ECM recording artist Jan Garbarek’s career spans three decades, a string of classic albums and highly successful tours at home and abroad. On the European tour that begins this week, he is supported on tour by his long standing companions of many tours and years.
A quote from the promoters: “the Danish percussionist Marilyn Mazur with her mix of innumerable drums, gongs, bells, cymbals and rattles spins a wonderful web of dancing and skipping rhythms. She stands for bubbling diversity and female laughter, and is the sheer proof of how much energy and sensitivity are the musical background of the group. Eberhard Weber, bass player from Germany, is widely acknowledged for his wonderful intonation on his trademark electric double bass. He is the backbone of the band, a bassist who has never been bound to the role of rhythm slave. He is an original stylist in the true sense of the word. Also from Germany, the pianist Rainer Brüninghaus holds the full heritage of piano knowledge from the Classics to Jazz in his name. With an uncanny sense for complex structures and intensity he lays down the basic themes of the groups sound and sends them off on their musical voyage.
The quartet’s interplay is easygoing and playful. They have known each other for such a long time, that when embarking on their common quest for the magic moment and for that special tone that will leave its mark in the audience’s memory, they are carried along in blind faith.”
The Jan Garbarek Group’s 16-date tour takes them to Germany, Switzerland and Spain.
Some words on the sax player’s background gleamed from the ECM site:
“The story has acquired, through repetition, an almost legendary cast: how Jan Garbarek, at the age of 14, heard John Coltrane on the radio and experienced a kind of epiphany. He knew then what he had to do. He immediately bought himself a saxophone instruction book and learned fingering positions - even before he had a horn. "When I got the saxophone I was really prepared for it. I was very, very eager."
Coltrane was a fortuitous choice of role model. Tracking that giant's progress opened new paths. Knowledge of Coltrane's interest in Ravi Shankar, for example, brought Garbarek to an awareness of Indian music (and thus of non-Western possibilities) as early as 1963. From the Coltrane Quartet, the young Norwegian learned about the dynamics of the band, and the internal relationship of the instruments. Coltrane's endorsement of the freest spirits of the New Thing fired Garbarek's appreciation of Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and, especially, Albert Ayler. But there were other influences at work.
Scandinavia, in this period, was a haven for American musicians. Garbarek grasped opportunities to hear (and learn from) Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Johnny Griffin. In l964, he had a chance to play with Don Cherry, whose embracing of world folk traditions in his unique variety of free jazz was another significant influence. Most important in this formative period, however, was the association with the American composer/pianist George Russell. Russell sat in with Garbarek's group at the Molde Festival in 1965, then invited the 18-year-old saxophonist to join his band. "He taught me such a lot of things. I knew nothing about music and still he had faith in me." Garbarek immersed himself in Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization and played on a row of the composer's recordings, some of which have only recently been released.
In 1969, Manfred Eicher, in the process of establishing ECM Records, invited Garbarek to record for the fledgling label. Afric Pepperbird was taped in Oslo in 1970 and effectively put the saxophonist on the international map, along with his fellow band members; in Norway, critics still refer to Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen as "the Big Four", the players who defined what Norwegian improvisation might mean. By 1970, Garbarek had transcended the Coltrane influence and new ideas came into play. The use of echoplex and electronic devices with the guitar, for example, brought some of rock's colours into the synthesis, and the group was also alert to the new sounds of the AACM and the German free players. "It was a very natural music. It came out of what was in the air at the time".
Of the early ECM recordings, Garbarek regarded Triptykon (recorded 1972) as a turning point of sorts. The trio with Arild Andersen and Edward Vesala sounded at times like a European updating of the Ayler trio of the 60s, and its mastery of the free ballad, harnessing lyricism to free dissolved time, was a new development in creative music. Furthermore, the record contained the first instance in Garbarek's discography of an adaptation of Norwegian folk music, an important inspirational source in the years to come.
