ROOKIE REVIEW: Tord Gustavsen: Hymns and Visions with Simin Tander and Jarle Vespestad

Must read review: Rookie Reviewer Nikolaj Schubert talks magical drums, musical prowess and music beyond language in this interesting and engaging reflection on Tord Gustavsen: Hymns and Visions

From the outset, when Tord Gustavsen and his remarkable ensemble invited us in the audience to join them on a ‘musical journey’ it became clear that this evening would not be jazz the way we were used to.

In fact, in this concert nothing would appear the way we were used to – songs, language and folklore crossed cultures and continents, taking on completely new forms as they travelled, all the while being brought so vividly to life by the magic of the performers. Above all, though, this was an evening of colour. We think we know the sounds of a piano, voice or kit, but from the way Tord Gustavsen supplemented his atmospheric playing with subtle electronics to Jarle Vespestad’s understated exploration of the sounds his drums could produce, the ensemble were able to paint with so many different hues against the dark, plaintive backdrop expressed by their source material.

Master of this art and, indeed, stealing the show with her mesmerising vocal talents was singer Simin Tander. Regardless of whether she was singing in English, Norwegian, Pashto or even no language at all, she brought across such depth of meaning and a true conviction to every one of the songs, smoothly modulating her voice to create new moods in the music. Beyond that, she was able to use the microphone to complement, rather than simply amplify her sound, changing her distance from it to give illusions of echo and space, while also using it to bring out the frequencies of her extraordinary low register when needed. It was particularly in the penultimate tune, Castle in Heaven, that she was able to demonstrate her complete vocal prowess, from its breathy opening to the powerful full-voiced ululations intertwining with the piano in its central section – the culmination of the group’s riveting performance – before dying away again as the music faded.

Throughout the evening, The ‘Hymns and Visions’ concept felt not only like it was the perfect setting for this trio of musicians to express themselves in but also like a natural extension of the jazz idiom. As a genre, jazz, from its small beginnings in New Orleans, had been an amalgamation of all the musics that existed in the city’s cultural melting pot at the time, fusing Blues with marching band music and Celtic folk music, to name but a few. Given this folk heritage, it seems natural then, for Tord Gustavsen to be inspired by the ancient Norwegian hymns he grew up with and for him to incorporate them into his playing. However, to fuse this with Middle Eastern influences was an unexpected and inspired route for the ensemble to take – the seamless integration of so many different cultural influences in such a wonderful manner was, for me, a celebration both of our differences and of our unity as a human species and the music that was born out of this was deeply moving as a result.

I only wish that the talented Jarle Vespestad on drums had been given more chance to grow and express himself in this musical journey – the grooves he managed to create in tandem with the piano and electronics were incredibly interesting and energetic, while the vast array of sounds he was able to create on the drums through a combined use of sticks, mallets and even his hands were an incredible demonstration of his technical prowess that wonderfully brought out the mood of each piece, yet they were all very restrained and dampened. The moments in which the piano and voice were allowed to reach their richest tone were wonderful and each time produced such lift in the music that it almost feels like a missed opportunity to not have the drums do the same. Despite this, for the most part this understated playing technique suited the music brilliantly, especially when combined with the percussive moments of Simin Tander’s singing.

Overall, this evening was a magical experience and after having recently encountered a number of modern interpretations of folk music at the University of Birmingham’s CrossCurrents festival, the cultural melting pot of ‘Hymns and Visions’ stands out as a highly original take on the folk idiom. Delivered by a supremely talented group of performers, this was a musical journey I would gladly embark upon again.

Nikolaj Schubert is an undergraduate Music student at the University of Birmingham. Currently completing his final year, he will major in composition while continuing to play trumpet in both jazz and classical ensembles.