We’ve long had a love-hate relationship with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, loving many of his releases while finding his tone irritating to the point of distraction. After championing some of his early work (Afric Pepperbird, Witchi-Tai-To, the career-defining, one-of-a-kind Dis) we suffered mixed feelings towards what followed, even when it included great musicians like John Abercrombie, Nana Vansconcelos, David Torn and and Bill Frisell. Star, with Miroslav Vitous and Peter Erskine from 1991, re-established our interest and we admired his forays into Indian traditions — Ragas and Sagas, Madar — as well as 1993’s Twelve Moons which defined his far-ranging tastes and methods.
But after the huge success of Officium, what seemed to us a forced marriage between hundreds-of-years-old choral music and contemporary saxophone, our hipness (in which popularity never equals same) forced us to look away.
Now Dresden, a two-CD set recorded live in that German city in 2007, reminds us of what we loved about Garbarek, without all the Nordic and early-music atmospherics that are a large part of his popularity. Dresden is a reminder of what true fusion music, prior to its commercial bastardization, promised to become: a wide-embrace of forms and geographical influences played in a style of sincere, technically-proficient abandon with an emphasis on (mostly) accessible rhythms and melodies. The 62-year-old Garbarek has lived up to this early promise.
The disc’s opening number, Lakshminarayana Shankar‘s “Paper Nut,” makes the case for the beat end of the true-fusion argument. Powered by drummer and long-time associate Manu Katche’s Cobham-like rolls, the tune’s probing-but-simple theme stands as a take-off point for Garbarek’s soprano ascent. Brazillian bassist Yuri Daniel pushes his lines against the drums , welding a jazz-rock hardness to the piece.
Still, the disc’s highlights are its less driven moments. Commercial fusion, reduced to beat tunes and ballads, contains nothing like the thoughtful pieces Garbarek pulled from his history to perform in Dresden. There’s a progression of tunes on the disc, opening with Garbarek’s “Heitor” and proceeding through “Twelve Moons,” “Rondo Amoroso” and Harald Saeverud’s “Tao” that combine influences, both worldly and stylistic, as well as a sensitivity that has long marked Garbarek’s play. Notice how easily, this time on tenor, he moves through the theme and tempo changes of Milton Nascimento’s-Fernando Brant’s “Milagre Dos Piexes, ” popularized on the Nascimento-Wayne Shorter collaboration Native Dancer. Hear how little reluctance his play carries on “The Reluctant Saxophonist.
That Garbarek has always been of the wide-embrace school is evidenced by the older numbers pulled from his songbook. “There Were Swallows”, with its cleanly-cut bass solo, astute acoustic piano and Garbarek’s pensive-without-passivity play is particularly telling. “The Tall Trees” opens with figurative synthesized sounds of wind in the boughs and the slow, on-the-bass development that Joe Zawinul might have penned for Weather Report. There’s enough eastern, Northern European and good ol’ American influence–both jazz and rock– throughout the disc to show that its more than just a fusion of commercial styles.
Yes, we still have problems with the saxophonist’s tone. His tenor sound, though not unpleasant, recalls too many smooth-jazz saxophonist to make us comfortable. And there’s still some whining in his soprano, at times sharp enough that it’s felt in one’s sinuses. But we’ve learned to hear past it–like looking past a blemish on our beautiful love’s face– and what’s left gives us great joy.–Cabbage Rabbit