The Garbarek sound

Fish. Walking along the picturesque quayside watching dozens of fishing boats plying to and fro, eating pickled herring for breakfast…

Fish. Walking along the picturesque quayside watching dozens of fishing boats plying to and fro, eating pickled herring for breakfast and grilled Arctic char for dinner, it quickly becomes apparent to even the most casual visitor to Oslo that fish is a major Norwegian thing.

The same goes for fjords, glaciers and, at a push, Vikings. But jazz? Well, you won't find it in the guidebooks. But there has been a lot of talk lately about the creation of a forward-looking European new jazz, which explores musical regions well beyond the traditional poles of dixieland and bebop: ethnic music, dance and hip-hop and - most unlikely of all, on the face of it - medieval plainsong. Much of this revolution has been of Nordic origin, and many would say that it was started by the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

If so, he is a quiet revolutionary. On a sunny summer afternoon in Oslo, "Europe's most famous contemporary jazz musician" sits amid the mahogany, deep-cushioned elegance of a city hotel, calmly eating cake and explaining how it was that a 14-year-old Norwegian kid, the son of a Polish prisoner of war and a woman from a remote farming valley where music - apart from hymns - was considered sinful, got interested in that most decadent of art forms.

"None of my friends listened to jazz," he says. "I didn't listen to jazz," he says. "I didn't listen to jazz. I wasn't particularly keen on music at all. But one night I came in - probably I'd been playing football with my friends all day long - and I heard these strange sounds on the radio. I was immediately drawn to the music, and tried to find out what it was. The piece finished; nothing was said. The programme finished. I looked up the TV magazine: nothing . So I called the radio station and asked what was the last piece that had been played. And they said it was called Coutdown by John Coltrane."


The next day, Garbarek went in search of the record - but it hadn't yet arrived in the shops. "They said, 'But we have lots of other jazz records', so I said, 'Yes - give me that'. I bought a record and took it home and listened, but I was very disappointed. It wasn't anything like Coltrane at all."

Nevertheless, he pestered his parents to buy him a saxophone and, while waiting for it to arrive, bought a saxophone tutorial book and taught himself the finger positions, using thin air. Is it too fanciful, in retrospect, to say that this is why his sound is so ethereal? Too glib to suggest that because he had no teacher to influence him"I practised at home - you can imagine. Coltrane, stream-of-consciousness, primal scream sort of music. Eventually, one of the neighbours rang the bell, and when I came to the door, said: 'I wonder if you would ever consider just... just... playing a melody?'"

Melodies, it would turn out, were never to be in short supply. Through the music of Coltrane, Garbarek encountered not only the grammar and dynamics of American jazz, but also the sophisticated modal language of the Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar. By the time he was 17, he was playing with Norway's top jazz musicians in clubs. Several of these, notably Dexter Gordon and George Russell, were Americans in temporary exile, and their influence on the young saxophonist was considerable.

"I branched out; I got to know the whole history of jazz," says Garbarek, summing up what must have been a mammoth voyage of discovery, culminating in years of fruitful collaboration with such diverse practitioners of the genre as Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden.

Meanwhile, the young man who had majored in Latin and ancient Greek, with a view to studying comparative linguistics at university, taught himself to play the piano using Grieg's Lyric Pieces and two-part inventions by Bach. He also immersed himself in classical counterpoint. Surprisingly, though, it was the so-called "romantic" composers to whom he was most drawn: Ravel and Chopin.

"I think what had inspired me in Coltrane's music was also related to romanticism and personal expression. It was about building up climaxes, expressing emotions. Years later I have come to believe that it really has nothing to do with what kind of music you play, or what style or "

As for the famously other-worldly "Garbarek sound", he says it, too, has more to do with emotional expression than with style or technique. "I think your sound basically comes from your mind, your imagination. Of course there are technical aspects as well - you find mouthpieces or reeds that will help you enrich your sound - but I have to say that even with a different instrument, or another approach altogether, after a couple of months you sound the same anyway. I know this because, like most people, I suppose, I get tired of myself. So then I change. I choose a different saxophone, a completely opposite mouthpiece, and for a little while it's an exciting thing to fight with it. But one day, sure enough, you discover that you might as well have used the old one."

