Sacred Songs, Modern Music – Ars Nova Workshop Presents Tord Gustavsen, Jarle Vespestad, and Simin Tander
Donald enjoys a modern take on traditional church music from the avant garde jazz trio of Tord Gustavsen, Jarle Vespestad, and Simin Tander. – Artblog editor


Growing up in church as a child, I learned many beloved traditional hymns. The recent Philadelphia debut at FringeArts of the Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen and his latest trio translates the longstanding tradition of Norwegian church music to a secular format.

Jarle Vespestad Simin tander Tord Gustavsen
Jarle Vespestad, Simin Tander, Tord Gustavsen – left to right. Image courtesy of Tord Gustavsen.

“What was said”

Gustavsen arrived in Philly with his trio–longtime drummer Jarle Vespestad and German-Afghan vocalist Simin Tander–to perform cuts off his new album entitled “What Was Said.” The musicians served up a diverse platter of musical and linguistic customs. Gustavsen’s understated piano playing sounded like lights flickering on and off (each key actually lit up each time it was touched!), drawing us in closer to observe what was taking place. Just as subtle was Vespestad, who drummed with beautiful restraint while exploring the percussion’s range.

These two musicians matched well with Tander, a vocalist of many colors and a breakout talent on the European jazz circuit. Tander’s non-standard multilingual vocal technique creatively uses stuttering notes strung together. Tander was born in Cologne to an Afghan and a German, and she reaches back into her unique upbringing to feed her musical practice.

Jarle Vespestad Simin tander Tord Gustavsen
Jarle Vespestad, Simin Tander, Tord Gustavsen – left to right. Image courtesy of Tord Gustavsen.

The song that was most striking in the 90 minute set was “A Castle In Heaven.” In Tander’s introduction, she stated that this reworked hymn was often performed at funerals as a way to offer hope to the deceased member’s family. Tander uttered, “don’t worry” numerous times and each time it hit a deeper emotion. Eventually, the song built into a huge, explosive crescendo–Tander cried and mourned for the lost ones with her voice soaring high, in contrast to her more subdued singing otherwise throughout the evening. Other memorable songs included the intricately melodic “Your Grief,” the gloomy “The Fog,” and the more upbeat “Sorrow and Joy.”

Music in translation

In preparation for the album and exclusive 5-city US tour, Gustavsen and Tander collaborated with B. Hamsaaya, an Afghan poet who translated a varied collection of Norwegian hymns that Gustavsen treasured as a child into the Pashto language. The trio also used translations of the 13th-century Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, as well as passages by Kenneth Rexroth, whose work explored the intertwining of jazz and poetry.

The Gustavsen trio’s concert was a bold one in its musical intent with an ethereal feel, as the group engaged the Philadelphia audience with an out of the ordinary take on sacred music. In addition, Gustavsen’s increasing curiosity about electronic music (sound design by Daniel Wold) provided a light sonic texture to wrap around the music’s message. As Tander sings in “A Castle In Heaven,” the source of now is here–as the group here fluently provides a way for sacred music to be incredibly lush and fresh to the contemporary music lover’s ear.

For more information visit the Ars Nova Workshop website.


ars nova workshop, Church Music, Jarle Vespestad, Norway, philadelphia, Simin Tander, Tord Gustavsen



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