Few contemporary Scandinavian musicians embody “the Nordic tone” like Norwegian pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen. Dark and lyrical, characterized by patience and wide-open spaces, this style of jazz has been linked to the lonely grandeur of Scandinavia’s fjords and mountains so many times that the cliche barely functions anymore. That said, Gustavsen’s restraint and instrospection do often lend a monumental and immutable aspect to his compositions, which tend to hover, drift, and spin rather than progress with a clear logic derived from pop forms like most jazz tunes. On the recent Extended Circle
(ECM) bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad (a former member of turbulent improvising group Supersilent
) deliver roiling, heated patterns, but the gentle, contemplative air created by Gustavsen’s stately lines and the breathy, nasal tone of tenor saxophonist Tore Brunborg seems to cast a spell over the rhythm section, taming its fury. The group improvisation “Entrance” feels agitated and reactive, but most of the other pieces (composed by Gustavsen) are placid and serene, with sweet, distended melodies unfolding in slow, patient arcs and swells. The quartet has a great rapport, with meticulous control of dynamics and a feather-stroke delicacy to its interactions, but Gustavsen and Brunborg tend to mistake the treacly, overripe melodies of 80s R&B for highbrow art—the saxophonist’s solo on “Staying There,” for instance, attempts to pass off as profound something that sounds like satin-sheet seduction music from three decades ago. Given how strong these players are, I wish they didn’t seem so intent on smoothing out any tension or grit in their music, but I can’t complain about their finely tuned group communication—and I have little doubt that they’ll sound more intense onstage than they do on their recordings, where reverb-saturated production tends to sap their energy. This is the quartet’s overdue Chicago debut. —Peter Margasak James Falzone’s Allos Musica opens.