The same, but different. Even a cursory perusal of, say, his album reveals a variety of tonal expression which pushes the saxophone to limits both of sweetness and, occasionally, desolation. But is any of this sound-sculpture specifically Norwegian? "If there is, it's at a deeper level than just glaciers and fjords. I mean, the fact that my music comes from jazz is already very un - Norwegian. The way I've been dealing with folk themes is to keep the melody very simple, but then to introduce backdrops that have quite ambiguous tonalities - but that was already done by Greig, who used quite advanced chromatic harmony. May of his 'themes' are actually thefts from folk music, but his key changes have nothing to do with the simple modulations of folk music. So in that sense I suppose I feel part of the Norwegian tradition.

"But these days I'm not doing folk music as such, because I feel it has become an integral part of the music I play, so I don't need to cultivate it consciously." It is obvious that when Garbarek talks about "folk music" it is anything but folksy. In fact it is, at one level, another manifestation of Coltrane's primal scream. "Because of our mountain landscape, Norway has one of the oldest remnants of the original folk music of Europe. There are these cattle calls - at night in the valleys, the shepherds, who were often women, would go and call the cattle to come home. They're like the cry of a lonely person with no one to speak to but just to shout into nature. Very strange - like screams with variations. On a few occasions I've played them to American musicians staying at my house, without saying what the music is, and they say, 'Oh, it's African!' or 'I think it's from south-east Asia'. And I say take your car and drive one half-hour west of here - that's where it comes from. I've always been drawn to exotic things, I suppose, so finding this exoticism in my own backyard, so to speak, was a bit of an eye-opener."

"A bit of an eye-opener" is as good a way as any to describe Garbarek's collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble. The first time you hear Officium, it's quite easy to forget to breathe. Four voices of unsurpassed purity; then, out of the music, mysterious yet totally natural, up floats the haunting cry of the saxophone. The way Garbarek tells it, this ground-breaking combination of polyphonic chant and a jazz instrument was just a label thing; both he and the Hilliards record for the German company ECM Records. But ECM is more than just a label. With its eclectic selection of artists and famously stylish cover artwork, it has become a byword for the sort of musical thinking which not only crosses boundaries, but also routinely ignores their very existence.

"I had records of the Hillard's from before they joined ECM and loved their sonority," says Garbarek. "And then the idea came up that we should do something together. I was quite worried that I would be like an elephant in aporcelain store, but I was eager to try it. So we met up in this Austrian monastery in the Alps. They came into the chapel, very casual, they had a few sheets of music and they just leaned on the baptismal font, and said, 'OK, guys, are you ready?', and then just, boom. Nobody even gave a note. I listened for a few seconds and then I joined them and after about two minutes we stopped and said, 'Yes, let's fix a date for a concert'." They have now released three albums and become a world-wide phenomenon.

Sponsored by the ESB, they will play two concerts in Dublin this month - typically, he says he doesn't know what exactly will be on the programme.

"It might be a chance to bring out some material from the first album - but it's usually up to the Hilliards to make the choice. At every concert we do, though, we meet up a couple of hours before, and a new piece is introduced. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but we always try something new. Then it feels fresh every time."

Such has been the verdict of almost everyone who has witnessed Garbarek and the Hilliards in action: something new, a kind of music which simply didn't exist before. Not something gimmicky, but something full of intensity and integrity. The visitor to Oslo can't help but be struck by the number of successful explorers Norway has produced in the past couple of centuries: Fridjtof Nansen, Roald Amundsen, Otto Sverdrup, Thor Heyerdahl. It looks as if there's another name to add to the list.

Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble will give two concerts at Christ Church Cathedral, in Dublin, on Friday, July 13th, and Saturday, July 14th. Tickets from Ticketmaster on 1890 9251000