Jan Garbarek’s ability to create a forceful, comprehensive saxophone sound has paradoxically developed in step with his ability to write simple, clear music in which the notes are allowed to resound to the end. The stronger his horn thunders, the closer he is to silence. Or rather, the more complete his sound, the more clearly he defines the inaudible qualities that surround the sound. Jan Garbarek is an aesthetic servant of the eternal longing for essential friendship and romantic fulfilment.
In terms of both the structure of his musical language and international recognition, Jan Garbarek is the closest we can get to a contemporary Norwegian composer of the same format as Edvard Grieg. And if we are bold enough, we might even say that they had a similar starting point. Grieg cultivated Robert Schumann while Garbarek’s idol was John Coltrane, but the music of both Schumann and Coltrane reflects their sense of improvisation and dimension.
Garbarek the stylist:
Jan Garbarek’s sound is based on consistent, continuous work with equally hard-working colleagues. In addition to innumerable concert performances, Jan Garbarek has made his artistic mark on an impressively long list of recordings. It is natural to turn first to Witchi-Tai-To, the 1974 disc that marked Garbarek’s first big breakthrough. The concept of jazz was gaining a new meaning at the time. It was no longer associated with tirades of hectic bop improvisations. The tempo was slower and a new, spacious atmosphere had been created around the traditional jazz skeleton.
ECM played a key role in this trend. With artists Chick Corea, Keith Jarret and Jan Garbarek in the front line, this recording company produced an attractive, melodious type of jazz which converted young listeners who had previously only listened to rock. Today, Witchi-Tai-To sounds rather boring, not because it wasn’t or isn’t still original, but because we now hear similar jazz arrangements and sax phrasing everywhere. Jan Garbarek’s personal style has, for good or ill, been as important to the development of jazz saxophonists as, for example, Miles Davis has been to trumpets.
Before Witchi-Tai-Do, Garbarek had released Afric Pepperbird (ECM 1970), Sart (ECM 1971) and Triptykon (ECM 1972). This is expressionistic jazz which has as much in common with the liberal jazz style of Ornette Cleman and Albert Ayler as with Garbarek’s idol of the time, John Coltrane. Garbarek’s interest in Coltrane is primarily seen in his efforts to extend the saxophone’s sound dimension. The improvisation reflects a new sensitivity in comparison with much of the former extrovert free jazz, while the instrument’s “scream” is allowed increasing space to develop.
The ethnic influence (interest in the original scales of Norwegian folk music) has also begun to affect the music. And even if the rebellious compulsion of jazz is still dominant, this is the forerunner of the neotonal, lucid music of which Jan Garbarek and a growing number of his colleagues at ECM were to be the originators. Already at this stage, Garbarek was ornamenting his own and other compositions with phrases from Norwegian folk music, which he began to work on seriously in the Dansere album (ECM, 1976).
The essential Garbarek:
Garbarek then released Dis (ECM, 1977), his most important individual album ever. Dis is an essential meeting between Garbarek and guitarist Ralph Towner in a unique atmosphere created by sound recordings of Sverre Larsen’s wind harp, erected on Norway’s windswept southern coast to modulate the eternal wind that blows from the North Sea. On one of the tracks, the Norwegian Brass Sextet creates a similar organic background for the sensitive compositions of the two artists and their naked improvisation.
We do not hear Garbarek in similar cathartic symbiosis between the temporal and the visionary until the Rosensfole album (ECM 1402), where he performs his own arrangements of medieval Norwegian ballads with folk singer Agnes Buen Garnås, who is the most distinctive, powerful interpreter of Norwegian folk songs of our time. On this CD, Garbarek’s modern sound modulations achieve a level as independent of time and fashion as the original ballads.
The follow-up to Dis was called Places (ECM, 1978), and is an ultra-melodious cooperation with organist John Taylor and others. It was as cathartic as its predecessor, but not as demanding. Then came Photo With Blue Sky, White Cloud, Wires, Windows and a Red Roof (ECM, 1979) which was to prove to be the forerunner of the longest, most monotonous period of Jan Garbarek’s career.
At the same time it is the link to, and continuation of, what began with Afric Pepperbird, Sart and Triptykon but is now technically upgraded and more obviously planned. While this record still sounds exploratory and engagingly “unfinished”, this approach gradually appears standardised and repetitive, even ceremonial, sometimes only with the new nuances of sound created by changing the combination of musicians in the Jan Garbarek Group.
However, a lot of good came of this too, and I Took Up The Runes (ECM, 1990) meant a new comeback for Garbarek as a popular artist. This part of Jan Garbarek’s music is otherwise characterised by an (often collectively) over-dimensioned professional naivism. He works on his musical space without always having anything to fill it with, and if he finds a beautiful phrase, a fascinating refrain, like all good pop composers he does not hesitate to exaggerate and repeat it to the limit of the unbearable.
