Being There

“Where is the show again?” asked my mother over the phone.

The Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, I’d thought, where last November free jazz maverick Charles Lloyd had huffed and puffed and blown a San Francisco Jazz Festival audience down, down to the ground.

“Legion of Honor, 34th and Clement – the Florence Gould Theatre,” I read off the tickets with dawning amazement.

“Isn’t that … ?” began my mom.

Actually, yes. One Google later, we knew the Florence Gould Theatre to be downstairs in our favorite building in San Francisco, one of our favorite places on the globe. A singular museum, certainly, but more so a time honored sanctuary for us, situated on a golf course overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. The Marina’s Palace of Fine Arts feted the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915, but crumbled steadily until it was completely rebuilt in 1975. The Legion of Honor opened November 11, 1924, and seven days shy of 83 years later, mother and I marked her birthday in a theatre where the likes of Andres Segovia and Duke Ellington once played for audiences of no more than 300. Purchasing two tickets in August to the see Tord Gustavsen help highlight the S.F. Jazz Festival’s 25th Anniversary because of the date he fell on suddenly had the air of an exceptional idea. The Swedish trio held up its end of the piano.

“Meditative” was a key word in describing the Tord Gustavsen Trio to the skeptical half of our party. Gustavsen’s three releases for über-intellectual/German/avant-garde classical and jazz imprint ECM – 2003 debut Changing Places, 2004’s The Ground, and this year’s best of the lot, Being There – are ivory snow angels carved out of a dark Nordic night. Each key Gustavsen caresses, every note bassist Harald Johnsen plucks, every cymbal quiver by Jarle Vespestad lingers until the air they’ve displaced settles back into stillness. At their low-light, 3pm matinee three Sundays ago – 24th out of 37 world class festival performances between September and January – the threesome brought pulses down to hibernation levels.

As with so many ancient bandstands in S.F., this one cut a hole in several layers of plush curtain, black, tan, black – Ellington’s “Black & Tan Fantasy.” Johnsen’s intake of breath on the first number was the only sound in the sold-out theatre. Gustavsen grimaced with every keystroke, as if his lightest touch rivaled a jackhammer. Johnsen’s spidery lines wove repetitive figures as Vespestad rubbed a drumstick across the side of his snare drum. Gustavsen, one hand plinking at a 45-degree angle, tapped the underside of his piano with the other. Silence was the fourth member onstage.

“We’d like to dedicate this last song to Lufthansa Airlines,” said the baby-faced bandleader gratefully, the group’s last-minute flight out of Frankfurt having delayed the concert one hour instead of a week. “This next number is an afternoon prayer called ‘Grow Nearer.’”

Perfect present for the theologian sitting next to me.

Being There’s “Vicar Street” continued the mood, while Changing Places’ “Turning Point” began with Gustavsen’s reed-thin fingers rigid at more right angles, his nose almost touching the black and whites, shoulders arched for maximum force never delivered, elbows bent outwards to absorb non-existent pressure. The physicality of his performance resembled ballet. Flaring up, the rhythm section – angry toms and growling bass – broke the spell. New tune “Hobson’s Choice” featured a drum solo so delicate it forced contemplation of the tautness of the material stretched across Vespestand’s percussive interface. A dance of minor keys juxtaposed against major notes simulated a mist of rain, bass and drums acting as thunder and lightning.

“Blessed Feet,” also for Lufthansa, found Gustavsen bobbing and weaving at his black baby grand, hop-scotching melodies as he seemingly played foosball at his station, slapping the keyboard. Album mate and titular track “Being There” ended the 75-minute séance on a short, children’s story sort of piece. Sole encore “The Other Side of Tango” took on an Ellingtonian swing, “Caravan”-esque. We love you madly, might have murmured the Duke.

(S.F. chronicles Vol. 3, part 2-2)

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Tord Gustavsen Trio, Palace of the Legion of Honor

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