Zakir Hussain: Making Music (ECM 1349)

Zakir Hussain
Making Music

Zakir Hussain tabla, percussion, voice
Hariprasad Chaurasia flutes
John McLaughlin acoustic guitar
Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones
Recorded December 1986 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In March of 2010, I had the great honor of seeing Zakir Hussain and the Masters of Percussion give an unforgettable performance. I had always been a great admirer of him, but to experience that blissful power firsthand was beyond special. This liveness can hardly be replicated on disc, though we can still feel the passion that imbues his every action in the studio and beyond.

The key to Making Music lies in its title. This is not about a fusion of East and West. This is about creation for its own sake. The selfsame track opens our ears to the flute of Hariprasad Chaurasia, who turns breath into gold. Guitarist and Mahavishnu Orchestra guru John McLaughlin is another welcome addition to a quartet rounded out by saxophonist Jan Garbarek. As lines curve their way through subtle changes in temperature, we can feel the rhythm being formed, piece by ephemeral piece, even before Hussain lays hands to drum. Garbarek works some of that same magic that enlivened his earlier recordings with Shankar, while McLaughlin showcases his mastery of classical forms (the duet with Hussain on “You And Me” is one of many highlights), matching the tabla master’s deftness with ease.

Yet Chaurasia is the jewel of this session. His dialogues with McLaughlin (“Zakir” and “Sabah”) in particular reveal a purity of tone all his own. Sometimes, he lowers the threads from which the music hangs, pulling us along with them into a verdant sky. Others, he bends like an outstretched leaf hit by the first raindrop of spring (“Toni”). The album’s remainder is filled with rainbows. The most verdant of these is “Water Girl,” a mosaic spread with saffron and rosewater, willed into life by that generative flute. Garbarek makes his voice clearest in “Anisa,” which first pairs him with McLaughlin in an exchange at once forlorn and sweet before Hussain regales with such grace that one has to wonder if his fingers aren’t pure energy. After this saga of tribulation and triumph, Garbarek’s skyward incantation in “Sunjog”—incidentally, another standout for McLaughlin, who shares a winged exchange with everyone in turn—proves well suited to this musical nexus, for he, like the others, plays not in unison but in tandem, and in so doing binds the overall unity toward which they strive together. And so, when they do join in the occasional doubling, the sound becomes gentler, each voice restraining itself so as not to overpower.

Hussain is a carpenter who delicately hammers the edges of every project he touches into perfect alignment. Yet after listening to Making Music, one has the feeling this project had only just begun.

<< Gidon Kremer: Edition Lockenhaus Vols. 4 & 5 (ECM 1347/48 NS)
>> The Bill Frisell Band: Lookout For Hope (ECM 1350)

Jan Garbarek: All Those Born With Wings (ECM 1324)

Jan Garbarek
All Those Born With Wings

Jan Garbarek solo
Recorded August 1986 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As one of ECM’s most passionate and prolific contributors, Jan Garbarek has left us with a varicolored, sometimes watery, archive. For All Those Born With Wings, the Norwegian saxophonist went solo, painting an evocative album of relic-laden vistas. The result is a six-part session filled with a variety of instruments and tastes. The hammered dulcimer is a welcome sound to the Garbarek palette, and is used tastefully in the 1st Part, where Garbarek’s saxophone refracts into a flock of large-winged birds. An army of chants floods the 2nd Part, as martial drums resound like the introductory sequence of a classic martial arts film.

While such dramatic flourishes make for a powerful start, the album’s hold begins to wane in the 3rd part, which comes across as tentative and in need of deeper thought. By the same token, such moments reveal an endearing vulnerability, one of which I like to think Garbarek was conscious when drawing this album from his psyche. Another drawback, though likely not at the time of recording, are the electronics, which don’t hold up as well as the melodies they articulate. Note, for example, the visceral edge Garbarek gets using only piano and saxophone in the 4th Part. This combination is so effective (cf. Stella Malu), one wishes it comprised the entire album. Its permeable lullaby haunts, as do the strains of the next part. This time, Garbarek pairs himself with a shoddy synthesized guitar, which makes me wonder why an acoustic couldn’t have been brought in. The subtle live percussion, however, adds flavor and sparkle to both of these pieces. I also find the multi-tracking to be an unnecessary diversion. Garbarek’s tone is already so full that additional voices seem superfluous. The final part brings together the album’s quiet logic at last and breeds its greatest clarity for the lack of contrivance.

There is something delicate, almost childlike, in these pockets of stars that makes them worth exploring. Still, those new to Garbarek may want to look elsewhere in his evening sky before connecting the dots of this particular constellation.

