December 2007

Frode Gjerstad Trio & Sea of Song
presented by roughidea
December 19, 2007 The Citadel Toronto
Blowing Under Extreme Conditions
by Tom Sekowski with photos by Damian Jankowicz
They had passed through town five years ago and as usual, I had missed them. This time I was determined to fix the error of my ways. Saxophonist Frode Gjerstad would not be back in our neck of the woods any time soon. On a rather warm December night, I came across a new venue called The Citadel. During the day, it serves the function of a dance studio. While downstairs, alcohol was served and on the way up to the room, audience members were forced to take off their shoes (any wonder socks were sold — perfect timing for those who didn’t have ideas for gifts under the tree). The room itself is large enough to seat (on the floor — regrettably, only a few benches were provided) about 100 to 150 people comfortably. While the ceiling and walls could use some fixing, the aura of the room is ideal for the sort of music Gjerstad and his trio would play that night.
First up was Toronto’s own Sea of Song Duo, though that night they were in fact a trio. Adding bassist Rob Clutton (does anyone still remember the almighty Handslang?), the trio had its regular members in place — guitarist/leader Geordie Haley and percussionist Brandon Valdivia. Haley was in fine form as his amp was only mildly giving off steam, while Valdivia was a monster with his instrument. Not one to take things subtly, Valdivia ravaged the music with powerful skin work, while Clutton went off on his own tangent doing the best he could to keep the two parties talking to each other.
Certainly Haley has grown and matured, though his style much of the time still reminds me of an earlier Bill Frisell. Add ‘mystery guest’ in the form of saxophonist John Oswald, who joined the trio for the last two numbers, and the quartet began to give off steam. If anything, Oswald acted as the perfect impetus that drove the other members of the trio to strain themselves and truly stretch out. As his quickly executed alto sax attacks indicated, he wasn’t messing around. In fact, as the only member wearing shoes, he took full leadership for the band and moved the music into highly concocted improvised spheres. This only begs the question. Did anyone record the last two numbers? Is a recording in the works?

Feeling deadly sick that night, Frode Gjerstad lost his voice and could barely speak. In between numbers, he pleaded for a glass of water, and his wish was swiftly fulfilled. It’s rather surprising that for a sick man, he was able to pound such a large punch into his alto. How is it possible that during the 70 minute set, not once did he run out of breath? How is it possible he didn’t whine and complain and cancel the show altogether? Truth is Gjerstad is a determined soul. Once he set his mind on something, there’s no stopping him.

Likewise with his trio, which happens to be an ensemble he put together solely with Norwegian players. Joining the leader were bassist Øyvind Storesund and percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love. While Storesund was solid enough — plucking the strings furiously for a few minutes and then switching gears to caressing the strings with the bow – it was Nilssen-Love that gave the leader a run for the money. One minute, he was staunchly tapping on the tom, then rubbing a cymbal, then throwing a chain on top of the skins. All the while, he kept a feverish pulse on the proceedings, not missing a single beat. The change of gears was fast and furious. He kept looking slightly to his right, and kept his eyes slightly closed, as if to prove he was putting his entire body in a state of complete trance. The trio even allowed Nilssen-Love to take a couple of extended solos and not for a minute did he sound as though he was grand-standing or giving other drummers who were present a fuck-you-look-at-how-great-I-am attitude. It’s no wonder that Nilssen-Love’s adaptable and multi-faceted style has other players lining up around the block to get a chance to play alongside this master.
Frode Gjerstad

Gjerstad was a powerhouse as well. Running the gamut between direct, jagged alto attacks to drawn-out breaths, I especially loved his playing when he switched over to the clarinet. At that point, the music became more intimate and beat with a heart of warmth. Splitting his time between horns, Gjerstad had ample opportunity to show both sides to his improvisational fury. Without a doubt, what we witnessed was a first-rate concert, showcasing a trio of seasoned professionals seeking a novel way of communal expression.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Tom Sekowski
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