With the possible exception of his one-time employer Keith Jarrett, there’s no other musician who epitomizes ECM Records more than the saxophonist from Norway, Jan Garbarek. Recording exclusively for the fabled jazz label since his second long player Afric Pepperbird in 1970. Garbarek has also participated in countless other ECM projects, most conspicuously, as a key player in Jarrett’s so-called European Quartet from the 70s. In a few days, ECM will salute their cornerstone artist with a 3-CD set combining a trio of key albums he made in the early and mid 70s, named Dansere, after the name of the last of those three.
With this compilation, we’re not really examining a single piece of work but three distinct ones: Sart (1971), Witchi-Tai-To (1974) and Dansere (1976). The choice of this material isn’t exactly a sequential list of Garbarek’s catalog: Triptykon (1972) came between Sart and Witchi-Tai-To, while Garbarek’s ECM debut Afric Pepperbird (1970) appeared right before Sart with most of the same performers. The unifying element of Sart, Witchi-Tai-To and Dansere is the Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and Garbarek’s fruitful collaborations with him.
As Stenson himself had become a key ECM artist, largely via these records, the progression your hear as you go through them sequentially to a large degree chronicles the evolution of ECM itself, from the free jazz/advanced modern jazz/Bitches Brew type fusion attitude of the early 70s to the chamber, folk and melodic shards that has come to dominate the music starting in the mid 70s, even inspiring a name for these type of recordings: that ECM “sound” or “aesthetic.”
Certainly when Stenson joined Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal, double bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen in the spring of 1971 to record what became Sart, ECM was a fledgling label only two years old, still establishing an identity. But if there was an identity in the early days, it would be a predilection for audacious, improvised music and some of the better examples of that kind of jazz, too. The free jazz supergroup Circle, with and without Anthony Braxton, recorded for ECM. So did Marion Brown, just a few years removed from ESP-Disk. And Garbarek’s own Pepperbird, a widely lauded release and my personal favorite of his, is one of the creatively expressive and beautiful of free jazz records to come in the immediate post-Ayler period. Every participant on that album would go on to shape European jazz over the ensuing decade: Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen.
Stenson’s arrival caused a disruption in this formally all-Norwegian quartet, but disruption is good for disruptive music such as this, and it’s a testament to the pliancy of the quartet that Stenson could be absorbed without missing a beat. A disciple of both of the 60′s most important jazz pianists (Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner), Stenson was also influenced by Don Cherry, with whom he was gigging with around this time, along with many other jazz greats who spent a lot of time in Europe in the 60s and 70s. In particular, the dispersed nature of Cherry’s jazz prepared Stenson well for the similarly sparse music of Garbarek’s quartet.
Rypdal’s spare wah-wah’d guitar statements makes “Sart,” the song, highly evocative of Miles Davis’ “Yesternow” from his then-recent A Tribute To Jack Johnson LP. But the guitarist is perhaps just creating more space for the newcomer pianist, who likewise stays subdued; Christensen’s colorations drives the songs until Garbarek makes a screeching entrance at about twelve minutes mark before settling in. “Fountain of Tears,” almost a continuation of Pepperbird’s‘s “Skarabie,” is a showcase of exotic percussion by Christensen until Stenson signals a change in direction toward a full band free jazz freakout. Juxtaposed against that burst of unhinged combustion follows Garbarek’s gorgeous flute set against the soft tones of Stenson’s electric piano. “Song Of Space” puts the beauty of Stenson’s quiet ruminations before the beast of Garbarek and Rypdal’s combined wails. Andersen spends the first half “Irr” proving which amazing focus, vision and finger speed that he’s Europe’s most unheralded bassist. Reduced to a quartet for this tune (Rypdal sits out), Andersen pushes hard on the rest of the performers and they respond superbly.
