LJF 2016: Jan Garbarek Group

Michael Tucker sees music that was once exploratory and expansive transmuted into judiciously packaged high-quality entertainment

Joined by his regular partners of the past years – Rainer Brüninghaus (p, kyb), Yuri Daniel (elb) and Trilok Gurtu (pc) – Garbarek (pictured at the gig by John Watson) sold out the Royal Festival Hall and delivered to an attentive and, ultimately, ecstatic audience nearly two hours of immaculately played music, presented in discrete segments of three or four numbers.

A standing ovation at the end was rewarded by an encore where the audience was encouraged to contribute co-ordinated hand-clapping to the sensuous, laid-back polyrhythms of Gurtu – the second time in the concert such action had been solicited.

Further: Brüninghaus's earlier, extensive solo feature – moving from tender rumination to thunderous, even Gothic declamation leavened by handfuls of contrasting humorous historical reference – drew applause and appreciative laughter in equal measure. Laughter, and participatory hand-clapping, in a concert by Jan Garbarek?

When Julian Joseph introduced the group, he spoke of Garbarek's distinctive sound and of how from the 1970s onwards his work had helped to define the identity of the ECM label, in good part through groundbreaking collaborations with figures such as Keith Jarrett and, in later years, The Hilliard Ensemble (three of whom were in the RFH audience).

Certainly, whether on tenor or soprano – and, in a concluding duet with Gurtu, Norwegian wood flute – Garbarek's unique sound was much in evidence. The man whose 2007 Dresden concert album has a piece entitled The Reluctant Saxophonist played a great deal and, as always, extremely well. The command of timbre and line, register and range would have been extraordinary from any saxophonist, let alone from someone not far off their 70th birthday.

Garbarek's diversely phrased excursions took on both Nordic and Latin overtones and included burning passages of adventurously tongued tenor, as tough as it was lean, as well as much keenly sculpted lyricism on soprano, at times enhanced by a pedal-harmoniser. However: within the overall context of the programme, to these ears what for many years had been ground-breaking now registered as such only in a somewhat melancholy sense. What had once been music as exploratory as it was expansive seemed, rather, judiciously packaged high-quality entertainment – albeit still with some really striking moments, as in a new, tenor-led ballad phrased with affecting economy over intimate and simple figures from Brüninghaus on piano.

The opening Molde Canticle – often called Garbarek's A Love Supreme – typified the evening. The original recording on the 1990 I Took Up The Runes, with Eberhard Weber (elb) and Nana Vasconcelos (pc), runs for just over half-an-hour. Reduced to 15 minutes, the piece was engaging enough but, inevitably, brought memories of the greater intensity and sweeping conviction of the 1990 recording, as well as the many concert versions of the early 1990s.

Later, the music tended to see-saw, sometimes somewhat abruptly, from anthemic lyricism to purposive groove. Daniel made his bass sing to a degree while also exploiting the deepest, loudest, even elephantine registers of the instrument, as well as some tightly clipped fast funk figures; Brüninghaus (who I was glad to hear is working on a new album for ECM) contributed adroit, chiefly "clean" textures on both keyboards and piano, while Gurtu (sympathetically miked) offered many a diverse cross-accent, with now rhythmically driving, now questing vocalese featured in his solo outing at the end of the concert.

Once – and especially with Weber on board – all such activity might have conjured music to deepen, perhaps even transfigure, one's sense of the flow of life and time. But – for this reviewer, at least – not this time.

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