In conversation with jan garbarek

By Stuart Nicholson

                                     Jan Garbarek by Jos L. Knaepen

Once described by the late George Russell as the most original voice in European jazz, saxophonist Jan Garbarek made his debut on the ECM label in 1970 with Afric Pepperbird. Since then, his long association with the label has seen him create a body of work widely admired for its diversity and distinction. He has brought the "Nordic Tone" that lies at the heart of his music to a wide and appreciative audience, with his album Officium with the Hilliard Ensemble now approaching two million sales.

Garbarek's music projects the stark imagery of nature near the Northern Lights, an ordered calm in the often frantic world of jazz. Ever the quiet revolutionary, Garbarek has been described as a poet of sound, and his saxophone solos have the ability to transport the subconscious to areas of thought that are mystically and aesthetically beckoning. Creating an evocative tranquillity strongly rooted in Nordic and European folkloric forms, his saxophone tone emerges as the main expressive force in his music. It has a haunting spirituality that often takes on a second life, a life within the memory and certainly many of his albums are memorable. Unconcerned with those who claim his music may or may not be jazz, he says, "What I'm playing today—whatever it is—I'm playing because I once learned the language of jazz. What I'm playing now I could not play without that fundament."

His annual tours with the Jan Garbarek Group are customarily sold-out weeks in advance. Yet the release of Dresden, a two-album set, is his first with the Jan Garbarek Group in sixteen years, and the first live album under his leadership for ECM. It was recorded at a key moment in the group's history. For years the Group's personnel had remained remarkably consistent. Bassist Eberhard Weber has been ever-present since 1982, and keyboard player Rainer Br�ninghaus since 1988; percussionist Marilyn Mazur joined in the 1990s.

However, for the Group�s 2007 autumn tour of Europe, Weber and Mazur left for quite different reasons, replaced on short notice by bassist Yuri Daniel, originally from Brazil but now resident in Portugal, and Manu Katch�, the highly acclaimed French drummer who's recorded with artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell and Peter Gabriel. The release of Dresden seemed an appropriate moment to contemplate these changes in the Group's music, and explore the origins of his unique saxophone tone that has influenced countless musicians, not least the late Mike Brecker.

Why so long for Jan Garbarek to do a live recording?

Well, it wasn�t really meant to be a live recording this time, I have to say. We usually record our concerts from time to time so we have a documentation, and usually that�s done by a hand-held or aerial microphone, or through the music desk�very basic�and I suggested we record some concerts at some point in the fall of 2007. And our engineer says it�s very easy these days to set up a proper recording, with digital gadgets and so on. I said, �Okay, lets do that.� So he did three or four concerts in a row in multi-track and they were just laying around for a year or more. Then I listened to them and thought the sound source is not bad. I mentioned it to Manfred [Eicher, the head of ECM records] and he said he would like to hear them, and then he said �We�ll try and mix it and then we�ll make an album out of it. Pick the right material and so on.� In the end I said if we do it, we do one concert from A to Z, everything, we don�t mix from different concerts and so on. Get a decent sound, and take it or leave it as a whole concert. And we did, and there you have it. A live album.

Up to this point all your albums have been in the studio. Do you feel you lose control in the live setting, or do you gain something?

You gain something, at least in the moment you gain something, I don�t know if in the end you gain that much. It's not that big a difference, really. It�s more a matter of sound quality�being able to balance the instruments properly without them getting in the other instruments way, and so on. But it is possible these days to do it fairly easily. It was a discovery. Before, you had to have a huge desk, and very expensive equipment, technicians running around and cabling and so on �. With all these new, clever digital boxes it is so easy to set up, no problem.

Of course, while there may not have been a Jan Garbarek Group album for sixteen years, you tour regularly throughout Europe, and the personnel has remained remarkably consistent. So the changes for Dresden represent a key turning point in the Group�s history. Could you talk about the transition from Eberhard Weber to Yuri Daniel, and percussionist Marilyn Mazur to the drummer Manu Katch�?

I had been playing off and on with Manu in various circumstances for quite a long time, ever since 1990, or even earlier � we�ve done small things. Also, he�s been on a few of my albums, studio recordings [such as In Praise of Dreams from 2004]. This was a year when Marilyn couldn�t come. It was her 50th birthday year and she had several commissions to celebrate it, and Manu couldn�t do all the dates, so it was a shared thing with Trilok Gurtu. They did about half-and-half of the tour dates. Manu has always been one of my favorites, since the first time I heard him. There was something there for me, and for so many other people, too. He has been on hundreds, if not thousands of recordings. But he was willing to play with me on a few occasions, and also that fall we did quite an extensive tour together, and I was very happy to have him.