<< Gavin Bryars: Three Viennese Dancers (ECM 1323 NS)
>> Arvo Pärt: Arbos (ECM 1325 NS)

Jan Garbarek Group: Wayfarer (ECM 1259)

Jan Garbarek Group

Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones
Bill Frisell guitar
Eberhard Weber bass
Michael DiPasqua drums, percussion
Recorded March 1983 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Jan Garbarek Group has ever been among ECM’s more formidable. Its winning inclusion of bassist Eberhard Weber ensured a fluid foil to Garbarek’s scalpeled lines. The brief tenure of guitarist Bill Frisell made that balance even more promising. That being said, Wayfarer tends to meander as much as its eponymous protagonist, although who’s to say this wasn’t the intention. Gone is the full-on dreaminess of Paths, Prints. In its place: a session that walks in a half-sleep through picturesque territories without ever really looking at them, never quite knowing which reality it is committed to. Drummer Michael DiPasqua gives us hope in the inaugural “Gesture,” carrying over the cymbal rides one misses in Jon Christensen’s absence, but his surroundings only seem to wander in circles. “Gentle” is another case in point, though Weber manages to enliven this piece into something beautiful. At ten and a half minutes, “Pendulum” is the album’s central epic and gives Frisell plenty of room to stretch. But the ponderousness wears thin, and one loses sight of the destination. Likewise, “Spor” seems more like a studio warm-up to something that never made the final cut. The album’s reigning exception is the title track, which from a brooding crawl through dimly lit catacombs bursts with DiPasqua’s incredible frenzy as Frisell sharpens his axe along the periphery. It also gives us a taste of the old Garbarek.

Despite occasional flashes of brilliance and fine musicianship all around, the themes on Wayfarer are relatively weak and don’t seem to add up. In my journey through ECM’s back catalogue thus far, this is the only Jan Garbarek Group album I would hesitate to recommend. This may be one, however, to grow with time.

<< Oregon: s/t (ECM 1258)
>> Chick Corea/Gary Burton: Lyric Suite For Sextet (ECM 1260)

Jan Garbarek Group: It’s OK to listen to the gray voice (ECM 1294)

Jan Garbarek Group
It’s OK to listen to the gray voice

Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones
David Torn guitars, guitar synthesizer, DX 7
Eberhard Weber bass
Michael DiPasqua drums, percussion
Recorded December 1984 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

O field as grey as the buried bog-man’s cloak.
An island floating darkly in the fog.
It’s quiet, as when the radar turns
and turns its arc in hopelessness.

 There’s a crossroads in a moment.
Music of the distance converges.
All grown together in a leafy tree.
Vanished cities glitter in its branches.

–From “Elegy” by Tomas Tranströmer (trans. Robin Fulton)

If the title of this classic Jan Garbarek date from 1984 moves you, there’s a good reason for that. Like all of the tunes therein, its nomenclature is culled from the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer, who was just awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. And if anyone has the vocabulary available at his lips to reproduce it without words, it’s Jan Garbarek.

Garbarek albums are, like those of Keith Jarrett, trail markers in the ECM catalogue by which can gauge the label’s evolution in sound and atmosphere, and if this one is any indication, I’d say things were moving along pretty darn smoothly. Garbarek shines brightest in the company of those who have their own sonorous light to bring to an otherwise inarticulable cause, and finds exactly that in guitarist David Torn, bassist Eberhard Weber, and drummer Michael DiPasqua.

Together they string a delicate network of guitar and electronics in “White Noise Of Forgetfulness,” throughout which Garbarek strings a song to complement every warped square of silence. Weber opens “The Crossing Place” with a honeyed solo, to which Garbarek touches his saxophonic torch and sets the darkness aglow like a sparkler in July, ever dancing at the edge of annihilation. Torn’s snaking solo winds beneath a desert sun into the oasis of “One Day In March I Go Down To The Sea.” Here Garbarek takes the notion of sonic postcard to an entirely new level, moving diacritically around images and sentiments with the care of a sable brush. “Mission: To Be Where I Am” comes across as something of a personal anthem, and has a lilting beauty all its own. “Phone The Island That Is A Mirage” features melodious bass work from Weber amid a slowly moving atmosphere. The haunting title track is straight from the heart and would reappear on the saxophonist’s 1998 magnum opus, Rites. The set ends modestly with “I Am The Knife Thrower’s Partner,” a sad and lonely tale—nay, an impression—told by two overdubbed saxophones, each a light upon the horizon gone too soon.

