Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Jan Garbarek...

Almost twenty years since the first time I saw him play, I went to see Jan Garbarek again tonight. I still have a massive soft spot for his music - this blog is named after one of his early recordings, after all - and I'm almost certain that it's something to do with all that time I spent in Scandinavia as a child. There's something about the folksiness of his music that I instantly respond to, something which resonates pretty deeply within me. Memories of some very happy times spent in one of the cleanest and most beautiful parts of Europe always flood back. What I suppose I'm saying is that there's something 'extra musical' about Garbarek's appeal to me, and I'd even go as far as to say that my natural need for 'space' comes from my Scandinavian experiences. Enough of the personal snippets verging on psychobabble...

Tonight's gig was in many ways a pleasant surprise. The group played for well over two hours without a break, and Garbarek seemed to be reinvigorated by the recent re-shuffling of his group's personnel. Bassist Yuri Daniel replaced the great Eberhard Weber, and much of the time played he Weber's parts and had his sound verbatim. When he departed from the role he added a new drive, often funky, to the band's sound. A greater relaxation was obvious over previous editions of the group - performances which could often resemble a pretty joyless and solemn rite - and Garbarek spent far more time simply blowing.

The other significant change was in the introduction of drummer Manu Katché. He gave the group a much harder sound, and I can't say I always enjoyed his drumming this evening. Previously I've seen the group with Nana Vasconcelos and Marilyn Mazur, both of whom did far more with far less. Katché may have the caché in rock circles, but he sometimes stifled a side of Garbarek's music that I've grown to love. Subtler shadings and a freer-floating pulse would to my ears have made far more impact than some of his bombastic beats tonight. Still, he was undoubtedly a crowd pleaser and his hyper-kinetic solo spot drew a massive ovation.

The only ever-present in the group, other than Garbarek (of course), is keyboard player Rainer Brüninghaus. Much of the time he was hunched smurf-like over his electric piano, using the venue's Steinway sparingly but to great effect. A solo spot made the most of the acoustic instrument's range, Brüninghaus coaxing a haze of deep overtones from its belly. Some of his keyboard settings would have been tacky enough for Chick Corea in 1987, but by and large he was a model of good taste and is a vital member of Garbarek's group.

Apart from a short encore, the group only played four pieces of music. Within those pieces there were however many changes and much shape-shifting. Of course it all sounded very much like a Jan Garbarek gig should sound, but the newfound spark and more upbeat emphasis prevented it from becoming a recital. As is evidenced by recent recordings - from Universal Syncopations to Neighbourhood (where Katché is impeccable) - Garbarek is incorporating far more 'jazz' into his work these days. In saying that I don't mean to sound like Stanley Crouch, but for much of the '80s and '90s you could be forgiven for forgetting that Jan ever dug Coltrane, Ayler and Ornette.

What we now have is a more complete Garbarek, fusing his natural austerity and asceticism with a newly lit fire that has in the past been in danger of smoldering out. Of course I love those same Nordic folk-jazz recordings - the run that started with 'Legend of the Seven Dreams' and 'I Took Up The Runes' - but I'm also pleased that his work seems to be entering a new more rounded phase that draws on the entirety of his career.

One day, out of deference to this blog, I hope he'll be comfortable enough to reform the Afric Pepperbird group - the Big Four. Tonight was great, but that really would be something else...

Fred Grand

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