Eberhard was a different matter as he had a small stroke, and he is still unable play. Basically, he is slightly paralyzed. This happened at one of the concerts that Trilok did for us in Berlin. It was the first time we were due to play at the Philharmonie in Berlin with the group, and Eberhard was desperate to do it � but earlier in the day he had this stroke. He didn�t know what it was at the time. He said he would not go to the hospital�he would go to the sound check and see if he could play, and he found out he couldn�t. It was a very, very crucial moment. Very, very sad, of course. Then he went to the hospital�possibly a bit late because of the delay�and the next day when he woke up in hospital, his left side was beyond control.

He�s recovering in many ways. He's able to walk now, and he can speak very clearly, but playing is a bit off, still, I�m sure he�s working on it. So far he has his ups and downs�he�s coming back, then it looks like he�s not coming back. That was his life, and his life was our life as well�touring. It�s very sad.

We did the concert in Berlin as a trio without the bass and one more concert also. We had a week off and we had to come up with another bass player. We were kind of lost, it was the middle of the season, lots of people travelling, but our technician knew a bass player who worked in a band that he used to do sound for. That summer they were doing music without a bass, a special project using a harp instead, so he was off. We called him and he was ready and willing, so we sent him the music. He prepared and he joined us from there on in. Very different type of player.

So what adjustments did you have to make�two drummers, a new bass player?

Well, it was very exciting [laughs]. Learned a lot, and what I learned mostly was one has to go with what is there, what is presented, not try and hold onto something that was. These other musicians have other things to offer, and you just have to look for their qualities and bring it out, and join that holistically. That�s the main lesson; it was a different rhythmic approach.

With Yuri, he has to offer in that field, rhythms [and] rhythm-based function. Eberhard was more of a classical orchestral side of playing we incorporated in the music. Yuri plays a different instrument and he has different strengths. We have to go with that, and enjoy that. Same thing with drums. It's fortunate and unfortunate they shared the drum chair in the band. [They're] extremely different players, Trilok and Manu, in almost every way. I�m very comfortable with both of them.

It�s interesting you�ve not used Scandinavian musicians since Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielson, and Jon Christensen in the 1970s.

And Marilyn as well! I travel a lot outside Scandinavia. Oslo is not really my pond, as it were. When I travel, I hear people at festivals, I talk to people. I hear about musicians here and there. There are magnificent player s all over Europe. Naturally, in Norway we have all the very best players! [laughs] But that that doesn�t necessarily mean they are the right musicians for what I want to do.

                &#x Jan Garbarek by Jos L. Knaepen

Can we talk about a couple tracks on the new album? 'The Reluctant Saxophonist,' that�s an enigmatic title.

Yes, who might that be! Actually, I wanted that tune title in Spanish. I talked to someone and the words didn�t make sense. I thought it might be �El Reluctano,� but it wasn�t anything like that all. It didn�t make the right associations. It�s a piece inspired by some Latin rhythms, and �Reluctant Saxophonist?' It could be me. I certainly feel like it sometimes. Reluctant Saxophonist means reluctant to play sometimes, I don�t know why. Sometimes it�s like that. When you actually play it�s fun, but you have to get down to it and there other things to do, other thoughts to think �

I was struck by the piece �Nu Bein� which has several elements I don�t normally associate with the Jan Garbarek Group.

Well, it fails that title, because I realize nobody gets it, but it�s based on a rhythm from Nubia�a Nubian rhythm. I saw somebody had written somewhere, in America obviously, 'New Being' � Nubian. It looked the same, sounded the same. It was a new piece, based on a new Nubian rhythm, an African rhythm. I wrote it like that, but nobody gets it.

It starts with a flute, a Norwegian folk instrument�a seljefl�yte�which is made from a sapling that in the springtime has long straight branches and a lot of sap. But the one I play is made from PVC, because these flutes last for one day, if you want them to last longer you have to keep them in water because it is the skin of the tree, the bark, dries up after a day and cracks and you can�t play it.

And �Fugl�?

That means �bird� in Norwegian. I always like �bird� tunes. It invites a certain type of playing with your instrument, and I need to have something like that in every concert programme.

