Jan Garbarek

Sas 644Esoteric Circle
Beast Of KommodoAfric Pepperbird
Folk SongFolk Songs
White Noise Of ForgetfulnessIt's OK To Listen
To The Gray Voice
Twelve MoonsTwelve Moons
Brother Wind MarchTwelve Moons
Parce Mihi DomineOfficium
Conversation With A StoneIn Praise Of Dreams


Jan Garbarek playlist




Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

Full disclosure. I started this article roughly 22 months ago and have set it aside and picked it back up more times than I care to remember. It was just too damn hard to come up with ten cuts from Jan Garbarek’s extensive career, in large part because of his love of collaborations and the number of works those partnerships had created.

By my count, Garbarek has released 31 albums as a leader, although a good two thirds of those had someone collaborate to the point some discographies list them as a “with” album. Another 45-50 albums have been released with him as a sideman, many of those with his contributions so significant he is listed as “with” and often getting credit on the album’s front cover.

80ish albums was just far too much to work through. So I decided to finally finish this piece examining only the 31 albums he released as the leader and the three albums he released in a trio with Charlie Haden and Egberto Gismonti. Largely because I like the trio album Folk Songs from 1979 so much and I have to believe it was on that album I actually discovered Garbarek, or at least moved from a vague understanding a musician named Jan Garbarek existed into an actual fan of his music.

There was also the desire to represent all facets of his career. Something from the aggressive early styling under the tutelage of George Russell when he seemed to be heading towards an Albert Ayler type career. The bleak and severe music leading up to and during the Keith Jarrett collaborative years. The world music collaborations. The years he was dismissively accused of playing new age or ambient music. The Progressive Jazz Fusion years. His efforts to mix his music to poetry. Collaborating with Indian and Pakistani musicians. His work with the Hilliard Ensemble. His use of Norwegian Folk Music. So many styles, so much exploration.

Which makes it somewhat confusing when he actually settled on a style for more than a handful of consecutive albums, as he did with the string of releases in the 1990s, so many of the orthodox jazz world more or less turned on him, scornfully accusing him of becoming a New Age artist.

Well the hell with them, I happen to really like those albums. They work as both albums for a pleasant background and careful listening.


Jan Garbarek photo

Jan Garbarek was born in Norway in 1947 and began making waves by the late 1960s. He initially, as I said, seemed to be following in the footsteps of Ayler or Peter Brötzmann. But by the early-mid 1970s he had really discarded the trappings of the avant-garde jazz world while oddly enough not changing his tone and overall style of playing. That being a fairly sharp edged tone, with long sustained notes and almost ironically very strategic uses of silence to balance it out. Because of those traits he has often being criticized as showing too much restraint in his playing. In the mid-late 1970s he essentially created what is usually called ambient jazz. And in his hands it resulted in some masterful music. It isn’t really his fault so many lesser artists did some awful work in the genre and built on that work to create essentially easy listening jazz.

Anyway, my first cut comes from more or less his second album from 1969. It was originally released under the title George Russell Presents The Esoteric Circle, which was a band that featured Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen. All who went on to substantial careers as musicians. But when Garbarek’s career really took off, the 1969 album by Esoteric Circle was reissued as an album called Esoteric Circle by Garbarek. Although in all fairness all the compositions were by him.

There are a couple interesting tunes on the album, after a somewhat lackluster debut the year before, but I think of all of them I prefer Sas 644. The piece starts out with bass and drums before Garbarek attacks the calm with a jarring tenor sax at about the one-minute mark. He and Rypdal seemed to be in harmony, as much as this particular style can be known as harmonious. Intriguing and interesting, while occasionally being a tad unpleasant. But it’s obviously two young musicians testing their boundaries. For that alone it’s a moment in his catalogue I really enjoy.

Afric Pepperbird from 1970 offers up the same band, now released as the Jan Garbarek Quartet. I found a review of the album, obviously written years after the fact, saying it represented the strongest, most aggressive portion of his career before he essentially sold out. And I would agree it’s his most aggressive playing but in your face free jazz can only sustain so long, at least for me. His repertoire is expanding though, as he brings along not only his tenor sax from the previous album but a bass sax, clarinet and flute. Beast Of Kommodo is twelve and a half minutes of building aggression starting with a drum intro that reminds me very much of the bands that were trying to mix rock and roll sensibilities into jazz during this period in a misguided attempt to keep the genre relevant. When Garbarek enters the fray as a lead instrument around the minute mark though I think that goes out the window a bit. I really don’t think of the harsh sounds he creates here when I think of him, but the sustained notes and large sections with him, the leader, being absent from the piece are very much what often makes Garbarek, well, Garbarek. I enjoy this early long piece though. The band had potential but over all they were too much in possession of their own vision of what they wanted to play to stay together in any sort of cohesive way.