In l974, the fruitful association with Keith Jarrett began. Belonging and Luminessence were recorded in one week in April. The former, a buoyant, songful album introduced Jarrett's "Scandinavian Quartet", a band which was to have a second lease of life at the decade¹s end (documented on My Song, Nude Ants, and Personal Mountains). Luminessence was an intriguing departure for both parties: Garbarek was let loose to improvise solos within dark, severe soundscapes created by Jarrett's writing for strings. The following year, Jarrett presented a sunnier music on Arbour Zena, where the pianist performed with Garbarek, Charlie Haden and a string orchestra. The work received its concert premiere at New York¹s Carnegie Hall.
Alongside the Jarrett projects, the saxophonist co-led the Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson Quartet which recorded two albums, Witchi-Tai-To and Dansere, and, with its outgoing music (more easily placed within the "jazz" tradition than most of Garbarek's work since) rapidly established itself as one of Europe's most popular touring bands. Garbarek, however, was hearing another sound. He retired from the road to prepare one of his most intimate projects, the album Dis. In time, Garbarek would come to view this 1976 recording as the first volume in a long-distance "trilogy" including Eventyr (1980) and Legend Of the Seven Dreams (1988). All of these are in different ways reflections on aspects of Norway, its light and its landscape, its folk music traditions. In the mid 70s, Dis, a duet with Ralph Towner (augmented by the lonely plaint of the windharp) seemed shocking in its nakedness and its brooding, tensile qualities. There was a striking poetic compression in Garbarek¹s unadorned saxophone solos, persuasive proof of his contention that one sound, properly weighted, can have more emotional impact than the slickest note-crammed solo.
Part of the shared pleasure of ECM's first decade was the musicians' discovery of each other's capabilities. Through the 70s and early 80s, Manfred Eicher continued to bring together players of diverse backgrounds in special "production projects". Over the years, Garbarek has proved the player best able to deal with the challenge of reconciling his own conception with the widest range of musics, consistently finding something fresh to say. The exploratory work has continued in the 90s, with the saxophonist's partners ranging from Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem to England¹s foremost vocal group, the Hilliard Ensemble.
A not infrequent outcome of such production projects has been the formation of touring units. Solstice (1974), ostensibly a Ralph Towner record, brought Garbarek together with Eberhard Weber and marked the beginning of a collaboration that continues today. The Solstice band performed live to considerable acclaim as did the trio of Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti and Charlie Haden (their work together may be heard on Magico and Folk Songs, both recorded in 1979). However, the 1994 Officium collaboration with the Hilliard singers was to prove the most overwhelmingly popular of all the projects first hatched in the studio.
The overlapping of cultures in production projects has frequently been extended in Garbarek's own groups. Until singers Agnes Buen Garnås and Mari Boine were brought in to augment the ensemble for selected performances and recordings, sightings of Norwegians in Garbarek bands were infrequent. The line-up has been multi-national since the late 1970s. American guitarists Bill Connors, Bill Frisell and David Torn contributed usefully to the development of Garbarek's group music in the years 1976 to 1988. In the 80s drummers were also usually American, including Michael DiPasqua and (on tour only) Billy Hart. The decision to replace the drum kit with Nana Vasconcelos' Brazilian percussion (Legend Of The Seven Dreams) was perceived as a further, radical departure from jazz per se. And when the kit was reintroduced on I Took Up The Runes, the drummer chosen, Paris-born Manu Katché, was a player closer to rock than bebop. Interestingly, however, Katché had listened closely to the recordings of Garbarek, Weber and other ECM artists in his formative years. The line-up featured on Twelve moons partners Katché with Danish-American percussionist Marilyn Mazur, alongside the long-serving German contingent of Eberhard Weber and Rainer Brüninghaus. Garbarek: "I like to have strong players around me, musicians of contrasting temperaments but whose personalities are complementary. When I put a group together, I¹m not looking for three of me. We¹re all very different".