<< Gary Burton Quartet: Real Life Hits (ECM 1293)
>> John Surman: Withholding Pattern (ECM 1295)

Shankar: Song For Everyone (ECM 1286)

Song For Everyone

Shankar 10-string double violin, drum machine
Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
Zakir Hussain tabla, congas
Trilok Gurtu percussion
Recorded September 1984 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Shankar and Jan Garbarek’s previous collaboration, Vision, opened many people’s ears to the more fruitful possibilities of idiomatic blends. And while that initial project yielded a fascinating album in its own right, I always felt it lacked something I couldn’t quite articulate. With Song For Everyone, that lack becomes clear once Trilok Gurtu and Zakir Hussain level the playing field with their earthy rhythms. In their presence, electric violin and saxophone can soar even higher, knowing there will always be a ground to return to. As if to underscore this point, Shankar also employs a drum machine, as in the delightful “Paper Nut” that inaugurates us into the album’s universe. Shankar’s Philip Glassean harmonies and flexible dips form a sling that shoots us in slow motion toward the Visionary galaxy of “I Know,” where his sparkling pizzicato lines are reinvigorated by the presence of tabla. Garbarek has hardly ever sounded as clean as he does here. He digs deep into his emotional and technical reserves and proves his chameleonic abilities, such that whenever he returns with the theme in tow, it is always as if from a long journey. This enchanting track also exemplifies the coalescence of which these two musicians are so worthily capable. “Watching You” reinstates the drum machine, which is immediately valorized by Shankar’s likeminded precision (even when multi-tracking, he sounds like one instrument). Ascendant chording provides ample uplift for Garbarek’s rainbow arcs. The violin solo here proves that Shankar’s mastery comes not from the top down, but from the inside out. He makes the most demanding passages seem effortless and the simplest seem complex, as in “Conversation.” Here his virtuosity enhances Garbarek at his adaptive best. After the anthemic jubilation of the title track, “Let’s Go Home” comes across as introverted, though no less energetic. “Rest In Peace” ends the album with bowed heads. It is a slow dissipation of cloud, a gentle breeze of the heart, the empty chambers of a body in which music is the only tangible spirit.

<< Bruno Ganz: Hölderlin – Gedichte gelesen von Bruno Ganz (ECM 1285 NS)
>> Bill Frisell: Rambler (ECM 1287)

Shankar: Vision (ECM 1261)


Shankar 10-string double violin, percussion
Jan Garbarek tenor, soprano and bass saxophones, percussion
Palle Mikkelborg trumpet, fluegelhorn
Recorded April 1983 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After the masterstroke of Who’s To Know, perhaps it was inevitable that the growing ECM pool would provide unusual collaborative opportunities for the 10-string stereophonic electric violin of L. Shankar. And that we certainly are given in Vision, an unearthly journey that finds him in the company of saxophonist Jan Garbarek and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. The former is a no-brainer for this date, while the latter provides an ethereal depth to the already expansive sound. Shankar’s violin is heavily flanged throughout, an effect that does grow tiresome after a while. But such caveats hardly register in the melodious hearth in which they burn.

One need only follow the pizzicato footsteps of “All For You” to get acquainted with the album’s beauties and to feel the shadows of Garbarek and Mikkelborg flying overhead. With this exuberant awakening still echoing inside us, we can only close our eyes in the title track. Amid the raspy breath of the violin’s lower strings, the air itself vibrates with a cosmic growl, as if some enormous lioness were slowly coming out of her shell in Terje Rypdal’s dreams. Through the glacial slides of “Astral Projection,” Garbarek and Mikkelborg etch a flock of shooting stars in a slow-moving tide of meditation. “Psychic Elephant” follows in much the same vein as the opener, blossoming into a pizzicato line that one could listen to for hours on its own. This time around, Mikkelborg dons the ether like a cloak, while Garbarek surprises with rare turns on drums and bass saxophone. Only here does Shankar lose himself in more pronounced streams of life before the solitude of “The Message” carries us into stasis.

I wasn’t fully convinced by this album the first time I heard it, yet as I have grown with it, so too has it grown with me: proof positive of its power to transcend the disc on which it was recorded and find sanctum in the human heart.

<< Chick Corea/Gary Burton: Lyric Suite For Sextet (ECM 1260)
>> Kenny Wheeler: Double, Double You (ECM 1262)

Jan Garbarek: Paths, Prints (ECM 1223)

ECM 1223

Jan Garbarek
Paths, Prints

Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones, wood flutes, percussion
Bill Frisell guitar
Eberhard Weber bass
Jon Christensen drums, percussion
Recorded December 1981, Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

December of 1981 was a magical month for ECM, producing such treasures as Psalm and Opening Night. On Paths, Prints, however, Manfred Eicher raised the bar yet again in bringing together another of his unique dream teams. Jan Garbarek, Bill Frisell, Eberhard Weber, and Jon Christensen in the same studio? Engineering complexities aside, one need only have hit Record, taken a nap, and awoken to masterful results. Throughout this session, Garbarek’s sharply defined reveries prove the perfect fulcrum for Frisell’s broadly sweeping clock hands. Garbarek also exposes a softer side, as in the whispered edges of “The Path” and “Arc,” and in the seesawing contours of “Still.” The painterly movements of “Kite Dance,” on the other hand, foreground Weber’s globules of sound against the blush and heartwarming soloing of Frisell’s omnipresent guitar. Not too far behind are “Footprints,” which shows Christensen in an especially colorful mood, and “The Move,” which pours on Garbarek’s signature lilt like heavy cream. Certainly his most effective passages are also the most intimate: “Considering The Snail” and “To B.E.,” the latter a duet with Frisell, are concave, while their surroundings are convex.