In the grand mix of how you arrived at your approach to saxophone, everyone talks about the �Norwegian� tone, but is there a Polish gene in there? [Garbarek is the son of a Polish father: Czeslaw Garbarek, who had been deported to Norway by the Nazis as forced labour to work on the infamous 'Blood Road' in the north of the country. After the war he married a Norwegian girl and they settled in Oslo, where Garbarek was brought up].

Certainly there must be, but whether or not it comes to the surface of the music, or in what way, I don�t know.

Do you listen to Penderecki, for example?

Yes, I started listening to him when I went to High School, not because of any Polish connection, but one of the teachers he would play records sometimes, he would play Penderecki, he would play Ornette Coleman, he would play Bob Dylan or whatever, in the spirit of the times�in the early sixties it would be. So he played this �Tren,� a memorial of the Second World War, and this was very strange music, all these orchestral clusters and wide spaces and so on. I listened to other pieces by him. I was even in Poland in 1966 and bought some scores. I am no specialist with scores, but you pick up something by looking and listening at the same time. There are also couple of other Polish composers who have really meant a lot to me, apart from Chopin. Szymanowski and Lutoslawski are very close to my heart. It's wonderful music I really like listen to. I might put on a record of pieces by these two. But, you know, in my heart, Grieg�that�s the ultimate.

I have a broadcast you made at the Molde Jazz Festival in 1965, you would have been seventeen, with a rhythm section of Kenny Drew, Niels Henning-�rsten Pedersen, and Axel Riel, plus a young trumpet player from Molde. I was intrigued. You were really into straight-ahead Dexter Gordon style hard bop. You had it completely covered at that young age, which will surprise most people reading this. I have another private CD of a broadcast in Stockholm with you, Jon Christensen, and a bassist. You were moving into abstraction: more late period Coltrane, Albert Ayler. Again, you had thoroughly absorbed their styles. I was wondering if you could talk us through this period in your life, as you were moving to finding your own voice, which is some distance from your early years. For example, just a few years later you recorded Afric Pepperbird.

The strange thing is, Afric Pepperbird and this more free thing, that�s what I started out with. That was what I always did. But, at the same time I wanted to learn, and Dexter Gordon was very frequently in Oslo and he was a big hero for us young sax players. This learning just to play with other musicians meant you had to play more hard bop kind of thing. That broadcast you heard from Molde, two young musicians were invited to play with this �dream trio� that used to back-up all the American soloists who came to the festival. This time two young Norwegian musicians would be allowed to play with them, so we had to play in their style to play that material, this hard bop style.

But we were also doing very free things. My first album, from 1966 (which was a live thing as well, incidentally) was called Til Vigdis. There is one piece there, the title piece, that shows more of what I was into in the early sixties. It�s very free, atmospheric and not this kind of finger-snapping thing you heard on the broadcast.

But I loved Dexter Gordon, he was a huge hero, and when you�re that young�15, 16, 17�you are easily influenced by these major players. He came to Oslo often, and he used to play with Jon Christensen, who played drums with me at the time. So I was always there listening to Dexter. I never played with him. Once I think I could have played with him, but I kind of chickened out, I guess. I was very young, 15 or 16, and he came to a jam session I was playing, and as he entered the room there was a roar from the crowd; the lights followed him through the room with his saxophone held above his head. It was too much for me, I left the stage! But he was a great man, very gentle, very friendly. I met him many years later when I was playing in New York with Keith Jarrett, and he was sitting on the pavement in New York, very friendly, slightly drunk and a little bit desperate I think. It was very sad, he was listening to some street musician playing cello, that was very bad, he had his ups and downs. But I have to say his saxophone playing in the early sixties in Scandinavia, there is not much like that, he was absolutely on top form. He made some recordings which are absolutely out of this world. Not for me at the time, because it was all Coltrane, that�s what started it all for me and that�s a different thing. But his intensity, the flow of ideas, the sound, his presence was very, very impressive.

How did you manage to put your obvious command of hard bop to one side and develop your own very individual approach to the saxophone?

Well, this other side, this non-bop side was always there, and in between just being able to play with other guys in Oslo and Scandinavia, you had to play in the hard bop manner. But when I started out at fourteen, it was really about free playing right from the beginning, that was what set it off. Then the need to learn all the styles and so on, but I thought that was also limited, because I like many styles. I like the really old players, like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Don Byas. All these guys had a very interesting approach to playing the saxophone [that contrasts with] the hard bop players. They had a thing about the �sound� of the instrument, not just playing on the chords. They had to have different kinds of ideas, some of them, because they didn�t have the facility and knowledge to play intricate stuff. So they had to come up with other ideas, and that was fascinating.

