Jan Garbarek has combined an unlikely mixture of musical interests to become a jazz musician who is both highly acclaimed and extremely popular. His records are among the best selling on the ECM label, indeed among the best selling of any jazz artist. His 1994 CD, Officium, which brought together medieval plainsong and Garbarek’s plaintive saxophone, has sold more than one million copies. Although critics sometimes grouse that Garbarek flirts too often with New Age music, they have been unstinting in their praise of his individual recordings and concerts.
Garbarek was born on March 4, 1947, in Mysen, Norway. The musical career of the man England’s Guardian called “Europe’s most famous jazz musician,” began with a boyhood epiphany. One morning in 1961 when he was 14 years old, Garbarek turned on the radio to hear John Coltrane playing “Countdown.” Until that moment Garbarek had no special interest in jazz, or in music in general. But Coltrane grabbed ahold of something in Garbarek and refused to let go. He went out right away, tracked down a copy of the record, and began playing it daily. “Every morning when I got dressed, brushed my teeth, or had breakfast [Coltrane] was there in the background,” Garbarek told the Times of London.
Before long, listening was not enough. Garbarek had to play himself. He could not afford an instrument at first, but he nonetheless practiced the fingerings from a saxophone book he found. Once he got his own saxophone, he taught himself to play listening to the records of Coltrane and other saxophone greats. Using phonograph records alone, Garbarek was able, in a remarkably brief period of time, to master the language of bop and post-bop saxophone. Within a year, he was fronting his own amateur jazz quartet. In 1962 he won an amateur competition, which led to his first opportunity to record. Afterward he formed another quartet, which included Norwegian musicians Jon Christensen, Terje Rypal and Arild Andersen, a group which attracted much critical acclaim. Garbarek’s musical career was so successful that before long, he dropped out of Oslo University to concentrate exclusively on making music.
Despite his success in jazz—a form of music whose birthplace and capital is in the United States—Garbarek was apparently uninterested in pursuing his career in America. He leaned away from the riff-oriented music that dominated much mainstream jazz at the time; he was not interested in the flashy yet meaningless displays of instrumental virtuosity that many jazz players engaged in. He began to develop his own sound, one which reviewers would come to call “Nordic,” “icy,” or “glacial,” but also “intense,” “atmospheric,” and “emotional.” He came to value honesty in playing rather than technical skill. He described to the Guardian’s John Fordham the moment when his music changed from the jazz he had first listened to. “Coltrane
Born on March 4, 1947, in Mysen, Norway; married; one daughter.
Took up tenor saxophone after hearing John Coltrane on the radio, 1961; won competition for amateur musicians and received recording deal, 1962; performed with American artists Don Cherry and George Russell, 1963-67; received Norwegian government grant to study American jazz, 1970; ECM released its first LP, Garbarek’s Afric Pepperbird, 1971; performed with Keith Jarrett and Belonging Band, mid-1970s; made Song For Everyone with Ravi Shankar, 1984; recorded million-selling Officium with Hilliard Ensemble, 1994; Visible World made British top 75 album charts, 1996.
was first, then Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, the whole history. I could sort of play a little bit like a lot of them. But then I suddenly realized that the phrase I was about to play was exactly like such-and-such that was usually played at that moment, drawn there because the musical surroundings I was involved in were right out of the jazz tradition. It was a very uneasy feeling to find that I no longer wanted to do that.”
Fortunately for Garbarek, however, he did not have to move to New York to play with the greatest American jazz men. Many of avant garde jazz’s most adventurous souls, unable to find gigs in their homeland, moved to European countries such as France, Sweden and Norway, where they were welcomed enthusiastically. That jazz migration made it possible for Garbarek to perform with luminaries like trumpeter Don Cherry and George Russell by the time he was 20 years old. Russell was so impressed that he called Garbarek the most talented jazz musician to come out of Europe since Django Reinhardt in the 1930s.
In 1969, Garbarek was approached by Manfred Eicher about making a record for the record label Eicher was about to start. Garbarek agreed and the album, Afric Pepperbird, was the first release of ECM Records. Since then Garbarek has not recorded for any other label and has become ECM’s best-selling artist. The two are a match made in heaven. ECM is world famous for its crisp, utterly clean, spacious sound, while Garbarek’s saxophone makes the purest, most lyrical sounds in music. Since then, the musician has made more than 30 records for ECM. Later in the 1970s, after the Norwegian government presented Garbarek with a grant to visit the United States to hear the jazz there, he teamed up with ECM label-mate, Keith Jarrett. Richard Cook of the Independent considered the collaboration ultimately unsuccessful, but acknowledged that “the contrast between the saxophonist’s severity and Jarrett’s fulsome outpouring style was a fascinating one.”
