Jan Garbarek: Selected Recordings (:rarum 2)


Jan Garbarek
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

After the broad yet intimate selected recordings of Keith Jarrett, it’s only natural that the :rarum series should follow up with another two-disc album from another of its biggest talents: Jan Garbarek. The Norwegian saxophonist and composer has left his fingerprints on many an object in the ECM curio cabinet, and in so doing has gifted listeners with countless hours of creative engagement, ideas, and memories. Indeed, perhaps more than those of most artists on the label, his albums are easily connected to times, places, and experiences for nearly everyone who has followed his career.

One thing that distinguishes this compilation from those that follow it is the abundance of title tracks, as if each were sigil of the past. From the anthemic enmeshments with Keith Jarrett on 1974’s Belonging and 1978’s My Song to his interdisciplinary collaborations with Shankar (Song For Everyone, 1985), Ustad Fateh Ali Khan (Ragas and Sagas, 1992), and Anouar Brahem (Madar, 1994), his saxophone is a cleansing harmonizer. Dominant but never dominating, its echoes carry every message as if it were the last. Like a strip of cloth washed in a river and wrung out to dry in the sun, it changes color in the evaporation process. Other noteworthy titles abound. Personal favorites include 1985’s It’s OK to listen to the gray voice, a timeless theme rendered by David Torn on guitar synthesizer, Eberhard Weber on bass, and Michael DiPasqua on drums that keeps us earthbound by the gentlest of gravities; 1992’s Twelve Moons, in which drummer Manu Katché and percussionist Marilyn Mazur add fire and attunement to one of his most mature melodies; and 1989’s Rosensfole, which elevates his arrangements of folk songs sung by Agnes Buen Garnås. It’s an album so brilliant and relatively neglected in the Garbarek catalog that I almost wish there was more of it here to entice newcomers to its wonders. Seek it out if you haven’t already.

Then again, any Garbarek admirer will know he has always been adept at creating traditions from scratch. Whether weaving himself into the rainforest with guitarist Egberto Gismonti and bassist Charlie Haden in “Cego Aderaldo” (Folk Songs, 1981) or rendering aching parabolas of honest reflection with organist Kjell Johnsen in “Iskirken” (Aftenland, 1980), or even riding the wave of windharp with Ralph Towner on 12-string guitar in “Viddene” (Dis, 1977), his music comes to us fully formed and preloaded with histories of their own. That thread of ancient purpose is woven through “Lillekort” (Eventyr, 1981), a track combining the signatures of percussionist Nana Vaconcelos and guitarist John Abercrombie on mandoguitar, and a turning point in the engineering of Garbarek’s sound. It continues on in “The Path” (Paths, Prints, 1982), a balancing act of sun and shade shared with guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Eberhard Weber, and drummer Jon Christensen, as well as “Its Name Is Secret Road” and “Aichuri, The Song Man,” both solo excursions documented on 1988’s Legend Of The Seven Dreams. Said thread reaches something of a terminus in Part 1 of the floating “Molde Canticle,” from 1990’s I Took Up The Runes.

This collection offers even more joys for veterans and newcomers alike, such the classical piece “Windsong” (Luminessence, 1975), written by Keith Jarrett and performed with the Stuttgart Südfunk Symphony Orchestra, and the iconic cries of “Skrik & Hyl” (Dansere, 1976), with pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Jon Christensen. There’s even a haunting nod to 1991’s StAR with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Peter Erskine.

But the two most important touchstones of my own Garbarek discovery are also to be found in these borders. First is “Parce Mihi Domine” (Officium, 1994). This profound collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble was my introduction to Garbarek at a time when I was only immersed in ECM’s New Series classical releases, and which compelled me to purchase one of Garbarek’s own albums, Visible World, thus opening the doors to ECM proper. The beginning of that 1996 masterpiece, “Red Wind,” has always been a special one for that reason alone. With barest means—Garbarek on synths and soprano and Mazur on percussion—it meshes beautiful details and unfettered expression and stands as a testament to a relationship between musician and producer that will never be equaled in the hall of mirrors that is our audible universe.