The most durable music from this line of development is to be found in the years when Paths (ECM, 1982) and Wayfarer (ECM, 1983) were created. On these recordings, the seeking exploration of Photo With… is exceed and replaced with a clarified, many-faceted, sparkling form of expression. This applies to the cooperation between Jan Garbarek and bass player Eberhard Weber, which here reaches its climax, and no-one has subsequently managed to replace guitarist Bill Frisell’s brilliant, unifying role in this cooperation. From It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice (ECM, 1986), the nerve that typified the recordings of the Jan Garbarek Group during that period appears to have been replaced by routine, and has its currently most polished version on Visible World (ECM, 1996).
Garbarek the lonely:
Jan Garbarek has progressed from being a saxophonist with passion for rebellious jazz improvisation to a serious composer who is in full control, also of the spontaneous aspects of his style. However, a new, interesting colour was introduces to Garbarek’s palette with All Those Born With Wings (ECM, 1987) and Legend of the Seven Dreams (ECM, 1988). Here Garbarek uses modern electronics to sample other instruments so that he is free to design the whole atmosphere around his improvisational sax playing. Already on Legend of the seven Dreams, the collage is affected by Garbarek’s “longing” to get back to his group, but All those Born With Wings will remain one of the most daring and loneliest records Jan Garbarek has ever made. What was then still and enthusiastic, innovative game is later distilled on the important Rosensfole album described above.
Garbarek the universal:
One of the most important recipes for the ECM alchemy is to arrange meetings between different musicians who have common longings. The position Jan Garbarek holds today largely comes from his participation in such groups. The Belonging quartet, consisting of Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Palle Nielsson and Jon Christensen could therefor well be called Jazz’s answer to the Beatles. Few other jazz bands have experienced such veneration, nor are there many jazz musicians who have purified the attractive power of the melody in the same way as the group’s maestro Keith Jarrett did in his compositions at the time when Belonging was created (ECM, 1974).
A similar magical combination of noble tradition and modern fantasy occurs when the improvising Garbarek many years later meets the Hilliard Ensemble, which sings Gregorian chants. After Officium (ECM, 1994), his audience grew even larger, although the most interesting element this time is really the aesthetic dissonances which occur without being directly planned.
Other combinations which appeared to have the power to survive were Magico and Solstice. Magico (ECM, 1980) is the title of the first record Garbarek made with bass player Charlie Haden and guitarist Egberto Gismonti, while the music on Solstice (ECM, 1975) was written by Ralph Towner (the album’s composer), Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber and John Christensen. Without undue exaggeration, Magico lifted the ethnic up to a cosmopolitan sphere and was a quiet precursor of what we today call “world music”. For its part, Solstice was made by its first “super group” in the world that managed to live up to the intentions of such super meetings, namely to create music which transcends the ordinary in terms of both format and artistic integrity.
Jan Garbarek’s participation on other recordings has subsequently often resulted in wonderful music. His cooperation with church organist Kjell Johansen on Aftenland (ECM, 1980) must be mentioned first. The two musicians retain the religious sweetness while at the same time the format is sharp-edged and fascinating.
His cooperation with guitarist Bill Connors, bass player Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette on Of Mist And Melting (ECM, 1978) also represents one of the high spots of ECM history. A kind of folk or pop-music, as simple and sincere as the music of the Pat Metheny Group which had its breakthrough the same year.
Making Music (ECM, 1987), which was created with percussionist Zakir Hussain, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and guitarist John McLaughlin, is another example of catalytic chemistry. Cooperation with Indian violinist Shankar and percussionists Zakir Hussain and Trilok Gurtu, among other things on the fabulous Song for Everyone (ECM, 1986), gave Garbarek an opportunity to further explore his meditative side, and cooperation with the Swiss violinist Paul Giger and percussionist Pierre Favre on Alpstein (ECM, 1991) resulted in some of the most unique music of our time. However, the first record I thought of when i was to sit down and write about Jan Garbarek had to be Red Lanta (ECM, 1974), Garbarek in cooperation with composer and pianist Art Lande, where we can also hear Garbarek play the flute and the bass saxophone. Red Lanta is Art Lande’s record, in the sense that it is Art Lande’s tunes they are playing, but it is the chemistry between Garbarek and Lande which makes Red Lanta ECM’s most lyrical record to date. And when Art Lande’s accentuated melodic line and dynamic arrangement is identical with Garbarek’s reserved but extremely emotional expression, we also hear the essence of Jan Garbarek’s musical longing. It sounds so ordinary, basic and essentially human, but it has never been equalled.
Translation: Virginia Siger ©sd
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