Review: Jan Garbarek Group with Trilok Gurtu. London Jazz Festival

Jan Garbarek. Photo credit: Mike Stebberg


Jan Garbarek Group with Trilok Gurtu 
(Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday 13 November. LJF. Review by Chris Parker)

Just as the Queen might be forgiven for thinking the world is a spick and span place filled with freshly planted flowers, smelling of new paint, and peopled by shy and deferential charmers who never speak unless directly addressed, Jan Garbarek might reasonably suppose that concerts are sell-out affairs attended only by silently rapt music aficionados who rise as one in a standing ovation at their conclusion.

From the moment he set foot on the Festival Hall stage, a distinguished, elegant figure carrying his soprano and tenor saxophones in a smart leather bag, Garbarek exuded quiet confidence and focused gravitas, and he went quietly and seriously about his business – leading an unfussily virtuosic group through a mesmerising selection of his now considerable repertoire – for over two hours, not uttering a single word from the stage, but simply allowing his uniquely persuasive music to speak eloquently for him.

His current group, although still faithful to the saxophone/keyboard/bass/percussion format established over two decades ago, retains only keyboard player Rainer Brüninghaus from that period, but its musicianly qualities – single-minded devotion to the production of scrupulously layered sound, careful attention to detail and nuance, a refreshingly democratic approach to the allocation of solo space – remain triumphantly undimmed.

True, the diaphonous group textures achieved by the beguiling mix of Brüninghaus’s keyboards and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos (and later Marilyn Mazur), propelled by the plaintive bass of Eberhard Weber, have been replaced by a punchier approach of late, courtesy of the more assertive drumming of, first Manu Katché, now Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, and the electric bass of Brazilian Yuri Daniel, but the stirring anthemic skirl of Garbarek’s saxophones is still an utterly distinctive and exhilarating sound, whether he’s playing his pin-sharp, delicately affecting curved soprano or darkly swirling tenor.

On this occasion, he played his selections mainly in discrete groups of three tunes at a time, gradually moving from impeccable ensemble performances to individual features for, first Brüninghaus (whose ability to combine thunderous, occasionally downright rumbustious piano with the most filigree-delicate keyboard sounds borders on the miraculous), then for Daniel (similarly adept at moving uncontrivedly between rumbling robustness and plangent urgency), then, perhaps most memorably, for Gurtu.

The Indian maestro, of course (like Vasconcelos before him), is an experienced and revered solo performer, and (after an unfortunate coughing fit explained by his choked apology: “I’ve just come back from India”) he entranced an already spellbound audience with an impressive array of percussive effects, beginning with vocal rhythm-setting, proceeding through a panoply of shaken and struck objects from tabla drums to spiral cymbals, and culminating in an extraordinary performance utilising a bucket of water into which he dipped a variety of cymbals.

But it was Garbarek’s ravishing playing, which can still raise neck-hair at forty paces, that lingered in the mind long after this unequivocally enjoyable concert was over – he is simply one of the great treasures of the jazz world, and long may he remain so.

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