About two and a half years later, Stenson went into the studio to lead a trio record with Christensen and bassist Palle Danielsson, but a guest appearance by Garbarek at a concert by this group shortly before had inspired the participants to turn a Stenson date into a Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson Quartet date. A critical and fan favorite of Garbarek’s entire catalog, Witchi-Tai-To signaled a turning point in his career, and, seemingly ECM itself. The alluring folk form of harmony that seemed to dominate Garbarek’s music — and much of the label as a whole — began to take shape here, especially on Jim Pepper’s the peyote chant that the album is named after (see Youtube below).
Apart from Danielsson’s gorgeous melody “Kukka,” the rest of the five selections are covers. Compared to Sart, there’s much more lyricism and smoother flow to songs. Stenson, in his own understated way, keeps spouting new ideas throught the proceedings. Another reason why this album is considered a high-water mark for Garbarek is because he’s rarely sounded better than he does here. Stenson is heard perhaps more than his partner on the record, but when Jan blows, it demands all your attention. His reedy, forceful diction is put in the service not for primal expressions anymore, but pretty, melodic lines and without losing any of his impact. In fact, the ending of the title song is a moment at the summit, and that follows memorable playing by Stenson, too. Following that is a twenty minute tour de force of group improvisation on Don Cherry’s “Desireless,” only this time, the melody is bolstered, not abandoned.
Another two years passed, and the same Witchi-Tai-To group entered the studio to record Dansere. Again credited to the “Jan Garbarek Bobo Stenson Quartet,” the surface of this music is very similar to the prior record; it wouldn’t at all be out of place to call Dansere a companion piece to Witchi-Tai-To. There’s a different storyline behind these sessions, though, in that that all but one of these half dozen tunes are Garbarek originals. The lone cover, “Lokk,” is a Garbarek arrangement of a traditional, Norwegian folk song. But folk-ish strains are heard through this record, making this a record of jazz performance with little jazz pulse.
The extended title song brings 60s modalism into a more modern time, where everyone gets a chance to stretch out, so long as the ostinato is honored. That bass-centric figure, almost hypnotic, along with Garbarek’s emotive but controlled saxophone, contributes to a sound that’s not quite jazz, but not quite fusion. Very soon after this record, we would see a slew of such recordings that fall into that gray but appealing area, by the likes of Eberhard Weber, Pat Metheny and others in the ECM stable. Dansere still carries a Coltrane heritage, but the explosions heard on earlier albums come less frequently and the band is more contemplative. This isn’t the point at which Scandinavian jazz was born, but Dansere may very well be the point at which it arrived as a major force within European jazz and certainly within ECM.
All three of these early, career defining Garbarek recordings have been issued before on CD, but have since gone out of print. ECM brings them back, as a package deal. Each entry a complete, standalone work of artistry; combined, they are the fulfillment of George Russell’s observations from 1968: “Garbarek should be heard. Wary as I am of generalisations, I would venture that not since Django Reinhardt has there been a European jazz musician so original and forward-looking as this young Norwegian.”
Part of ECM’s Old & New Masters reissue campaign, Dansere is set to go on sale July 31 by ECM Records.
Here’s a look back at our past thoughts on other classic 1970s ECM recordings. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
Terje Rypdal – Odyssey: In Studio and In Concert (1975, 2012 reissue): Combines into one set the complete recordings of compositions by Rypdal for his first working band, Odyssey. This is an essential chronicle of a turning point in the career of one of the Europe’s most idiosyncratic and creative guitarists.
Eberhard Weber – Colours (2010 reissue): German bassist and composer Weber successfully downscaled his grand scheme devised for The Colours Of Chloë into a nimble little group and influenced many of his ECM label-mates as well as other major contemporary jazz musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
Enrico Rava – The Pilgrim And The Stars (1975, 2008 reissue): Pilgrim is a uncompromising blend of Euro-jazz and American hard bop that launched the reign of one of Europe’s finest jazz trumpeters.
Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert: Right in the midst of the fusion craze, Jarrett revealed a lot of untapped interest in acoustic and unlabored jazz, as long as the music was honest and fresh. And thirty-five years later, The Köln Concert sounds as fresh and honest as it did when these songs were composed, in front of a live audience.