Jan Garbarek: Works


Jan Garbarek
Release date: April 1, 1984

The “Works” series of ECM compilations began in 1984 to celebrate the label’s 15th anniversary, as it prepared to open a new chapter with its classically focused New Series imprint later that same year. It makes sense that Norwegian saxophonist and composer Jan Garbarek should be the subject of this first installment, as he defined not only the sound of ECM throughout the 1970s but also of a jazz scene that was relatively unknown outside its own borders until producer Manfred Eicher committed himself to the vision of broadening its wingspan.

Garbarek has taken on many roles throughout ECM’s now 50-year history, and even at this early stage had defined some key faces of his creative persona. In “Folk Song,” from 1981’s Folk Songs with guitarist Egberto Gismonti and bassist Charlie Haden, we find ourselves in the company of Garbarek the griot. With a telepathy as powerful as that of remembrance, the trio’s music transports us into ourselves. If Haden and Gismonti are shadow and light, respectively, then Garbarek is the one who wanders the valley between them, drawing a horizon wherever the sky will hold pigment. This is the spirit of Garbarek’s playing at all times: an itinerant yet grounded soul who understands the way of things to be carved in experience.

We also encounter Garbarek the sailor. In “Passing” (Places, 1978), he shares a vessel with John Taylor on organ, Bill Connors on guitar, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. With circadian rhythms and steady passage, marked like a fishing net by Connors’s acoustic wisdom, the quartet catches wind purposefully forward. And in “Svevende” (Dansere, 1976), inhaling brine and waves with Bobo Stenson on piano, Palle Danielsson on bass, and Jon Christensen on drums, Garbarek evokes sirens of both the mythical and preventative kind. Another track from Dansere, “Skrik & Hyl,” reveals a shepherd, now climbing a mountain with Danielsson alone. Sounding a call to the ether itself, Garbarek tends to his melodic flock without fear. Responding to said call are Terje Rypdal on guitar, Arild Andersen on bass, and Christensen again on drums in “Beast Of Kommodo” (Afric Pepperbird, 1970). This early build, from ECM’s seventh release, features guttural expression in a tactile setting. And in “Viddene” (Dis, 1977), his soprano meshing with the 12-string guitar of Ralph Towner over a windharp drone, he jumps from the cliff as one who looks down upon landscapes instead of up from them.

Finally, Garbarek the mystic welcomes us into internal spaces. In “Selje” (Triptykon, 1973), he turns to flute in the presence of Andersen, along with Edward Vesala on percussion, for an incantation of light. And in “Snipp, Snapp, Snute” (Eventyr, 1981), his flute is joined by Nana Vasconcelos on percussion, moving with the tide of biographical change.

Throughout these tunes, and regardless of focus, Garbarek activates thoughts of ancestors in the most undeniable terms: through sound. Vibrations thus activate us at the very core, stirring molecules of the heart with messages and songs. And while most compilers might use individual tracks to tell a larger story, Eicher has put together this sequence to show how that larger story feeds the individual.

Jan Garbarek/The Hilliard Ensemble: Remember me, my dear (ECM New Series 2625)

2625 X

Jan Garbarek
The Hilliard Ensemble
Remember me, my dear

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Concert recording, October 2014
Chiesa della Collegiata dei SS. Pietro e Stefano,
Bellinzona (Switzerland)
In the series “Tra jazz e nuove musiche”
by Paolo Keller for RSI Rete Due
Tonmeister: Michael Rast
Engineer: Lara Persia
Mixed at Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
by Manfred Eicher and Michael Rast
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 18, 2019

When the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek first recorded for ECM in 1993, they opened as many—if not more—forces than they joined. It was a collaboration not only between each other, but also between them and engineer Peter Laenger, the Austrian monastery of St. Gerold, and producer Manfred Eicher, whose vision was so attuned to the possibility of it all that he would seem to have heard it in his head before those five breaths intertwined in reality. Twenty-five years after the release of their self-titled debut, the Officium project resurfaces with this document of their final performance in 2014.

