How Garbarek Got His Groove Back (plus a Gig by Joe Lovano)

It being 50 years since Manfred Eicher first set up his ECM label, it was perhaps unsurprising that this year’s London Jazz Festival should mount an ‘ECM day’, with three concerts featuring artists associated with the label. I missed the first, by the Julia Hülsmann Quartet, but managed to catch the second and third, and I was very glad I did.

I was reasonably impressed by the support act in the Queen Elizabeth Hall gig – Swiss-Albanian singer Elina Duni and British guitarist Rob Luft – but I was really there for Trio Tapestry, consisting of saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Marilyn Crispell and percussionist Carmen Castaldi. For around 90 minutes they played both titles from their recent album of the same name and new material. Much of the music was composed (seemingly in meticulous detail) by Lovano, though certain numbers did allow for extended improvisation – and Crispell, particularly, responded to such opportunities superbly. The material ranged from austere and angular 12-tone miniatures like Tarrassa to more conventionally ‘jazzy’ fare: delicate offbeat ballads and bluesy mood pieces (Seeds of Change), robust riff-based improvisations (Rare Beauty), the occasional more upbeat groove (The Smiling Dog) and even an extended theme-and-variations. Overall, there was rather more space, pace and pulse than can be found on the album, which is for the most part extremely concise and gently ruminative; it was good to hear the three musicians – all, as one would expect, excellent, with Castaldi often a little reminiscent of Lovano’s old partner, the late great Paul Motian – stretching out and sometimes letting loose. There was even a witty has-it-finished-or-not? piece entitled Catch Me If You Can which had the ingenuity, economy and energy of an old Looney Tunes cartoon.  

Marilyn Crispell, Joe Lovano and Carmen Castaldi at the QEH

Then it was a quick dash next door to the Royal Festival Hall for the Jan Garbarek Quartet (pictured at top). I first heard the Norwegian saxophonist when I was asked to review his 1983 recording Wayfarer for the Time Out music pages, and I’ve been listening to him ever since, acquiring the albums and for the most part endeavouring to see him perform whenever he came to London. Recent years, however, provided slimmer pickings; new studio albums appear to have dried up, and because the live gigs tended to feature the same material played by the same musicians, I found I stopped bothering. (His Officium concerts with the late, lamented Hilliard Ensemble were another thing entirely, and always worth catching.) Indeed, the last time I saw Garbarek live with a quartet – some years ago now – it felt to me as if his heart wasn’t really in the gig.

Still, this being a special ‘ECM day’, I gave it a try, and was somewhat surprised by the results. I’ll admit my heart sank as the gig began with wind noises and the echoing sax introducing the anthem-like tune that kicks off Molde Canticle, but within five or ten minutes things were beginning to swing as the band ran through a fairly rousing medley of familiar riffs and melodies – mostly, if memory serves, from Garbarek’s ’90s albums. And things only got more interesting and livelier over the next two hours. In all, there were four extended medleys – the last three mostly comprised, as far as I could tell, of material as yet unrecorded* – one all-too-brief but pleasingly fiery version of So mild the wind, so meek the water, which saw Garbarek’s tenor duetting with Trilok Gurtu’s tablas before rising to a crescendo of remarkable power – and an unexpectedly jaunty number for the encore which had all four musicians clapping along and successfully encouraging the audience to do likewise.

Clapping along at a Garbarek concert? Well, yes. If he has got his groove back (for want of a better term) – and certainly his playing felt far more committed, inventive and forceful than when I last saw him perform in a quartet – it surely has something to do with percussion, in the broadest sense of the word. I’m not only alluding to the lengthy and frequent – perhaps too lengthy and frequent – solos afforded to Indian maestro Gurtu (who also seems to have infected the band a little with his mischievous sense of humour); if this gig was anything to go by, I also feel as if Garbarek himself has somehow re-energised himself by opting to accentuate the rhythmic and percussive aspects of his music. Though much of the as-yet unrecorded material played during the last three medleys was less rewarding, melodically and harmonically, than Garbarek’s music of the ’80s and ‘90s, that didn’t matter too much because what a lot of the gig appeared to be concerned with was rhythmic energy. Both bass guitarist Yuri Daniel’s solo and the climax of keyboardist Rainer Brüninghaus’s piano solo tended towards the percussive, while Garbarek himself frequently played in a highly rhythmic staccato fashion and even, at one point, used the keys of his sax (while not breathing through it) for percussive effect.

IMG_0574 2Of course, Garbarek has always been interested in percussion and rhythm – besides Gurtu he’s over the years counted among his players such great and diverse musicians as Marilyn Mazur, Manu Katché, Jon Christensen, Jack DeJohnette, Nana Vasconcelos and Ustad Shaukat Hussain – but the emphasis at the LJF gig felt a little different; closer to rock, perhaps, or at least to fusion, than the lighter, sometimes looser touch used in the past. I’m not arguing that that is altogether a good thing – I for one missed the lyricism and delicacy that would sit happily alongside the more propulsive playing in many of the concerts I saw years ago, and I should have loved to hear something as quietly affecting as his version of Grieg’s Arietta – but it was at the very least heartening to feel that Garbarek was actually enjoying himself playing again. And judging by the response to the closing moments of his band’s fourth medley – a repetitive percussive riff followed by what sounded strangely like a furious and slightly demented samba, rushing towards a crashing climax – the rest of the audience felt likewise. As it happened I’d been sitting immediately behind three of the aforementioned Hilliards, one of whom enthusiastically opined at the end of the concert, ‘Well, they certainly went for it!’ Indeed they did.

*Since writing/posting this review I’ve discovered that a couple of the tunes played in this concert are available on Dresden, a double-album of a live concert recorded in 2007, featuring the same line-up save that Manu Katché was on percussion, not Trilok Gurtu. The mood on that album. overall, was rather different to that of the concert reviewed.

Photos by the author. The EFG London Jazz Festival continues at various venues until Sunday 24 November. If you’d like to read more about the ECM label, you might check out my blog of November 2017.


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