From a newcomer to the Norwegian jazz scene to one of its veterans. Saxophonist Jan Garbarek was one of the first Norwegian jazz musicians to break cover during the late 60’s, working with the late George Russell. Inspired by John Coltrane, but using the European classical tradition and Scandinavian folk music as a framework, Garbarek has, like Keith Jarrett, become a mainstay of the ECM label. By my reckoning, his new album, ‘Dresden’, is around the 30th of his career on ECM as a leader or co-leader, with at least that many credits as a sideman on other ECM albums since the mid-1970’s making him pretty ubiquitous in terms of defining ‘the ECM sound’.
Up until the late 1980’s, Garbarek’s sound was usually characterised as ‘mournful’, but starting with albums like ‘Legend of the Seven Dreams’ (1988), he appeared to go through something of an epiphany, seemingly inspired by developing trends in World Music, especially that of the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and also African music. Jazz purists got very sniffy, suggesting that Garbarek had abandoned his jazz roots, a criticism that only intensified when he began making records with the (mediaevalist) Hilliard Ensemble.
However, his long-running quartet featuring Manu Katché on drums, Eberhard Weber on bass and Rainer Brüninghaus on keyboards used jazz as just one flavouring in a gumbo that steadily increased Garbarek’s popularity around the world. They toured regularly and produced a series of cd’s that sold far better than Garbarek’s early albums had done. To some extent, the band had a unique sound with Weber’s booming, elastic bass, Katché’s busy, rock-orientated percussion and Brüninghaus’ lyrical and ever-inventive keyboard playing.
In recent years, the quartet’s levels of activity have declined, principally due to Weber’s declining health. For this new double-cd, recorded – as the title would suggest – in Dresden in late 2007, Weber’s role in the band has been taken over by the Brazilian bassist Yuri Daniel and whilst replacing Weber’s unique qualities would probably have been impossible, Daniel perhaps offers a more agile approach, which undoubtedly helps things along on tunes like the African-inspired ‘Once I dreamt a tree upside down’ and ‘Maracuja’, which, (whisper it gently) almost slips into funk in its latter stages. Overall, it’s a really dynamic set, with little of the downbeat introspection that characterised Garbarek’s early output. Even when the band are called back to the stage for an encore, they manage to inject the stately march of ‘Voy Cantando’ with a rolling pulse over which Garbarek delivers one of his best solos of the entire album.
Extraordinarily, given his thirty-plus year association with ECM, this is Garbarek’s first ever live album and it is perhaps the adrenaline rush of playing before an audience that makes ‘Dresden’ a positively upbeat experience. Inside, Garbarek may be pining for the fjords, but you’d never know it….