The roots of this program’s oldest branches may be traced to the soil of past albums. In the opening “Ov zarmanali,” a hymn of Christ’s baptism by Komitas that was likewise our doorway into Officium Novum, Garbarek’s keening soprano is unmistakable in shape and color. In this setting he plays with the decay of notes, sharing more with sitar virtuosos than other reed players and taking into account every incidental effect as physical material for expression. It is the Hilliards, then, who enter into his delineation—not the other way around—and who plow a field just as ancient in preparation of a hybrid crop unlike any other. This progression is reversed in “Procurans odium,” one among a handful of anonymous medieval pieces that finds its seeds, split with time, restored in the nourishment of resuscitation. Garbarek’s role is nevertheless fully dimensional, drawing out from within rather than applying from without. Other unattributable turns, such as the wondrously ambient “Procedentum sponsum” and more lilting “Dostoino est,” speak to the power of memory. And in the “Sanctus,” not heard since their debut, we find a folding inward rather than expansion of concept.

Beyond the category of performer, Garbarek’s contributions fall under composer and arranger, finding solace all the same in this sanctuary. In the latter vein is “Allting finns,” wherein his exploratory nature is particularly evident, as one can feel Garbarek roaming the church in search of stone and warmth, while his setting of the Passamaquoddy poem “We are the stars” draws an unbreakable thread from one corner of the earth to another, likewise itinerant in spirit.

From the liturgical, as in the light-through-stained-glass effect of Nikolai N. Kedrov’s “Litany,” to the repentant shading of Guillaume le Rouge’s “Se je fayz deuil” (gazing back to Mnemosyne), the vocal nature of Garbarek’s saxophone and the reed-like qualities of the Hilliards have perhaps never been so dimensionally interchangeable. For even when the saxophone is absent, as in a most intimate rendition of Arvo Pärt’s “Most Holy Mother of God,” its soul lingers—a dream upon waking. The effect is such that, even when turning the brittle pages of more familiar material, like the “Alleluia nativitas” of Pérotin or the “O ignis spiritus” of Hildegard von Bingen, we are welcomed in the spirit of newness. And so, in the 16th-century Scottish folk song we find more than a title, but a poignant reminder that our minds are at once the tenderest and most robust vessels for honoring the past. For how can we not remember the impact this quintet has made on modern music, and the love with which listeners will continue to fill its crater for ages to come?

Jan Garbarek: Dansere (ECM 2146-48)

ECM 2146-48

Jan Garbarek

The Dansere box continues ECM’s Old & New Masters series with four landmark achievements, the first three being the albums gathered within its matte packaging and the fourth being producer Manfred Eicher’s decision to reissue them as a set. None of the musicians need introduction here, least of all Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who spearheads classic concoctions of extracts new and old. These early albums were key developments in the sounds of the musicians and a label with the wherewithal to pave their launching pad into the stratosphere of music history.

Garbarek is said to have forged Norwegian jazz from diverse elements of his homeland, but something elemental in the very earth must also have forged his endlessly creative mind as a receptor to those elements. His career has of course splintered in so many directions since then, but a genuine commitment to the music has remained constant in everything he plays and is only magnified by the company he has chosen to keep.

ECM 1015

Sart (ECM 1015)

Jan Garbarek tenor and bass saxophones, flute
Bobo Stenson piano, electric piano
Terje Rypdal guitar
Arild Andersen bass
Jon Christensen percussion
Recorded on April 14/15, 1971, at the Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

One could hardly ask for a more dynamic super group than that assembled on Sart. Garbarek’s first album of this boxed set is also his second for ECM and throbs with these young musicians’ intense desire to lay down new paths. Four of the album’s six compositions are by Garbarek. The first of these is the title cut, which takes up more than one third of the album’s total length. After an eclectic swirl of wah-pedaled guitar riffs from Terje Rypdal, Bobo Stenson’s sweeping pianism, the fluttering drums of Jon Christensen, and erratic bass lines of Arild Andersen, Garbarek’s entrance alerts us with all the import of an emergency siren. It’s an arresting beginning to an arresting album, evoking at one moment a 70s action film soundtrack and the next a clandestinely recorded late-night jam session. “Fountain Of Tears ­ Parts I & II” forges a harsher sound before swapping reed for flute. With the support of Stenson’s electric piano, Garbarek slathers on the sonority for a striking change of atmosphere. In “Song Of Space,” sax and guitar double one another almost mockingly before Rypdal hops a more intense train of thought, in the process mapping the album’s most epic terrain. Garbarek is only too happy to lend his compass. “Irr” turns Andersen’s nimble opening statement into a full-fledged narrative, along with some enjoyable adlibbing from Garbarek and Stenson. Andersen and Rypdal round out the set with respective tunes of their own. “Close Enough For Jazz” is a brief interlude for bass and reed full of unrequited desire, while “Lontano” finishes with Rypdal’s meditative, twang-ridden charm.

