I'm tempted to just cut and paste the review of Jan Garbarek's previous appearance at The Sage, but that would be more than a little unfair. Last night's performance was subtly different, with some of those differences being for the better, and others for the worse.
First the bad. The programme was extremely similar, and almost 18 months on you'd perhaps expect at least some evolution. For what is essentially a very structured and form-conscious music, Garbarek's group weren't even as slick as they'd been in November 2007. He played a little too much soprano (there seemed to be a problem with the mechanics on his tenor), and Yuri Daniel's identity is still a little blurred. He made a great short notice stand-in for Eberhard Weber, but as a replacement he lacks the grace, melodicism and taste of the great German. Some of his sound processing bordered on Metheny-esque vulgarity, but I do approve of his grasp of funk and the added edge that he brings to the group. Oh, and finally, Brünninghaus still looks like a Smurf.
Now we move on to the good stuff. As billed, Trilok Gurtu replaced Manu Katché, and in so doing he not only brought a much wider range of textures and sounds, but he gave the music a looser feel (perhaps turning the comment about the group's relative lack of slickness in the previous paragraph into a positive). He also made clear the well established influence of Indian music on Garbarek's work. He's a virtuoso, a heavyweight, and easily the best percussionist to work with the group since Nana Vasconcelos. Let's hope he can be a permanent fixture - heck, he's a busy man, but it's not as though this group tours prolifically.
Just being Jan Garbarek is almost enough. He occupies a special place for me, and his singular sound evokes so many good memories and feelings. The deceptive simplicity of his music is great too, and I love trying to figure out how he moves through his harmonic progressions. His ability to make a note hang above an ever changing backdrop of colour is often breathtaking. Unpicking the links to Ayler, Ornette, Jim Pepper and Coltrane is a good sport too, although as time goes by it becomes easier and easier.
So, it certainly wasn't a wasted evening. This time we were just three rows from the front so it was as much a visual as an aural experience. It's perhaps a little disappointing to think that if he returns in the next couple of years the performance probably won't be that much different, but from the earliest days with George Russell, Keith Jarrett and then his own projects he's remained consistent. Change with Garbarek is glacial, and he's no less a musician for that. He's confident of his voice, and people also happen to like it in large numbers.
With a reprisal of Mission: To Be Where I Am as an encore, it was in so many ways the very essence of Garbarek...
PS: A happy New Year (very belatedly) to any readers. More posts soon, I hope. Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson with The Ex lined up for Sunday, and millions of old CD reviews still to post...