Born in Oslo the eldest of five children, Tord Gustavsen and his family moved to a village in rural Norway where he grew up. Playing the piano from age four, he began composing and improvising before learning to read classical pieces. Soon he played gospel in churches, jazz fusion on other stages, and used his classical training to write his own songs. At age nineteen, he returned to Oslo to study sociology, psychology and the history of religions at the University of Oslo; and met singer Kristin Asbjørnsen whose thoroughness and expressive powers have had a lasting effect on his artistic journey.
In 1993, he was accepted to the Conservatory of Music in Trondheim, a place known to emphasize development of artistic identity. Having finished three years of training in jazz piano, jazz history, improvisational techniques, composition and analysis, he moved back to Oslo to pursue a career as a freelance musician and to commence a second wave of academic studies at the University of Oslo. Over the next three years he obtained a graduate degree in musicology, specializing in the psychology and phenomenology of improvisation.
In 2003, he released his first album with his trio on ECM Records, Changing Places, which captured the imagination of listeners worldwide and launched Gustavsen on an international career. Two more trio albums followed, The Ground (2005) and Being There (2007) to complete a trilogy that was met with critical acclaim and took the trio to leading events in Europe – the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Greece; in Asia – Japan, South Korea, Azerbaijan, Turkey; in North America – Canada and the U.S.; and Australia.
In 2008, the Vossajazz Festival in Norway commissioned a work that brought a new Gustavsen ensemble to the stage with singer Kristin Asbjørnsen, actress Cecilie Jørstad, saxophonist Tore Brunborg and bassist Mats Eilertsen. In 2009, this commissioned work was arranged for quintet and became Gustavsen’s fourth album for ECM, Restored, Returned, and gave rise to his new touring quartet with Brunborg, Eilertsen, and drummer Jarle Vespestad, who has played on all of Gustavsen’s ECM albums. The quartet went on to complete a second trilogy with the acclaimed albums The Well (2012) and Extended Circle (2014), and added Portugal, Russia, Brazil, New Zealand, and South Africa to Gustavsen’s touring history.
Inspired by his interest in Rumi, whose poems he had set to music, Gustavsen created a new trio in 2016 with vocalist Simin Tander and drummer Jarle Vespestad. They performed Norwegian hymns sung in Pashto and poems of Rumi in English for the album, What Was Said.
In 2018, his artistic journey came full circle with the return to the piano trio and the release of The Other Side. Having the melody wholly in his hands once again, Gustavsen’s growth as an artists is evident in the album’s sound, paradoxically deeper and darker yet more open. To his sound palette he added the subtle use of electronics. His ninth album for ECM Records, Opening, was again devoted to the piano trio and was released in 2022.
Before starting his solo career, Gustavsen had already been a vital part of the Norwegian jazz scene for some years. His playing was a cornerstone in projects that featured some of Norway’s finest singers, including Solveig Slettahjell, Silje Nergaard, Siri Gjære, and Kristin Asbjørnsen.
Among those who have commissioned him to compose works are the Vossajazz Festival (Norway), Cheltenham Jazz Festival (UK), and the Oslo International Church Music Festival. His ongoing collaborators include singer Solveig Slettahjell with whom he has created new versions of Christmas hymns, singer Mahsa Vahdat with whom he has interpreted Persian repertoire, singer Simin Tander, and saxophonist Tore Brunborg. In 2017, he became cantor and jazz pianist for Tanum Church in Bærum, Norway. His awards include the Norwegian Grammy, the Spellemannsprisen, for the album Restored, Returned. The album What Was Said was awarded the Jahrespreis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik as one of the ten best albums in any genre in 2016 by music critics in Germany.