for all involved to blossom.
With such array of talent, Gustavsen travels through the album at times sensitively supporting, other times allowing himself room to improvise. His main contribution is in the writing (again gospel influences come to mind), and this collection only bolsters the man’s already admirable jazz credentials.