Jan Garbarek has what is probably one of the most readily identifiable saxophone sounds in jazz. Originally influenced by John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, Garbarek very quickly moved away from what he began to perceive as the restrictions in free jazz and instead focussed on sound production, melody, structured compositions and rhythm.
This path would shape the saxophonist’s desire to forge his own unique sound on both tenor and soprano saxophone, and while some may argue that this ‘icy Nordic tone’ has been a straightjacket on his progress nothing can be further from the truth.
Always maintaining the importance of having an original voice on his instrument, Garbarek always stated that once a musician had found their voice that it would often not change throughout their career.
What was important in the musical development of an artist was to continue to search for the right setting in which to place it. This would be a trait that the saxophonist would master in a career that has spanned six decades.
Jan Garbarek was born in Mysen, Norway on 4 March 1947. His family moved to Oslo where he grew up. Showing little interest in music, it was not until he heard John Coltrane on the radio that his interest was aroused.
A little research on behalf of the fourteen year old Garbarek revealed that he had been listening to ‘Countdown’ from Coltrane’s Giant Steps album. Immediately purchasing a copy of the recording, Garbarek immersed himself in the music deciding that he too wanted to play the saxophone, and persuading his parents to buy him an instrument.
His progress was swift and in 1962 he won an amateur competition, and while still a teenager fell under the guidance of George Russell who was living and working in Oslo. The young saxophonist would spend four years playing in Russell’s bands and learning much from him about musical theory.
In 1969 Garbarek came to the attention of Manfred Eicher who was in the process of setting up his own record label. Eicher expressed an interest in recording the saxophonist and a year later Afric Pepperbird by the Jan Garbarek Quartet was recorded for the fledgling ECM Records.
From here on in Garbarek remained faithful to the imprint with all his recorded output being produced by Eicher and released on ECM.
Over the next two decades Garbarek recorded prolifically with a new record every year. He would establish a pattern of going in to the studio at the end of each year to record what he had learned and developed with his band in the proceeding twelve months.
Preferring to work in small groups the saxophonist would often lead a quartet, or occasionally quintet, with keyboards or guitar.
In the 1980’s Garbarek would establish a close working relationship with the German Bassist Eberhard Weber which would last for a a quarter of a century. Weber played a custom upright electric bass, and his sound and orchestral approach to his instrument suited Garbarek’s music perfectly.
The early eighties found Garbarek eschewing the piano or keyboard in favour of the more open sound of the guitar, although by the end of the decade had once again reintroduced the keyboard back into his group with Rainer Brüninghaus being his pianist of choice from 1988 until the present.
With Weber and Brüninghaus, Garbarek had the core members of his Group, and it was only percussion duties and additional guest musicians that would fluctuate over the next few years, and it was with these musicians that Garbarek would record Twelve Moons in 1992, which would be released the following year as ECMs 500th release.
One of the key ingredients in Garbarek’s music over the years had been his interest in Nordic folk music, and how he could incorporate this into his own sound world, and this has been perfectly realised in this outstanding album.
In a blend of old and new, traditional Scandinavian folk melodies and jazz, Garbarek has got it just right. The compositions are strong, his Group have a remarkable empathy and Garbarek has never sounded better.
His tenor sound good not be mistaken for anyone else, and soprano sound is full and round. The tone is less forced, full and rich and can at times be mistaken for an alto.
Garbarek’s use of keyboards as well as acoustic piano is also cleverly deployed in arrangements that are often detailed and complex. The music is beautifully structured and balanced, with each musician clearly heard and their contribution can be fully appreciated.
Opening with ‘Twelve Moons (Part one: Winter-Summer, Part two: Summer-Winter)’ we hear Garbarek’s keening soprano over synthesizers, also credited to the saxophonist, with drums and percussion from Manu Katché and Marilyn Mazur.
Containing excerpts from music composed for the film Around The Year In Børfjord the music uses Garbarek’s soprano lines above vibrant if rather static drum patterns and percussion colourations supplied by Mazur.
Much of the music that follows then makes use of a quartet/quintet line up in a series of compositions that seem to bring together all of Garbarek’s strengths as a composer and improviser. No detail is overlooked but there are no superfluous gestures either.
