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A Retrospektif Look at
Jan Garbarek’s Milestone Albums

Blog
A Retrospektif Look at Jan Garbarek’s Milestone Albums

30.05.2019

Text: Leyla Aksu
Illustration: Saydan Akşit

Long hailed among the originators of the Nordic tone, the instigators of the “ECM sound,” and the pioneers of European jazz, improvisational saxophonist and composer Jan Garbarek’s clear and sharp tone has navigated across conventions both new and old, with collaborators just as varied and diverse as his own journey through music. One of the earliest names to join the ECM roster after its inception, the label has been the decided home of Garbarek’s musical explorations beyond classification and time, a defining partnership for both artist and label ever since, spanning close to five decades.

Though he may have “had absolutely no fascination for music” in his very early years, Garbarek had a transformative introduction to jazz at the age of 14: “I heard Coltrane on the radio and it changed everything... I had been out with my friends, you know, and I came in because it was getting dark probably, and I heard this music; something made me stop.” Asking his parents for a saxophone and taking up the instrument shortly after, he won an amateur jazz competition just a year later, launching his career and coming to join composer and theorist George Russell for a life-changing musical education by the time he was 17. Meeting ECM founder Manfred Eicher while on tour with Russell, the legendary producer later invited Garbarek to put together a band to record at a studio in Oslo.

After that meeting, Garbarek soon became one of the few artists, amidst pianist Keith Jarrett and guitarist Terje Rypdal, who carved out the signature sound of improvisational cool ECM came to be known for. Describing the label’s early years, saying it was “…just a very creative atmosphere at that time. We were all sort of coming up with ideas and it was all very loose and free,” Garbarek’s ECM debut, the now classic Afric Pepperbird (1970), featured Jon Christensen on drums, Arild Andersen on bass, and Terje Rypdal on guitar alongside him, creating a passionate blend of free jazz and fusion that was recorded across two evenings. Describing Garbarek as a “born improviser” Eicher presided over the loose and unconstrained session saying, “We knew we had something special.”

Garbarek’s following releases –1972’s tempestuous Triptykon, demonstrating the beginnings of the artist’s use of Norwegian folk music, and Witchi-Tai-To, a fiery collection of avant-garde jazz covers by the immensely popular Garbarek-Stenson Quaret– both heralded the emergence of the artist’s distinct delivery and improvisational chemistry. Garbarek gained further recognition throughout the 1970’s, working with Keith Jarrett as part of his European Quartet, alongside Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, a partnership spearheaded by Eicher that would produce some of the most quintessential jazz records from the ECM catalog.

The following years set Garbarek on a global path of exploration and diversification, with an ever-expanding list of collaborators and inspirations. Recording with artists like guitarist Egberto Gismonti, organist Kjell Johnsen, and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, the artist began to incorporate Afro-Latin rhythms, Nordic melodies, and synthesizers into his music, with the 1980’s also producing one of his most pivotal collaborations with guitarist and label-mate Bill Frisell. Also turning to the Far East throughout the decade, fully immersing his own tonal quality in various traditions, Garbarek worked alongside names like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Trilok Gurtu, Zakir Hussein, and Ravi Shankar.

It was 1993’s Officium that offered another turning point for both Garbarek and ECM, a venture into Gregorian chant through a collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble vocal group that turned out to be one of the most successful of his career. Recorded in a monastery in the Austrian Alps, delicately intertwining voice and saxophone, the album crossed over into European pop music charts, paving the way for a trilogy of albums across the years. Then, after a brief hiatus, 2004’s Grammy-nominated In Praise of Dreams delivered a stripped back, sparse meeting between Garbarek and violist Kim Kashkashian and, surprisingly, the Jan Garbarek Group’s first official live album, Dresden (2009), followed just a few years later.

Since the early 1970’s, Garbarek’s keen saxophone has been the connective tissue across the worlds of jazz, classical and distinct global musical traditions, all with an ear to the folk music of his native Norway and occasional turns into rock’n’roll, ambient music, and, arguably, a flirtation with the threshold of New Age. The artist has appeared on countless albums, both at the helm and as a sideman, his distinct sound, use of silence, and sustained notes wading with characteristic precision into new territories with each recording. “In the house of ECM, you might say, my life as a musician has taken place.”

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