‘I want to be freer, to cast the net wider’
In today’s Irish Times I have an interview with the Norwegian tenor and soprano saxophonist Jan Gabarek. Here is a slightly longer version, with a few more words from the man himself on ECM, Keith Jarrett and why Norway is a jazz powerhouse
THERE ARE NO easy answers with Jan Garbarek. That’s not to say that he is a difficult man to talk to. Rather, he is polite and charming, even if at the age of 64 there are probably few questions about his life and work that he hasn’t answered dozens of times.
It’s more that Garbarek resists categorisation, having cut a singular career that respects no borders in its pursuit of musical purity. Garbarek was born in 1947 in Mysen in Norway, to a Polish father, who was a former prisoner of war, and a Norwegian mother. He has been with the same label, ECM, for almost his entire career, and approaches new ideas and releases with the simple wish to make something significant and musically meaningful. Indeed, his sound has become inseparable from ECM’s ethos and image.
His collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble, which tomorrow night comes to St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and then travels to Cork on Sunday, is a case in point. “We did the first album [ Officium ] in the mid-1990s; I would say we though the result was quite nice, quite satisfying. I thought it would find a few hundred listeners, which would be fine. At some point, we heard a rumour that there was a lot of interest and then it took off completely, and there was a tremendous amount of requests for touring.”
The rumours were true. To date the album that Garbarek expected to shift a few hundred units has sold 1.5 million copies and two further records have extended his collaboration with the early music vocal quartet. This is not a bombastic production; the albums were recorded live and the concerts use no microphones, relying on the natural acoustics of their carefully chosen venues and the combined talents of the Hilliard Ensemble and Garbarek’s saxophone to make the music work. Is it terribly intimidating to be walking into a space that might not deliver?
“It’s not nerve-wracking, in that we can survive anyway. It’s just not pleasurable to the same extent. It can be such a wonderful experience. It’s just harder to get across, to fly.”
From early in his career, Garbarek has been trying to fly with his music, but it was the American composer, George Russell, who first brought him to wider attention. “I was playing the festival in Molde [in Norway] and we were playing in this cellar and I was on stage with my eyes closed and suddenly something happened, something that changed everything.”
Russell had taken a seat behind the piano and was whipping up a storm. “I went with it for as long as I dared and then I turned around and saw George sitting there, and he was an extremely dynamic and intense person, playing piano with his fists and elbows; the most important thing was to reach a kind of climax in an orgiastic way. This was quite common in the 1960s, to reach for the skies,” says Garbarek, laughing at the memory. “This is what he did but he used every means; at the time, we played sort of free but not to the same extent, and after that session that was a great moment for me, to have an established older musician recognise me . . . and for the first time in my life the idea came to mind that I could be a musician.”
This set Garbarek on his career path, one which would see him embrace and outgrow free jazz, and he often refers to jazz as an almost historic term. “For me jazz is Louis Armstrong, it’s Duke Ellington, it’s Oscar Peterson, it’s even Charlie Parker. And to some degree, Miles Davis in his earlier years. Later Coltrane and later Miles Davis is not jazz for me. It became something else.
“I don’t need to label it. If anything, I was a free jazz player, where anything was allowed, but what I found was not everything was allowed. It had a sameness and that indicated rules and everything had very strict rules, and I wanted to be freer and cast the net wider.”
Is this what he does with the Hilliard Ensemble? “Certainly, absolutely – I find that I am more free from the rigidity or any constraints. I remember the first time I had that thought, I was quite young, 18 or something, and I was playing with George Russell and we were playing In a Lonely Place . It had an intro for solo saxophone for five minutes, and he gave me just two notes, C and B. Having to deal with that for five minutes, up against a wall and the audience, with just two notes, was a real eye-opener. You have to come up with some drama, some musical progression, and I rather enjoyed that, me being put on the spot with those constraints.”
Garbarek talks about that initial electricity with Russell. Has he ever felt a similar charge from another player? “Well I suppose you could say that with Keith Jarrett – that’s not exactly the same way it started with hearing him, that was the eye opener. I had this idea of an ideal piano player and there was nobody around played like that. We were in Stockholm in 1966, I suppose with George Russell we had the night off and me and [percussionist] Jon Christensen we saw in the paper that Charles Lloyd was in Stockholm. The old-fashioned, hard core modern jazzers, we all went down there, that was some evening – there was Keith Jarrett and Jack deJohnette and Charles, of course, and Cecil McBee. The thing that made it for me was Keith. He became my idol, it was the most fantastic event. I met him several time and met him in Europe travelling with the trio and we hung out. I started recording for ECM and it happened that we could do something together.”
A lot of conversations with Garbarek tend to wind their way back to Russell, if he hadn’t taken a seat that night, where would Garbarek have ended up? “Well I had my plans set, I would take high school and go and study language. I had a very good teacher interested in comparative linguistics, and this fascinated me, and I wanted to study that and possibly work in the university for the rest of my life.”
Languages and music, particularly jazz, are not so far apart, and many players will frequently describe music as a language. The aim is to get playing to a level of fluency that is on a par with speaking, so that notes come out as easy and essentially as words. “Indeed,” insists Garbarek. “All music is language and it’s all related. I have had a great opportunity, representing [music from] various geographic areas and from completely different locations and eras. There is so much in common.”
Closer to home, Norway has been at the forefront of jazz, with a new generation of superb musicians leading a charge, led by the likes of Nils Petter Molvær, Trygve Seim and Mats Eilertsen but despite this most of Garbarek’s personnel are non-Norwegian. Is this a concerted effort to get some foreign influence?
Not a bit of it, laughs Garbarek. “I have been travelling for all those years. I play with my older friend from the 1970s.
“I suppose that’s just my generation. In Norway, there weren’t many musicians around, but in the last 15, 20 years, because we have education you can study whatever you want. We have excellent teachers and an excellent curriculum.”
ECM has been one of the key proponents in bringing Norwegian jazz, and Garbarke’s work, to a wider world. Did he ever in his career think about leaving the label? “No. Never, I really have the ultimate producer for what I’m doing I can do pretty much what I want when I want it. It’s the best possible situation for me, or for any musician.
“The thing with ECM is, it’s a one-man thing, \[Manfred Eicher’s] ideas, his aesthetic, and it hangs upon which artist you want to associate with. He has very strong ideas and everything is circling where he feels, what he likes. He picks musicians he hears at festivals or tapes and it all sort of seems to revolve around his idea. It’s fairly homogenous and it covers a lot of musical styles and periods.”
Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble play St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin on Saturday and North Cathedral, Cork, on Sunday. See mintakamusic.com