The two have since gone their separate ways, with Jarrett leaning toward interpretations of standards and Bach, while Garbarek began making forays into what later came to be known as “world music.” His first recording of this kind was Tryptichon, made in 1970. It actually was only world music for the rest of the world—on Tryptichon the saxophonist explored his own down-home music, the folk music of his native Norway. He would continue those explorations regularly, on recordings such as Eventyr in 1981 and Rosenfole in 1991. He reached a kind of turning point with the album Dis, made in 1976. Over the strains of an Aeolian harp being played by the winds above a Norwegian fjord, Garbarek’s saxophone soared. Jazz had never sounded like this.
Garbarek would later experiment with the traditional music of other cultures as well. He made Song For Everyone with Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar in 1984; he and Pakistani singer Usted Fatah Ali Khan collaborated on Sagas & Ragas in 1993. His interest extended to the music of nations as diverse as Tunisia, Brazil and Indonesia. Like other artists whose music has been mixed, Garbarek has occasionally been criticized for watering down “pure” folk traditions. Garbarek doesn’t believe this is true. “This illusion of purity became very clear to me when I learned all these Norwegian folk songs and started playing them to people from other parts of the world,” he told John Fordham of the Guardian.“They said ‘I know that Portuguese song very well,’ or someone from Pakistan would say ‘That piece you just played comes straight from the streets of Lahore,’ when you think you’ve just played one of the most famous Norwegian folk songs.”
In 1994, Garbarek reached another major crossroad in his career when he made Officium, perhaps the most genre-bending release of the late twentieth century. On it the jazz saxophonist performs medieval and Renaissance vocal music with the Hilliard Ensemble, a group of singers that specializes in early music. The seed for the project was sown when the Hilliards signed with ECM and expressed an interest in working with Garbarek. Nothing happened until label boss Manfred Eicher set up a meeting at an ancient monastery in the Austrian Alps. The Hilliards had already selected some music and they simply started singing it for Garbarek, not knowing how he might react.
“The first thing we tried happened to be the Morales piece, the first track on the album, and as we started singing it, Jan just wandered around, listening,” David James of the Hilliard Ensemble recounted to Phil Johnson of the Independent. “Then after two or three minutes we felt these vibrations low down and realized he’d begun to play. He just ad-libbed his way through it and it was immediately obvious to us all that we’d hit on something special. At the end we just looked at each other and Manfred came over and said ‘Look, we’ve got to do a record of this.’” On the record—Garbarek’s most popular ever, with more than one million albums sold—the saxophonist does more than simply solo while the group sings, he becomes the Ensemble’s fifth voice. A second collaboration, Mnemosyne, was released in 1999.
Garbarek toured extensively with the Hilliard Ensemble during the latter half of the 1990s. But during that period, he also continued to work with his long-term regular group, which included pianist Rainer Bruning-haus and bassist Eberhard Weber. Visible World, the CD released by the group in 1996, was a surprise hit on the British pop charts. Garbarek also finds time to research obscure folk music at Oslo University and to compose music for theater, film, and television. He is moving toward more composed music in his own performances as well. “In the good old Sixties,” he told Clive Davis of the Times of London, “we used to go on stage and just play. Nothing was pre-arranged. After a while I found that it was sounding the same. Total freedom seems to be a limited thing. I didn’t feel free with the freedom.”
Though performing has changed for Garbarek since he put together his first Coltrane-style band as a teenager, it is still his great joy, as Garbarek told Richard Cook of the Independent “Those are some of the happiest moments: walking on stage, the lights going off, it gets quiet, and that’s the best part of the day.”
Afric Pepperbird, ECM, 1971.
Sart, ECM, 1972.
Triptykon, ECM, 1973.
Red Lanta, ECM, 1974.
Witchi-Tai-To, ECM, 1974.
Dansere, ECM, 1976.
Dis, ECM, 1977.
Places, ECM, 1978.
Photo With Blue Sky, ECM, 1979.
Magico, ECM, 1980.
Aftenland, ECM, 1980.
Folksongs, ECM, 1981.
Eventyr, ECM, 1981.
Paths, Prints, ECM, 1982.
Wayfarer, ECM, 1983.
It’s OK To Listen To The Gray Voice, ECM, 1985.
Legend of the Seven Dreams, ECM, 1986.
I Took Up The Runes, ECM, 1990.
Rosensfole, ECM, 1991.
Ragas & Sagas, ECM, 1992.
Twelve Moons, ECM, 1993.
Atmos, ECM, 1993.
Madar, ECM, 1993.
Officium, ECM, 1994.
Visible World, ECM, 1996.
Mnemosyne, ECM, 1999.
Jazz: The Rough Guide, Viking Penguin.
Larkin, Colin, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Vol. III, 1998.
Evening Post (Wellington), March 8, 2000.
Financial Times, April 3, 1999.
Guardian (London), February 23, 1993; November 25, 1996; May 19, 2000.
Independent (London), February 17, 1995; April 26, 1996.
Times of London, December 4, 1990.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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