Some bandleaders are so tied to a particular sound that during the arc of their career it seems a formula has been put in place. Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen fashioned a seductive style of balladry when his first ECM disc arrived in 2003. Changing Places introduced us to an instrumentalist who made silence a constant companion, and who seemed as smitten with the establishment of mood as he was with the generation of interplay. Most of the records that arrived in its wake forwarded a similar message.
The Well brings more of same to the table, but rather than chiding the bandleader for a monolithic view, let’s applaud his focus and dedication to poised reflection. The more I spin this album, the more I fall for its through-composed persona. That description of the music isn’t literally true; Gustavsen’s team of tenor saxophonist Tore Brunborg, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and drummer Jarle Vespestad invent personalized lines on every track. But the ensemble demeanor is so tight and so smitten with the pianist’s melodies, there’s little “soloing” taking place in the old fashioned sense.
The group sometimes has a problem with originality. Gustavsen operates in the wake of Keith Jarrett. The touch, the tunes, the gentle sweep of the reflective aura that gives the music its main personality – they’re all beholding to the iconic pianist on some level. While sounding tender and alluring, Brunborg, too, seems a composite of Jan Garbarek and Charles Lloyd. It’s a sweet combo of influences to say the least, but it makes him hard to pick him out in a crowd. That said, The Well has enough eloquence to control its emotional environment in a deeply authoritive way, an achievement in any kind of music. If you’re into glistening melancholy, this one has a poetic side.