By 1974, he had moved on to another group with the Garbarek-Stenson Quartet. I recently came across a list of best ECM Jazz albums ever and Witchi-Tai-To placed second after Dave Holland’s Conference Of The Birds. But the writer of the piece was clearly of the camp that everything that came after this was fluff. Witchi-Tai-To, from the album of the same name, was as good as Garbarek was involved in at this point. Stenson’s piano was a perfect counterpiece for Garbarek’s evolving sax. When he enters at the two minute mark it’s clear his tone has become much brighter, although perhaps less aggressive and harsh is a better description. More than really any musician I can think of, Garbarek was influenced by collaborators in the creation of music solely of his own design. It’s just a good gentle piece of music. Nothing challenging, nothing aggressive, nothing where he incorporates cultures other than his own. Just a very beautiful piece of music. Sometimes we jazz heads – and there was a period say 1989-1992 when I was “I only listen to Jazz” and pretentious and snooty as hell about it as they come – overlook nice to listen to because it doesn’t break new ground or something equally silly.

I wanted to choose something from 1976’s Dis. Garbarek, playing sax and the occasional wood flute, essentially recorded a duet album with Ralph Towner who brings a 12 string and a classical guitar to the proceedings, along with a wind harp. It’s a very controversial album. With “The Penguin Guide To Jazz” giving it 4 of 4 stars and listing it as part of its core collection, along with sites like Allmusic giving it 2 of 5, the album has its worshippers and detractors. You either like the fact Garbarek more or less introduced concepts that changed the definition of what constitutes Jazz or you don’t. You should listen to it, but none of the six offerings worked into my top ten. Today at least.

I remember listening to my local jazz station around 1980 when I first heard Folk Song from the album Folk Songs. I knew Charlie Haden as Ornette Coleman’s bassist, but Egberto Gismonti and Garbarek were somewhat new to me. I loved Gismonti’s gentle playing and Garbarek’s sax just floats along with it. It’s almost a perfect blend of jazz and world music. And oddly enough Garbarek’s sax doesn’t play a huge part in the piece. It’s as true of a collaboration as can happen. The trio aren’t simply waiting for their solos, they truly complement each other in a very non-competitive way.

In White Noise Of Forgetfulness from It’s OK To Listen To The Gray Voice, released in 1985, he lets his guitarist David Torn set the pace and he almost dances along the fringes of the piece. And I think here more than anywhere else I noticed how Garbarek uses silence as music. When I first heard the piece I thought it had abruptly ended three or four times before its actual last notes. It wasn’t till subsequent listens I realized the abrupt silences were music unto themselves.

Twelve Moons from 1993 isn’t among my favorite albums of his, but it’s the only one that places two pieces on my list; those being Twelve Moons and Brother Wind March. The less than flattering comments about his restraint were popping up fairly regularly by now. And it isn’t hard to understand the comment, but for me the negative connotation doesn’t seem deserved.

At the start of Twelve Moons you almost find yourself striving to hear the leader’s instrument. Then it breaks out in a non-aggressive attack before dancing in and out of the song. And of course, there is that dead silence at the four and a half minute mark. I really appreciate that he uses the lack of any sound as music.

Brother Wind March is almost textbook as my description of Garbarek’s style goes. Long sustained notes interspersed with silence. It’s listening that puts you at ease while being challenging at the same time, if that’s possible. Yes he shows a certain amount of restraint, but so what, the playing and effect is amazing.

Rites, from the album of the same name, is almost chant like for the first third of the song. Not surprising, considering where his music would go in the next few years. His playing is restrained, which I mean as a compliment, and is a composition really of a man who just happens to play saxophone, and not a saxophonist playing a tune. His playing in the last fourth of the piece is amazing though. There is certainly an almost reverential treatment to the music.

Officium is the first of three albums Garbarek recorded with the Hilliard Ensemble. If you enjoy medieval music with a contemporary overtone then I can’t imagine you not loving this album. It’s melancholy and oddly spiritual, perfect for certain moods. Garbarek’s horn just soars above the Hilliard Ensemble’s singing. It’s really quite majestic. It was a jazz album of a sort that charted in several countries and sold a ton of albums for something in its genre. As such, some purists like to dismiss it I think because of the mainstream popularity.

I do not like the first moments in Conversation With A Stone from the 2004 album In Praise Of Dreams. Although I enjoy that late in his career Garbarek is trying new things, this time performing in a trio with a viola player and a percussionist who employs samples. The samples at the beginning of the piece just don’t work for me. But Garbarek’s playing is fantastic, and the way his horns accompany the viola is just as amazing. Enough to make me overlook the sampling.

So there you have it; a list of great tunes by someone with so many great songs who for my money takes too much criticism for not being an authentic jazz artist.



Jan Garbarek official website

Jan Garbarek discography

Jan Garbarek on ECM Records

Jan Garbarek biography (Apple Music)


The Akron Sound cover

Calvin Rydbom’s latest book is “The Akron Sound: The Heyday Of The Midwest’s Punk Capital” published this year by The History Press. He is the vice-president and archivist of the “Akron Sound” Museum and vice-president of freelance archiving firm Pursue Posterity. He has published a number of music-related articles and was elected to the Society of American Archivists steering committee on recorded sound before being promoted to website liaison. Some of Calvin’s other toppermosts are on the Dead Boys, Rubber City Rebels and Tin Huey all from Ohio. He has also written about several jazz musicians for this website including Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Thelonious Monk.

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