Jan Garbarek Group
(Royal Festival Hall. 17 November 2019. EFG London Festival. Review by Mike Collins)
Trading fours sounds different in a Jan Garbarek set. An hour and half into their gig at the Royal Festival Hall, Trilok Gurtu was firing streams of Konnakol phrases, the Indian language of verbalized rhythm, at Garbarek who was responding with dancing, spiraling phrases on a wooden flute. This was after an epic solo percussion episode from Gurtu which had embraced relatively conventional drumming as well as pails of water and submerged gongs, via a bit of beat-box style vocals.
Jan Garbarek Group. Oslo 2016. Photo credit: Tore Sætre/ Creative Commons
Bass player Yuri Daniel joined in with a choppy rhythm, plectrum rasping on the strings and they burst into a swaying theme for the finale. Garbarek’s solo burned with a passionate intensity as he stretched out, and it was followed by a matching flurry from Rainer Brüninghaus at the keyboard. It was a standout moment in the long set and had the Festival Hall devotees of the ECM legend on their feet clamouring for more.
This was the end of a ‘takeover day’ at the Southbank to mark 50 years since Manfred Eicher founded ECM and there’d been several gigs and sets throughout the afternoon. Joe Lovano and Julia Hülsmann in a discussion session had made clear the pervasiveness of Eicher’s vision and influence in both signing and encouraging young players, involvement in recording sessions, and pressing and challenging artists to go beyond what they themselves may be imagining.
It was fitting then to end the day with someone who has been with the label since the very early days, himself signed as a young relatively unknown artist, who has experimented and explored over that time and whose yearning, soaring sound seems to embody something of the ‘ECM sound’.
The gig began with that sound on soprano over the ghostly hiss of wind, then the keyboard traced a quintessentially evocative theme before the sax picked it up and the full band joined in. They dug into the back catalogue introducing dancing melodies, folk-tinged themes and more driving sinuous lines, all fuelled by the rocky, rippling pulse laid down by Daniel and Gurtu. The set was punctuated by solo spots for first Daniel then Brüninghaus before Gurtu set them up for the finale.
There was just a sense that they were not always quite at the top of their unrivalled game. Some of the themes lacked the airy lightness that gives this music wings, and the solo spots had a few incongruous moments; a swerve through Afro Blue and frenetic slap bass in the bass slot, a demented boogie woogie blues in the piano spot seemed slightly out of kilter. The emotional heft of Garbarek’s playing and the tumultuous conclusion however were more than enough to remind us of why he’s revered and this group has such a following.
Mike Collins is a pianist and writer based in Bath, who runs the jazzyblogman site. Twitter @jazzyblogman