There�s a trombone solo by Trummy Young on a recording by Coleman Hawkins that I use as an example sometimes for people. Coleman Hawkins plays up and down the scales, he does everything, and then comes Trummy Young, who is an excellent musician but didn�t have that kind of facility. What did he do when it was time for him to solo? He comes out with this absolutely wonderful idea just using the sound of the instrument, the slide, using the only thing he could. He was against the wall, but something fantastic came out of it, a very original solo, very powerful�unforgettable in a way. And that�s the thing. A bebop player would never come up with ideas like that. He would be playing more like a valve trombone, it would be so precise.

So I learned a lot from these old players right from the beginning, about the sound of the instrument, what could be done with the sound, and this came back later with Coltrane to some extent, but he had a thoroughly modern sound I think. Then came Archie Shepp, who was also digging back. Pharaoh Sanders and Albert Ayler, they all had other elements which I recognized from the older players. So that was a kind of affirmation. I had heard something important�and right, in a way�in those old recordings. I also enjoyed the fact that Archie Shepp had a Dixieland trombone player in his band, Roswell Rudd, playing free jazz. It was about the sound and the energy, not so much [from intricate chords] or whatever. It wasn�t so much about that, it was more about expression. So this bebop thing was not really me, but I had heard a lot of Dexter, so I learned a few tricks of the trade!

                    George Russell

Just to finish this part of your career, could you talk about the influence of the late George Russell and Don Cherry at this time?

Yes, those two were very, very important for my confidence. First George, he just died a few weeks ago. I first encountered him at the Molde Festival. He was there with his sextet playing his original music, I think it was 1964. Actually, I was there every year. This was my education travelling to that festival; the first time I went there I was fourteen. Anyway, the year George was there, I enjoyed tremendously his performance with his sextet. It was very different music. It wasn�t just an �American bop star� who came and played standards with the local trio. It was really a presentation, a concept, and I liked the pieces. I liked the sound of it and the concept very much. These people were god-like to us youngsters.

I played at one of those jam sessions after the concerts. I usually have my eyes closed, we were playing very hard, and free, lots of energy. Suddenly it was like somebody pushed a button and everything went up about fifty notches. There was this tremendous energy, out of this world, and I went for it, and then I looked back and saw our usual piano player wasn�t sitting there but it was George who was playing piano. He was playing with his fists, his elbows, using the piano like a drum kit, so we were absolutely out there in a chromatic universe. And afterwards he came to me and he wanted me to join his sextet and go on tour around the world, and that was a very, very crucial moment for me. It was the first time the idea of possibly becoming a musician entered my head. That was one effect. It was a very strange realization, because it simply was not possible at the time to be a professional musician playing saxophone in Norway at the time. There were two professional jazz musicians�Norwegian�but they were both living in Stockholm. So that was one thing.

The other was this very advanced, very acknowledged composer/musician had seen me and invited me to join the �grown ups,� in a way, and this was a kind of initiation right, being invited by the �grown ups.� We don�t have so many institutionalized �rites [of passage]� like that any more. I later came to see it was such a rite in my life. I was accepted and I was seen and I was invited, and that was invaluable.

I didn�t go with him. I was too young�I was seventeen at the time�and I went to high school. My parents said, 'You don�t go on tour with this kind of thing, you�re too young.' I understood perfectly, but George said, 'I will invite you to some radio and TV recordings in Sweden later on.' And true enough, a while later a big parcel came through with all the saxophone parts for his big band arrangements and his sextet music, but at the time I was really not able to read music very well. He said, 'you have three months, get it together and then you can come to Stockholm and we�ll record this stuff.' So that was a very intense three months for me! I went there and I survived, shall I say. I certainly was not great; I still had a problem reading, and I was sitting next to older musicians who were my heroes, basically. The other tenor saxophone player was Berndt Rosengren, the Swedish sax player, who next to Coltrane and Dexter he was the one for me, and there I was next to him! But I learned a lot, and George was trying to teach me. I got his book [The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization] and got private lessons from him. I was allowed to transcribe his second book, I don�t think it ever came out and it was very interesting, and that was my music education. I didn�t have any before at all, that was my first encounter with musical thoughts and ideas on the theoretical level. It was all very intense.