More expressive than melodic, per se, this is engaging free jazz that’s constantly looking for debate. Such is the sense of play through which it thrives. At times the music is so spread out that one has difficulty knowing if and when a “solo” even occurs. Regardless, Garbarek’s playing is knotted, but also carefully thought out. As in so much of his output during this period, he tends toward a sobbing, wailing quality that adds gravity to relatively airy backdrops. This is music with patience that demands just as much from the listener. It lives on the edge of its own demise, always managing to muster one final declaration before it expires.

<< Chick Corea: Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 (ECM 1014)
>> Terje Rypdal: s/t (ECM 1016)

… . …

ECM 1041

Witchi-Tai-To (ECM 1041)

Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
Bobo Stenson piano
Palle Danielsson bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded November 27/28, 1973 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Regarding jazz, Louis Armstrong once famously quipped: “Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.” For those still feeling lost, let Witchi-Tai-To provide one possible answer. As Jan Garbarek’s oft-touted masterpiece, this is not an album to shake a stick at. If anything, it is one to be shaken by.

Carla Bley’s “A.I.R.” (All India Radio) summons this classic soundscape with a ceremonial thumping of bass, working toward saxophonic flights of fancy. Before long, Garbarek descends from his cloud with a pentatonic flavor before again riding the thermals of his generative spirit. This segues into a rousing piano exposition from Stenson, running with the adamancy of a child who thinks he can fly. The avian soprano sax returns as if to espouse the wonders of the air while also warning of its hidden hazards, catapulting itself into the vanishing point. “Kukka,” by bassist Palle Danielsson, is a relatively somber, though no less effective, conversation. It gives ample room for piano and bass alike to make their voices known and ends with another ascendant line of reed. Carlos Puebla’s politically charged “Hasta Siempre” seethes like radical folk music in search of an outlet. Drums and piano enable a boisterous towering of improvisatory bliss. Garbarek is a wonder, grinding out the most soulful sound he can muster, while Stenson’s frolicking runs practically stumble over their own momentum. In the title track by Jim Pepper, the rhythm section’s windup pitches more soulful solos from Garbarek, who can do no wrong here. His clarity of tone and conviction are sonically visionary and ideally suited to his cadre of fellow soundsmiths. Last but not least is “Desireless.” This Don Cherry tune is given a 20-minute treatment that surpasses all expectations. It’s a mournful closer, a song of parting, an unrequited wish. It tries to hold on to a rope that is slipping through its fingers, even as it struggles with all the strength at its disposal to keep the music alive. Garbarek refuses to go down without an incendiary swan song, however, and by the end it is all we have left.

Much has been said in praise of the Danielsson/Christensen support in this outfit, and one would be hard-pressed not to feel the intense drive the duo invokes at almost every moment. To be sure, this is a team of musicians whose independent visions work flawlessly together, and whose end result is an essential specimen in any jazz collection. Witchi-Tai-To is a struggle against time from which time emerges victorious. Thankfully, we can always start the record over again.

<< Gary Burton: Seven Songs For Quartet And Chamber Orchestra (ECM 1040)
>> Eberhard Weber: The Colours Of Chloë (ECM 1042)

… . …

ECM 1075

Dansere (ECM 1075)

Jan Garbarek saxophones
Bobo Stenson piano
Palle Danielsson bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded November 1975 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

There is a tendency in ECM’s formative jazz releases toward immersive beginnings. Dansere is no exception, with its introductory flutter of sax and glittering piano runs. Comparing this album to Belonging, which features Keith Jarrett in the same company as Bobo Stenson is here, it’s amazing to consider the differences with another pianist at the fulcrum. One musician’s worth of difference may not seem like much on the back of an album jacket, but here it translates into essentially ten new voices with their own sensibility of time and space. Stenson’s abstractions throughout bleed into the listener’s mind like a smearing of watercolor across absorbent paper.