Writing music to incorporate Garbarek's saxophone, Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou felt she heard a strong Balkan quality in Jan's playing ("It brings the 'Greekness' from my soul"). Indian violinist Shankar (Vision, Song For Everyone) was astounded by the ease with which the saxophonist approached Karnatic modes. Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous wrote specifically "Slavic" tunes for the duo album Atmos and attributes Garbarek's affinity with them to Jan's Polish ancestry. Garbarek: "You might say I live in a spiritual neighbourhood which is scattered geographically around the world". However, his adaptability derives partly from the commonality, the "common tongue", of the world's folk musics, which he has unearthed via his researches into Norwegian tradition. These are most specifically stressed on Rosensfole, the album Jan made with traditional singer Agnes Buen Garnås: "The ornaments she is using in her music sound Middle Eastern - Turkish or Arabic - in a way. This really fascinates me, the connection between Norwegian music and that of India via the Balkans and Asia Minor...I found the most exotic music right in my own backyard, so to speak".
Norway being on the periphery of Europe and its rural valleys being narrow and closed, folk music has survived there almost unchanged through the centuries, with very little influence from the world outside: "You can still find extremely old melodies and extremely archaic ways of singing".
This investigation of his "roots" was prompted, back in the 70s, by a feeling that jazz's experimental wing was drifting ever further from the cry-from-the-heart that had distinguished the music from Armstrong to Ayler. "It was like one abstraction was being piled upon another: contact was being lost to where the music came from. It was very important for me to listen to folk music from all over the world but especially from Norway. There are strong similarities, of course, in all folk musics. Well, instead of searching for roots in Mississippi, I was looking in the Norwegian valleys. What I found was purely Norwegian yet, for that matter, it does share some common ground with Mississippi".
The absorption of so-called ethnic musics has been a long process and by no means the saxophonist¹s sole preoccupation. And while Garbarek has gone back, in his musicological researches, to the medieval era and beyond, he has also kept pace with technological developments in modern sound production. Outside of his work for ECM he has provided music for Norwegian films, TV and radio plays, and numerous theatre productions. Many of these projects have been realized alone, using synthesizers for orchestration purposes. The 1986 solo recording All those Born With Wings grew out of one such project. The title track of Twelve Moons was originally created by Garbarek for the film Around The Year In Børfjord, and he plays the synthesizers on the piece. His music for theater and film perhaps draws more consciously on non-jazz influences, including the classical and contemporary music traditions - in interview he has spoken of his affection for composers as different as Haydn, Chopin, Mahler, Sibelius, Lutoslawski and Takemitsu - yet such influences may also be found in his group work. Twelve Moons, after all, contains an adaptation of Grieg.
Garbarek's wide-ranging listening habits and his willingness to confront new challenges in ECM production projects give notice that his music has retained its exploratory edge. He has done more than any other saxophonist to establish values for improvisation in which sensitivity to tone and space are of crucial importance, and views the shaping of his sound as a winnowing process. "Well, I started with Coltrane's 'Countdown', in which there are a lot of notes. I copied that and then had to 'weed my garden', you know? To take out what was superficial in my own playing. Finally you get to a very naked place and there, hopefully, you can cultivate something new." That "something" has found a response with a great many listeners and the Garbarek Group has built a substantial and loyal audience.
The Jan Garbarek Group’s previous outing Officium, conceived by producer Manfred Eicher, provocatively placed Garbarek’s improvisations within the context of Cristóbal de Morales' Officium defunctorum and other "early music" pieces, the saxophone moving freely as a "fifth voice" with the Hilliard Ensemble. As Garbarek told Gramophone: "Listeners not so preoccupied with early music or jazz might be able to see that these two things put together create something quite different. Quite a lot of my work involves performers from different cultures and I consider this new collaboration comes from a different culture - if not geographically then certainly in the sense of time. In our best moments I think that we managed to give something new, something unheard of before; something came into existence that was not there before". Elsewhere, Garbarek spoke of the immediate affinity he felt with both the Hilliard Ensemble and the material during the recording session: "Starting phrases together, meeting in different places, it was as if the music had been 'written' for us. It was a meeting in the most natural way, and one of the most challenging and complete recordings I have been involved with".”
Jan Garbarek, Jazz muscian, Saxophonist, Composer