Then Don Cherry came to Europe around the same time, and sometimes when he came to Norway he played with myself and my colleagues, and he also sat-in when I was playing with George�s big band at the Golden Circle [in Stockholm]. Don would come in and play some solos, and one time I was there I got to hear Keith [Jarrett] with the Charles Lloyd Quartet, also at the Golden Circle. We had a night off and we went to see Charles Lloyd, we had no idea what kind of stuff to expect and it turned out to be kind of a life-changing event. Hearing Keith at that time was like a life-changing event. We�re about the same age, him and me. I was really in awe, he seemed to know everything. He could do everything; there seemed to be no obstacle between his ideas and his execution�think of something musically and do it, just like that! I�m still rather a long way off that level, but he was there already�fantastic. I think it was Cecil McBee on bass, Charles Lloyd � I got to meet him on several occasions at concerts and doing festivals and so on, and I got to know Keith a long time before we played together.

But Don, he was such a friendly and fun person, very gentle, and very nice, and of course we loved his playing. Ornette�s group, we loved Don Cherry, but this was at a time when he started working with folk music and folk culture from all around the world, I would say. One time we were doing a radio recording in Oslo with Don, and he asked us if we knew any folk musicians, Norwegian folk musicians that we could bring to the studio. Yes, we knew a lot of folk musicians, but we hadn�t really done anything with them. We met them at the clubs and so on and there was a kind of dividing line between them and us, but okay, we said we�d think of something and we brought a female singer. So very loosely Don organized the music around her, around the folk songs and it was really a concept, it sounded great. So I think he launched the idea he could use folk music and free playing as a very natural combination. It felt just right in a way, free but with tonal foundation with a modal approach, which was very close to my heart, having heard Kind of Blue about ten million times. Don was there and he seemed to enjoy playing with us and having us around, and this was a big boost to our confidence.

Can you describe the jump then to Afric Pepperbird in 1970?

No jump. [Don] might have been there [at the recording session]. There is one element that rarely comes up about [that album], because we were listening to everything modern at the time, and this was the Art Ensemble of Chicago which was quite an influence also on our type of playing: free, timbres, atmosphere using different sound sources. There were a few albums we liked a lot, done by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and also by members individually with other musicians. We used to listen to those also in the late Sixties. Cecil Taylor too, because I remember when I heard Cecil Taylor, how can he sound so consistently Cecil Taylor? Everything by Cecil Taylor was a really consistent sound, quite amazing we thought.

What were you able to take from these diverse influences?

All these things brought different elements I would say in music; Don brought folk, Cecil Taylor brought dynamic flow, temperature; Ornette, melody, developing melody. All these various parameters that make up our music, we got them from anywhere.

So if you were to talk about a European approach to jazz, what would that be?

I think like with all arts it comes down to the individual, and then schools are being made, but you might say this whole idea of a European approach came about through choices made by Manfred Eicher. I don�t think we were talking about a European approach before ECM, there is a something he hears, something he wants to mirror from musicians. He can hear certain qualities in musicians and invites them to develop one aspect at least of their performance, something resonates in him, and with some musicians it could be a rather limited part of what they have to offer while in other cases it could be most of what they have to offer which resonates with him. But really the choices he makes with musicians, with material, with aesthetics that I think brought this idea about in the first place, this aesthetic in jazz, it has to do with ECM in a way. So I think it has to do with individuals that have similar resonances that create one direction or the other.

With ECM�s 40th anniversary coming up, I just wonder how you remember Manfred�s motivation, his aesthetic when you first met him and whether you have seen that change or evolve over the years.

I think the core is the same. He�s no different to the rest of us. We carry the same heart through life, and he�s still looking for that resonance in the same way, in all sorts of developments, musicians coming and going, technology coming and going and developing, and so on. I think at the core it�s exactly the same thing as when it started out. He�s looking equally hard now as he was at the beginning.

And I understand another album with the Hilliard Ensemble is in the works for next year?

It looks like it, yes. We have done the recording, it's up to ECM. I hope we'll be touring. I enjoy touring with the Hilliards very, very much. It's a wonderful setting for me to be in, and they are great guys, very fun to be around. I sincerely hope we'll have a chance to work together. Playing with them, the principle is just the same, but it's a different sound. You have to approach it in a different way. The idea is always to find the key that will melt your sound with whatever is there around you at the time, that you belong with that sound whatever it is, that is the general principle. I feel good with them, very invited. We do material we all feel very confident about, and it is a great pleasure to be with them, and its fun to do concerts just acoustically—no PA, no microphones, nothing—and if we have a good room, it's bliss.

Jan Garbarek, thank you for such an interesting interview

Thank you.


January 18, 2010 · 0 comments

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