One can easily fall into the trap of painting ECM jazz as forlorn, breezy, and overwhelmingly lonesome. Yet one journey through Paths, Prints is all it takes to realize that the music is always our companion.

<< Paul Motian Band: Psalm (ECM 1222)
>> Enrico Rava Quartet: Opening Night (ECM 1224)

Jan Garbarek: Eventyr (ECM 1200)

ECM 1200

Jan Garbarek

Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones, flutes
John Abercrombie guitars
Nana Vasconcelos berimbau, percussion, voice
Recorded December 1980 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A strange flute it was! It emitted a note as sustained as the whistle of a steam-engine, but much more powerful. It penetrated through the whole manor, over the gardens, the woods, for miles out into the countryside, and with the sound of it came a great gust of wind roaring.
–From “Everything In Its Right Place” by Hans Christian Andersen (trans. L. W. Kingsland)

Eventyr means “adventure.” Classical listeners may also recognize it as the name of Frederick Delius’s lovely 1917 tone poem, which is often translated as “Once Upon A Time” to underscore its origins in the folk tale collections of Norwegian scholar Peter Christen Asbjørnsen. Here, the name adorns one of Jan Garbarek’s most recondite efforts to date and, like its own “Once Upon A Time,” houses a world of lessons and signs for those willing enough to interpret them. Joined by John Abercrombie and Nana Vasconcelos, he spins a string of seven improvisations, rounded out by a standard, “East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon” (Brooks Bowman), that doesn’t so much end the album as open us to its nebulous center. In that center we encounter swirls of majesty as only he can draw. With almost liquid fire and ever-insightful phrasing, Garbarek brings his deepest considerations to the nearly 12-minute “Sora Maria” that is its primordial soup. His interplay with Abercrombie resolves into a vague continent, where only the playful refractions of “Lillekort” resolve themselves into separate entities. Vasconcelos’s pliancy is the animating skeleton of the title track, in which his gravelly voice and ritualism exudes from every gamelan hit. In “Weaving A Garland,” tenor sax and guitar paint a rolling horizon of vegetation. Such shorter tracks as this and “The Companion” comprise the more potent incantations amid the long-form spells that otherwise dictate the album’s vocabulary. Transcendence comes in the form of “Snipp, Snapp, Snute,” a sparkling menagerie of triangles and wooden flute that works its light into a crepuscular sky. Through it we see in fine detail the inner life of three musicians whose nets run far into the cosmic ocean, where only transformation awaits in the catch.

<< Katrina Krimsky/Trevor Watts: Stella Malu (ECM 1199)
>> Keith Jarrett: Invocations/The Moth And The Flame (ECM 1201/02)

Haden/Garbarek/Gismonti: Folk Songs (ECM 1170)

ECM 1170

Folk Songs

Charlie Haden bass
Jan Garbarek saxophones
Egberto Gismonti guitars, piano
Recorded November 1979 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This scintillating follow-up album to Magico is yet another fine example of ECM’s progressive comings together. Uniting multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti with the instantly recognizable stylings of saxophonist Jan Garbarek and bassist Charlie Haden seems at once a stroke of genius and an inevitable configuration. A blue “Folk Song” sets the tone for all tender considerations that follow, slowly working its motions into a helix of atmospheres. Gismonti stretches out a gorgeous drawl in “Bôdas De Prata.” Within the open bowl of Garbarek’s cupped tenor, he glows like a firefly. The rhythmic acuity of “Cego Aderaldo” is enough to sustain an otherwise languid album. There is something special about the 12-string/sax combination here that recalls the label’s Solstice days and pairs beautifully with “Veien,” which gives us the album’s most reactive moments. Gismonti’s perpetuity, Garbarek’s crystalline phrasings, and Haden’s heartening geometries unify, appropriately enough, in “Equilibrista.” This cradle of rolling piano and melodic overlays falls from its bough in a melodious tumble, landing on its feet for the final word, which comes in the form of “For Turiya,” another ballad-like seesaw of piano and bass resting on the fulcrum of Garbarek’s nocturnal whispers.

Each of these precious musicians has the ability to paint the grandest pictures with the subtlest gestures. This tension of method and effect is at the heart of ECM’s ethos. In such projects, one feels producer Manfred Eicher’s conversational presence and guiding hand, both of which can only illuminate the joys of creation and the sharing thereof.

<< Jan Garbarek/Kjell Johnsen: Aftenland (ECM 1169)
>> Keith Jarrett: Nude Ants (ECM 1171/72)