REPOSTED FROM Sunday evening, November 18, 2007
To the renovated Festival Hall on London's South Bank to see the Jan Garbarek Group in the 2007 London Jazz Festival.
There are few sounds as distinctive in modern jazz as the saxophone of Norwegian jazz giant Jan Garbarek (right).
Much has been written about his ability to evoke the windswept expanses of a Nordic wilderness through sustaining high-pitched notes that seem to trail off into a distant horizon. But he can also be earthy and funky and last night we saw a fresh energy emerging from a slightly changed line-up.
I've seen Garbarek perform on more occasions than any other musician and it's always a memorable experience. He never speaks on stage, preferring to let his saxophone do the talking, drawing out of tenor and soprano instruments a dazzling range of keening wails, ferociously accurate runs, and breathy rumbles.
Once he's found a band personnel he's happy with, he tends to stay with them for years. On this occasion he was accompanied by long-term collaborator Rainer Brüninghaus on keyboards, Yuri Daniel on electric bass (replacing Eberhard Weber), and Manu Katché on drums (in place of percussionist Marilyn Mazur).
Virtuoso bassist Eberhard Weber was sadly missed, although Yuri Daniel did a fine job of interlocking with Katché to create a solid rhythm section. And it was Manu Katché who gave this current Garbarek live project a new, more muscular edge, adding a powerfully controlled energy that seemed strangely lacking on their last London visit a few years ago.
Katché has recorded with Garbarek on a number of occasions in the past but recently seems to have been installed as his live drummer of choice. It's easy to see why. Even the normally restrained Garbarek could be glimpsed standing at the back of the stage tapping his thigh to the beat, visibly excited by the blistering jazz-rock pulses set up by his three cohorts.
Katché (left, photo courtesy Heinz Kronberger) is one of the finest drummers in the world, often overshadowed by the more flashy techniques of the likes of Dave Weckl or Vinnie Colaiuta. But his ability to nail down watertight, serpentine, thrillingly funky grooves is second to none. This has drawn him into the orbit of many rock superstars such as Sting and Peter Gabriel. Listen to the pattern he created for Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes — particularly the tripping, off-centre snare shot that sets the mood for the chorus. In its way it's as memorable as the tricksy backbeats Steve Gadd laid down on Paul Simon's Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover and Rikki Lee Jones's Chuck E's in Love. Seldom do drummers emerge from the traps to be recognised as anything more than just beat-boxes. But Katché has the innate musicality to turn good songs into memorable ones by treating the kit like a paintbox, adding light and shade with impressive power and subtlety.
Garbarek is as fond of chugging rhythms as was the late great Joe Zawinul and last night his band shifted seamlessly between his trademark Northern European jazz mode and the sort of ecstatic world music grooves for which Zawinul gained global acclaim.
Jazz is all about taking risks and at times last night one sensed the quartet right there on the edge, driving each other to unknown destinations and loving it. As a result, there was less of Garbarek's usual existential tonal meditations on Nordic legend or the Coltrane-like free-jazz parabolas some of us have come to know and love him for. Instead, he hung back and allowed his band to let rip, periodically stepping from the shadows to reinstate the main theme or to switch the register into another of his dancing variations on a Scandinavian folk melody.
Happily, this memorable gig was recorded as part of the BBC Radio Three collaborations with the London Jazz Festival and can be heard on Radio Three's Late Junction at a date to be announced. Watch that space.