This is music that has woken up after a long slumber—so long, in fact, that now it struggles to face the morning glare. The musicians seem to play with their eyes closed, grasping at fading tendrils of memory so close in dreamtime yet otherwise so distant. Whereas some of us might grab a note pad and try to capture as many of those fleeting moments before they escape us upon waking, each member of this quartet finds an instrument and sets his recollections to music. The album finds the time to stretch its vocal cords, to take in the air, to look outside and judge the weather from the clouds and the moisture it inhales.

The title track is the most demanding journey here, carrying us through a gallery of moods and locales, and fades out beautifully with Christensen’s rim shot clicking like a metronome into the heavy silence. In “Svevende” Stenson emotes a laid-back aesthetic, finding joy in quieter moments. Though we are by now fully awake, we still find ourselves regressing to the darkness of sleep and its promise of vision. Every moment leaves its own echo, so that each new note carries with it a remnant of all those it has left behind. “Bris” picks up the pace a little and showcases Garbarek in a heptatonic mode. Stenson also has some memorable soloing here, working wonderfully against Christensen’s drums and Danielsson’s steady thump. Somehow the motives remain melancholy, speaking as they do in languages they have yet to understand. “Skrik & Hyl” features a sax/bass duet of piercing incantations before Stenson brings us back down to terra firma in “Lokk.” The title here means “herding song” and feels like a call home. It unfolds like the dotted plain on the album’s cover, a desert under a hanging moon or an ocean swept by a lighthouse. “Til Vennene” is the end of a long and fruitful day. Yet in spite of the album’s pastoral flair, I find this final track to be rather urban. It shifts and settles like a drained glass of scotch, leaving only that diluted rim of sepia at the bottom: a mixture of melted ice and solitude. You feel just a little tipsy, straggling home through the rainy streets. Memory and sorrow swirl without blending, like every rainbow-filmed puddle you pass in gutters and potholes. You wander as if you are walking these streets for the first time, knowing that your legs will get you home regardless of your inebriation. Your only footholds are those brief moments of bliss shared among friends; the only times when trust was never absent. Your world becomes blurry…or is it you who blurs?

<< Jack DeJohnette’s Directions: Untitled (ECM 1074)
>> Barre Phillips: Mountainscapes (ECM 1076)

Jan Garbarek Group: Dresden – In Concert (ECM 2100/01)


Jan Garbarek Group
Dresden – In Concert

Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophone
Rainer Brüninghaus piano, keyboards
Yuri Daniel bass
Manu Katché drums
Recorded live October 20, 2007 at Alter Schlachthof, Dresden
Engineers: Gert Rickmann-Wunderlich and Rüdiger Nürnberg
Mixed by Jan Erik Kongshaug (engineer), Jan Garbarek, and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Jan Garbarek and Manfred Eicher

Dresden is monumental for being Jan Garbarek’s first live album. Monumental because, even as his crafted studio creations were capturing the hearts of countless listeners, so too were his performances across Europe and abroad. With his own group, the Norwegian saxophonist had crafted something special, and it was only a matter of time before its fire came through in the form of a less mitigated recording. Although it is unfortunate that Garbarek’s regular bassist, Eberhard Weber, was by this point too ill to join him on stage, he was formidably replaced by Yuri Daniel, interlocking with pianist Rainer Brüninghaus and drummer Manu Katché as if he’d always been among them.

With such an inventory of songs and experience from which to choose, Garbarek might have started in any number of places, but opens this concert with the lovely, free-flowing gem “Paper Nut.” First heard on Song for Everyone, one of two ECM collaborations with Indian violinist L. Shankar, it moves with all the synergy and assurance the present quartet has to offer. In addition to the unforgettable melody, sure to find a place in you the first time you hear it, it showcases some of Garbarek’s purest intonation on record. Clarion and unfalteringly naked, it cuts veins of mineral through the bedrock of jazz into the primal core beyond it.

The next point of reference is 1993’s Twelve Moons, from which the group renews three tunes: “The Tall Tear Trees,” “There Were Swallows,” and “Twelve Moons.” In each, the musicians interlock as listeners as much as players, Daniel’s bass laddering roots while Katché paints in a ritual filigree. The title tune is quintessential Garbarek, who finds himself lifted to new heights by Brüninghaus’s colorations as before riding an unaccompanied solo to finish. Legend of the Seven Dreams, from 1988, also gets a nod with the smoothly executed “Voy Cantando.”