The saxophonist has always had the ability to play just what the composition demands at any time. No ego trips, just pure melody. As if proof be needed, just listen to ‘There Were Swallows…’, a beautifully realised piece of music in which all contribute just what is required. Garbarek’s saxophone may often be the dominant voice heard, but take time to hear Weber’s electric bass; audible one minute before dropping back into the ensemble.
Similarly, the percussion of Marilyn Mazur is a marvel repaying close listening as every tiny gesture and nuance is captured in the recording and plays a big part in the music.
This attention to detail is again highlighted in Garbarek’s stunning arrangement of Edvard Grieg’s ‘Arietta’ in which Rainer Brüninghaus’s exquisite touch on piano is a marvel.
The way in which he accompanies Garbarek, heard again on soprano saxophone, on Grieg’s delightful melody is a joy but the highlight is heard in the piano solo in which Brüninghaus accompanied by Weber and Mazur plays above and beyond.
This incredible group sound that is such an essential factor in the success of this lovely record is given full reign on Garbarek’s arrangement of the traditional ‘Gautes-Margjit’.
In this twelve minute long tour de force, Garbarek is declamatory in his statement of the melody while the rhythmic axis of Manu Katché’s drum patterns and Marilyn Mazur’s intricate percussion commentary alongside Weber’s electric bass set the piece up in a most dramatic way.
Weber’s bass neatly switches between rhythm duties and supporting the melody line and/or piano as the leader’s tenor saxophone becomes ever more expansive in the subtle variations on the tune with superb use of dynamics and control of pitch.
Back on soprano, Garbarek shows he has not lost his jazz chops in two outstanding performances. The first is features the full quintet on ‘Huhai’ which includes another traditional melody in the Sami joik ‘Oskar-An’te’.
The melody is stated on saxophone over a percussion and drums introduction that is effective in its apparent simplicity until one listens carefully to the dialogue between Mazur and Katché. As the piece progresses, Garbarek’s saxophone soars magnificently completely as one with the composition and the group.
Even as he breaks down the melody into smaller fragments, his tone and timbre carry the music on to its climax.
A staple of Garbarek’s live performances is ‘Witchi-Tai-To’ composed by saxophonist Jim Pepper, and which Jan first recorded on the album of the same name with pianist Bobo Stenson in 1973.
This version is quite different and it is fascinating to hear how the piece has evolved in Garbarek’s hands in the intervening years. Featuring a quartet, this time without percussion, the drumming of Manu Katché is again a vital ingredient.
If his pattern based playing and rock steady beat initially seem against the grain for a flowing improvisational music, then this does not impede or hinder Garbarek or pianist Rainer Brüninghaus.
The saxophonist especially seems to relish playing his improvised thoughts over such a solid rhythmic backdrop, and turns in another remarkable performance.
In a diverse and varied programme Jan Garbarek successfully realises in a single album everything that he has been working towards in a blending of Afro-American style improvising and Scandinavian folk tunes.
His fascination with blending of instrumental voices also extends to the human voice in to outstanding contributions from Agnes Buen Garnås and Mari Boine.
With his arrangement of the traditional ‘Psalm’ with lyrics by Elling Hansen, Garbarek creates a beautifully atmospheric backdrop using soprano saxophone and Eberhard Weber’s arco electric bass for Garnås’s quiet and ethereal vocals.
The other vocal is featured on ‘Darvánan’ which is composed and sung here by Mari Boine. Boine is a Sámi vocalist in the traditional style of Sámi joik singing.
Here she is accompanied by the lone voice of Garbarek’s tenor saxophone that alternates between following Boine’s vocal or placing his own plaintive lines alongside the singer’s extraordinary cries.
Twelve Moons is a culmination and celebration of Garbarek’s work up until that time. His progress and subsequent development would take in new directions, the seeds of which can be discerned here too.
The album was ECM’s 500th release, and it is fitting that the honour should be given to the saxophonist who, perhaps more so than anyone else, helped define the famous ECM sound.
Jan Garbarek (Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Synthesizer); Rainer Brüninghaus (Piano, Synthesizer); Eberhard Weber (Bass); Manu Katché (Drums); Marilyn Mazur (Percussion); Agnes Buen Garnås (Vocals); Mari Boine (Vocals)
Recorded: September 1992, Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Twelve Moons (Part one: Winter-Summer, Part two: Summer-Winter) / Psalm / Brother Wind March / There Were Swallows… / The Tall Tear Trees /
Arietta / Gautes-Margjit / Darvánan / Huhai / Witchi-Tai-To