Tord Gustavsen Quartet at Chicago’s Constellation

“Meditative” and “liturgical.” Those were pianist Tord Gustavsen‘s whispered descriptions of his impending set at Constellation on Saturday night. He and his quartet – Gustavsen, saxophonist Tore Brunborg, bassist Mats Eilertsen, drummer Jarle Vespestad – brought their intimate Nordic jazz to the small but attentive capacity crowd. The performance was part of a five city promotional tour of the US in support of the recently released Extended Circle, an album I highly recommend.

The band’s ~75-minute set featured material from the quartet’s two albums Extended Circle and The Well along with earlier Gustavsen selections from Restored, Returned and Being There. Gustavsen and his band have a very stark approach on record, and I was curious how that would translate to a live setting. I’m pleased to report that it did so perfectly. The small venue and low lighting complemented the band’s restraint. It took until the set’s final number (before the encore), “Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg,” for them to reach a semblance of forte, and in doing so provided a welcome release – and relief! – after the long, simmering slow burn. The set was a series of peaks and valleys, with each peak slightly higher than the last until the zenith during “Eg Veit…” I very much appreciated the group’s restraint – not once did it feel forced. Subtle intensity, Gustavsen’s specialty, is often more difficult to achieve than via the usual “high-fast-loud” means, and the band successfully executed it.

Such subtlety was achieved not through dynamics and dissonance alone but also via texture. Brunborg began and ended the evening on soprano (“The Child Within” and “Vicar Street,” respectively), but otherwise played tenor saxophone throughout. However, the tenor/piano/bass/drums instrumentation was exploited to its full potential. Gustavsen tastefully played outside and inside of the piano with great ease, completely avoiding any sense of gimmickry. Eilertsen beautifully played pizzicato and arco, and seeing a jazz bassist use a bow well was a breath of fresh air. Perhaps the MVP in this arena was drummer Jarle Vespestad. His control of his instrument, be it with drumsticks, mallets, brushes, or his hands, was second to none, particularly his cymbal work. I saw it as him approaching his drumset from a percussionist’s perspective instead of a drummer’s. And floating above it all was Tore Brunborg’s golden tone. Wow – I’ve listened to him on a lot of different recordings and none of them prepared me for just how deeply resonant his tenor sound would be in person. The icing on this sonic cake was their touring sound engineer. The amplification was used not to necessarily increased the volume but rather to enhance the live mix and balance, and every sound was crisp and clear.

Each musician basked in the spotlight some throughout the evening, including a couple of unaccompanied piano solos and a bass cadenza. Overall, however, Gustavsen’s music is more conducive to featuring the ensemble as a whole rather than an individual member, as improvised and composed passages seamlessly blend together. The set featured a nice mix of tunes, including “The Child Within,” “Suite,” “The Embrace,” “Glow,” “Eg Veit…,” “Vicar Street,” and others. Similar to the emphasizing of the ensemble as a whole, the individual tunes were less important than the flow of the overall set, which culminated in “Eg Veit…” and then unwound with the encore “Vicar Street.”

I attended this performance with my partner in crime Matt Borghi. Our shared love of ECM aside, this concert was rather special for me personally, as I never thought I’d see Tore Brunborg perform in the US. (And it’s not yet worked out for me to him in Europe.) He’s received some attention on this blog, notably for his work with Manu Katché (in whose band I first heard him), but also a quick reference regarding saxophonists who’ve influenced me. He should get his own full post at some point, as I enjoy his work – both as leader and sideman – but suffice it to say that I’m quite a fan. Furthermore, visiting with the band after the show was a real treat, and it was great to learn that they’re wonderful people as well as top-flight musicians.

If you have the opportunity to see this group, you must certainly take it. 2014 tour details here.

For a taste, here’s the quartet performing “Vicar Street” in 2009:

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