The handful of new material introduced in this double-disc album is cause for celebration. From the forested pianism of “Heitor” to the beat-driven flights of “Nu Bein” (featuring Garbarek on the seljefløyte, or Norwegian overtone flute), there’s much to savor from everyone. Among these tunes is “The Reluctant Saxophonist,” which despite its tongue-in-cheek title (Garbarek’s playing is anything but reluctant) attains the most ambitious heights of the concert.

Non-Garbarek tunes include the pastoral “Rondo Amoroso,” arranged from the piece by Norwegian composer Harald Sæverud (1897-1992), and “Milagre Dos Peixes” (Miracle of the Fishes), written by Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento and made famous by Wayne Shorter. Brüninghaus is again outstanding, pushing Garbarek to stronger depths, as also in “Transformations,” one of two remarkable solo interludes that rounds out the set. The other is “Tao,” Daniel’s moment in the sun. Balancing technical flourish with emotional flexibility, it proves him a worthy successor to the Weber legacy.

Dresden is, quite simply, the kind of album that makes one feel good to be alive. A classic before it was even recorded.

Jan Garbarek: In Praise of Dreams (ECM 1880)

In Praise of Dreams

Jan Garbarek
In Praise of Dreams

Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones and/or synthesizers, samplers, percussion
Kim Kashkashian viola
Manu Katché drums
Recorded March and June 2003 at Blue Jay Recording Studio, Carlisle, MA (Engineer: James Farber), A.P.C. Studio, Paris (Engineer: Didier Léglise), and in Oslo
Edited, mixed, and completed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo, by Jan Garbarek, Manfred Eicher, and Jan Erik Kongshaug (Engineer)
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Jan Garbarek

By the release of In Praise of Dreams, six years had elapsed since Jan Garbarek’s RITES. Where that earlier album was something of a meta-statement for the Norwegian saxophonist-composer, here we get a comforting regression into terrains that are familiar, if drawn with new pigments. Of those pigments, violist Kim Kashkashian is perhaps most striking. More than her tangential associations with composers Eleni Karaindrou and Tigran Mansurian, it is her richness and depth of feeling that make Kashkashian such an intuitive musical partner for Garbarek. Drummer Manu Katché, aside from notable appearances on earlier Garbarek albums (including his definitive Visible World), pours a sensitivity all his own into the mix. Indeed, sensitivity is name of the game throughout this meticulous album, which bows to improvisatory freedoms at select moments of abandon.

Usual Garbarek elements abound: the graceful tone of his horn, a tasteful array of electronics and keyboards, and a feeling of dance turned into song. Yet what makes Praise so worthy of just that is its melodic integrity. Every tune finds its own burrow, where it dreams comfortably of life on a different plain. Between opener“As seen from above,” which overlays tender reed lines over a groundswell of piano and sampled drum riffs, and the concluding “A tale begun,” the latter a congregation of breath and bow that extends one of the most beautiful roots into ECM’s soil, a sense of oneness with nature prevails. The ensuing dramaturgy keeps us ever in sight of Garbarek’s shadow, racing across the ground in birdlike shape toward some illusion of stillness.

Along the way, the listener is treated to a veritable storybook of textures. Kashkashian’s ebony qualities work most cinematically in “One goes there alone” and in the title track. Pulsing beats connect feet to earth as lines of deference are exchanged above. Garbarek melodizes freely with eyes closed, prepared for whatever light or dark may come, while Kashkashian shuffles tension and release with likeminded ease. In this regard, “Knot of place and time” is an emblematic title, marking as it does the spatiotemporal crossroads at which stands so much of Garbarek’s writing, a spirit that needs the translation of recording to make its landscapes seem real.

Sometimes, those landscapes are arid. Long untouched by sole or palm, they nevertheless shine with immediacy. Across them Kashkashian provides the regular curlicues of wind through which Garbarek threads his cries. “Cloud of unknowing,” for one, rests on a harp-like arpeggio and splits unison lines into separate journeys, each spurred by a delicate percussive undercurrent through the dunes into unexpected waters. Other times, as in “Iceburn,” the conditions are wintry, beginning fragmented but arriving at the same crystalline ever after. In these caverns the piano becomes a relic, memory of a time that is no longer with us. Like the carousel of “Scene from afar” and the lyrical train ride into which it morphs, it’s all in the mind.

