Review: Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble in Bath Abbey

The Hilliard Ensemble, Jan Garbarek
Bath Abbey May 2014. Photo credit: Mick Destino

Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble
(Bath Abbey, 26th May. Part of Bath Festival. Review by Jon Turney)

A soprano saxophone playing unaccompanied, save for an enormous echo. In an unusually beautiful old abbey, it sounds out as a call to the faithful, and four singers duly join in, walking oh-so-slowly toward the horn’s summons and assembling before a packed congregation of already enthralled listeners.

Who else but Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble? Reunited for a tour in the Hilliards’ 40th – and final – year they make music of unusual power. Three may be preparing for retirement, but the four singers’ voices all have a purity that is perfectly suited to the slow-tempo austerity of most of their repertoire, here mainly taken from their third recording with the saxophonist, Officium Novum (ECM) in 2010.

The vocal quartet in combination with the saxophone enhances both immeasurably. The vocals have a yearning quality that is matched by Garbarek’s keening tone, while the saxophonist is free to embellish the written parts the singers endow with such grace. The words, in languages inaccessible to us, pass the listener by, save for the single repeated English line of Arvo Part’s Most Holy Mother of God which is sung unaccompanied by the quartet. The rest of the time the harmonised singing and Garbarek’s interjections offer the most elemental call and response.

There are gorgeous solos, duos and trios from the singers, too, but for me the sax provided the most memorable moments. The vocals are rhythmically static, and Garbarek needs to use only a small fraction of a jazz player’s rhythmic flexibility for contrast. Similarly, there are no sheets of sound here, but a continual bubbling up of simple phrases that decorate the singing like sunlight sparkling on waves.

Like the singers, he plays the building, too – retreating to the end of the nave at one point and ruminating in the distance. When he returns to the stage there is an extended solo, which builds to a gently foot-tapping climax that hints at the blues, two things I suddenly realise have been entirely absent for the previous hour.

This minimal nod to modernity is more than enough, and the final piece returns to the more understated, monastic feel that holds the evening together. A farewell long fade contrived by filing into the distant reaches of the building while still singing and playing is followed by one of the longest pauses before applause I’ve ever seen. It can be an easy exaggeration to describe an audience as spellbound. This one was.

Jan Garbarek
Bath Abbey May 2014. Photo credit: Mick Destino

LINK: Previous review of Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (2009, St Paul’s Cathedral)

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