For Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen, the title of his sixth album for ECM has a programmatic significance. Extended Circle refers, he says, to the completion of a “double circle” of trilogies: the first with the trio heard on Changing Places, The Ground and Being There, and the second with the quartet (formed inside the expanded ensemble of Restored, Returned in 2009 and then documented on The Well in 2012).
Extended Circle incorporates tunes inspired by chorales and spirituals, developed collectively and gradually integrated into the repertoire as the group toured in the wake of The Well. “The new album title also refers to the view of things not being linear,” says Gustavsen. “The modernistic notion of linear progress is dead... But still we want to move in creative circles or spirals, coming back to musical and spiritual issues from ever-new angles, developing the musical approach or ideology with – hopefully – a deeper insight, a deeper set of experiences and skills.”
Gustavsen speaks of his band as “a creative circle or community – pulsating through communal experience, but also through whatever the individual musicians do outside this circle and bring back to the collective.” “Entrance”, the only group composition among the twelve tracks on the new album – recorded in Oslo in June 2013 – is an instance of this application of communal experience: “‘Entrance’ really came out of a stretch of free playing in the studio, using elements we have been playing in concerts, making up pieces spontaneously. We always do that in concerts once or twice – and we have kept certain musical modules from these extemporizations – so you could call it a module-based collective composition.“
“Entrance” reappears on the album, in a kind of reprise or variation, one more example of a predilection for suite-like track sequences evident also on Gustavsen’s earlier albums. “Composing an album with a structured sequence and thoroughly conceived transitions is a shared passion of Manfred Eicher’s and mine, and we always have a very fruitful dialogue over this. All the individual transitions here feel really natural, but the album as a whole carries more stylistic variations than those before.”
Attentive listeners will quickly note how the quartet takes greater risks and makes more use of dynamics. Nonetheless, “all comes from a very clear point of stillness and staying true to a basic meditative state in making music”, as the leader states. This “stretching out while staying grounded” can be vividly experienced in the band’s reading of the old Norwegian hymn “Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg” (“A Castle in Heaven”) where a meditative melody is contrasted by a tough, almost club-like groove from Vespestad.
“This arrangement emerged in a sound-check for a concert. It is a way of connecting with my own roots in church music, as this is a song I’ve been playing all my life. Jarle Vesperstad can definitely play any tempo – but most kinds of up-tempo are too fast for this band’s meditative approach. This kind, though, I felt really worked.”
Tord Gustavsen’s affinity for sacred music also played a role in the genesis of "Devotion", an adaption of a piece from a commissioned work for the Nidaros Cathedral Choir – originally written as a liturgical mass for choir. “We took the 'Alleluia' movement and turned it into a quartet piece.”
The quiet gospel fire that has become a signature of Gustavsen’s playing is on particularly strong display in “Staying There”, here matched by Tore Brunborg’s bluesy lines on tenor. “We play it as an encore sometimes, but first I wasn’t sure if it would fit on the album as it is really on one end of our spectrum – now I am happy that we included it. Traces of gospel and nordic blues will always be with me, whether under the surface or quite on top of the surface like in this case.”
The album’s final two tracks are preceded by a “Bass Transition” from Mats Eilertsen, a choice that reflects upon the programming of the band’s live shows: “We often have a solo bass piece before the last section of a concert. Mats is a master of these miniatures that sound to me like little landscapes or universes in themselves – not many bass players can come up with something like this within a very short piece.”
Extended Circle opens and closes with a trio piece, while exploring textural and dynamic variations in between. “You come back to the point of departure but with new insight – and things are the same but not the same,” Gustavsen sums up an album that in his view points forward to musical openness, but also back to his 2003 ECM debut.