These are but some of the highlights of a trajectory, flowing from horizon to horizon in a jet stream fully shrouded with intention, that is nothing without the listener’s own secrets. As yet unwritten, they stand in the exact center of a suspension bridge that could bend either way. Take the first step, and see where the next will take you.

Jan Garbarek/The Hilliard Ensemble: Officium Novum (ECM New Series 2125)

Officium Novum

Officium Novum

Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded June 2009 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A little farther
we will see the almond trees blossoming
the marble gleaming in the sun
the sea breaking into waves 

a little farther,
let us rise a little higher.
–Giorgos Seferis

Sometimes music bypasses all other faculties and journeys straight into our souls. It eschews intellectual games, removes the safety net from beneath critical acrobats, and seeks no justification for its effects. To say that Officium Novum is just such music would be as gross an understatement as is likely to drop from my brain. The achievements of the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek on this album’s predecessors, Officium and Mnemosyne, hardly need emphasis. They were nothing short of astonishing, blending presumably incongruous signatures in a sound of unparalleled parallels. Yet this third effort from the project stands out for its distinct separation of voices as it leads our ears and hearts more toward Eastern Europe, and farther to Armenia.

Hilliards Garbarek

In the latter vein, the multifaceted folk and liturgical arrangements of Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935)—whose music has elsewhere fallen within ECM’s purview on Kim Kashkashian’s Hayren—form the album’s central nervous system, although nowhere more so than in “Ov zarmanali,” a baptismal hymn that with Garbarek’s solo introduction marks the aforementioned separation as a running theme from first blush. In the rasp of his reed breathes a memory of nature, so that the Hilliards’ entrance spins a fantasy that can never gain traction in the here and now, confined as it is to wandering the past like a prisoner in his cell. Nevertheless, sanctity reigns, as prophesied by the third-century Byzantine chant, “Svjete tihij” (Gladsome light), which sacrifices its luminescence as it is sliced by the barred window. Its vocal blood later warms the body of Arvo Pärt’s “Most Holy Mother of God,” written for the Hilliards in 2003, thereby closing a divine circuit with its concluding dissonances.

Separations abound in other Komitas pieces as Garbarek carries the full chanting weight of “Surb, Surb” and skirts fields of dew in “Hays hark nviranats ukhti,” surpassed only once by countertenor David James in the “Sirt im sasani” (Hymn for Maundy Thursday). Like two wings joined to the same body, they are nominally separate but linked by thought, instinct, and action. Such notes of independence are implied also by the album’s cover photograph, which shows a lone outlier, back turned yet bridged to his fellows by light on the water. Even that reflection bears a horizontal rift of shadow: a cleft of nascent wave eating its way toward shore.

The lifeblood of Officium Novum courses through “Litany,” a three-chambered heart of Russian, Romanian, and anonymous sources. At its center is “Otche nash,” drawn from the Lipovan Old Believers tradition and sung alone by baritone Gordon Jones before Garbarek threads the backdrop of an anonymous “Dostoino est” in ways eerily similar to the first collaboration in 1993. Another anonymous relic, this of 16th century Spain, braces the architecture of “Tres morillas m’enamoran.” Heard on many a Renaissance record, the piece finds new life in the current rendering, seeming to reach for us from the future rather than out of the past. This is where the separations begin to soften, as Garbarek harmonizes more docilely at first before darting through and around the voices with bird-like grace. Breaths between verses lend a reflective, antiphonal quality, as they do also in Pérotin’s “Alleluia. Nativitas,” newly rendered since its appearance on Mnemosyne. It is joyous, almost incongruously so, among these monochromatic brethren, but gives a name to the light from which it fashions flesh for bone.

Two pieces by Jan Garbarek complete the musical share of the album. “Allting finns” (Everything there is) sets “Den döde” (The dead one), a poem by Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist (1891-1974), into beautiful interpretive metalwork, filigreed by the composer’s alchemy of paramusical elements, while “We are the stars” (based on a Native American poem of the Passamaquoddy people) is here transformed from its last appearance on RITES into a fully embodied soul, whose words and bare coherences constitute a fabric unto itself. Garbarek’s playing is so respectful that it walks on water and leads us to Bruno Ganz’s reading of “Nur ein Weniges noch” by Giorgos Seferis (1900-1971), which ends the program. Both narrator and poet are recurring touch-points in the ECM corpus. By their virtue, we are left with a vastly intersectional view of the (im)material world and a single takeaway message that resounds, May you be blessed to be found.

