IN ONLY a few years, Jan Garbarek has moved from cult jazz saxophonist to renowned, barrier-busting voice of contemporary music. Although there have been landmarks along the way - principally his global bestseller, Officium, with The Hilliard Ensemble, which brought him his biggest audience - it's been a notably patient progress. If the timbre of his music has changed frequently, his instrumental voice remains as individual and recognisable as his finger prints, and as inimitable as it was on his first ECM records, almost 30 years ago.
Where Garbarek has tried numberless combinations of players on his records, his touring group has retained a constancy which suits him well. At the RFH, it was the familiar Garbarek gang of Eberhard Weber, whose basslines are as particular as the leader's; Rainer Bruninghaus on keyboards, a self-effacing texturalist; and, for the worldly kick which is Garbarek's secret vice, Marilyn Mazur on drums and percussion. They are not a charismatic lot to look at, but there is an anticipatory chill when the leader fills his lungs to deliver that first incantatory phrase. He really sounds like nobody else.
For much of the evening, though, the rigorous skirling of Garbarek's tenor and soprano was closely meshed with the other players: an ensemble rather than a soloist's meditation. The first 50 minutes was a seamless tracing of themes, from the lavish and expensive new record, Rites, an impeccable demonstration of Garbarek's strength, and the habits which some might call failings. Many of his themes are no more than a melodic motif or deceptively simple progression. And he can find ways to pick at them for hours. This refinement, though, can seem barely a step away from palliative, New Age music.
He is fortunate to have Marilyn Mazur to put some iron into this mix. Even when tapping out the simplest tattoo on her mix of kit drums, bells, cymbals and shakers, the ear is constantly drawn to the vibrant precision of her playing. It leaves Weber and Bruninghaus to provide the lush, harmonic underpinnings, and they were rewarded with extravagant solo interludes in the second half. But this is group-music jazz absorbed into a fine and rather private world view: that of Jan Garbarek's glittering grey voice.
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