(To hear samples of Officium Novum, click here.)

Jan Garbarek: RITES (ECM 1685/86)


Jan Garbarek

Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones, synthesizers, samplers and percussion
Rainer Brüninghaus piano, keyboard
Eberhard Weber bass
Marilyn Mazur drums, percussion
Jansug Kakhidze singer and conductor
Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra
Bugge Wesseltoft additional synthesizer and electronic effects, accordion
Recorded March 1998
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Our light is a voice.
We cut a road for the soul,
for its journey through death.

RITES is without question Jan Garbarek’s magnum opus. If not for the simple fact that it spans one and a half hours over two discs, it mines the deepest ores in the saxophonist-composer’s already vast oeuvre and polishes them just enough to let their colors speak. Every melody is a new stratum, a vein in the rock with a story to tell. The initiation begins with the cinematic title track. Accented by a light dusting of field recordings (taken during Garbarek’s travels in India), it follows a deep bass pulse and warm synths along an aerial view of mountainous terrain…barren, misty, and free. An eagle traverses these plains, the one who has seen it all: from ocean through volcanic eruption to solidification, from inhabitation through migration to desertion. Garbarek’s soprano peals like the lone survivor calling out to that eagle. The call goes unheeded. The eagle carries on, carrying nothing. In desperation, the survivor resigns himself to what must be and what never can. “Where the rivers meet” unspools his wayfaring in reverse, the last hopeful stage of a trek that brought him into the clearing. Like salmon leaping from the water, motives catch a glint of sun before they splash back into river’s flow. In that turgid reflection struggles the natural scope of “Vast plain, clouds,” where bassist Eberhard Weber leaves only the shadows of seedlings by way of drooping, willowed lines.

Garbarek flips back through the pages to his past with a haunting rendition of his quintessential “It’s OK to listen to the gray voice.” Its brushed cymbals and bubbling pianism invite us to look at our own lives anew. Keyboardist Rainer Brüninghaus provides epic touches to “So mild the wind, so meek the water” and “Her wild ways,” both of which give insight into the survivor’s maturation, while “It’s high time” brings us into the night of revelry that embraced his conception, further to the seat of his ancestry. The youthful candor of his discoveries, the newness of his faith, surprises one whose soles still bleed from the long journeys. And so, he bids, “Song, tread lightly,” cradling his own birth in a night vision.

The second disc thus replaces the survivor with a diary of things intangible. Here we come to know the profundity of joy. The memorable balance of “One Ying for every Yang” posits Garbarek and Weber against a shifting synth backdrop of liquid texture, while “Pan” and “Evenly they danced” enable likeminded playfulness. “Malinye” (written by, and offered in memory of, Don Cherry) is a distant carnival, an atmosphere emphasized in “The white clown,” which works its twisted spell in service of a childhood dream.

Two notable cameos come to us in the form of “We are the stars,” featuring the Norwegian youth choir Sølvguttene in a setting of a Passamaquoddy (Native American) poem, and another setting of Galaktion Tabidze’s “The moon over Mtatsminda” by Georgian composer Jansug Kakhidze. A tireless advocate of Giya Kancheli’s music, Kakhidze offers voice and baton in kind, conducting the Tblisi Symphony Orchestra in a heartrending song that hangs on a silver thread. This song is a rite unto itself, a window into cultural understandings that weave themselves into tapestries of experience until one day a tug sets off their colors just so. In light of this, “Last rite” rings prophetically. Though essentially a reprisal of the opening track, it elides the reed. With the survivor’s call now gone, we are left with a choice: implore the passing eagles in our lives for assistance or move on until we find what awaits us.

London Jazz Festival

Here is a wonderful write-up by one of my favorite bloggers, Diana J. Hale, about the 2012 London Jazz Festival, which included a strong Nordic representation of ECM artists. While you’re there, be sure to peruse her ongoing series of beautiful watercolors.