MUSIC / All that early music jazz: Annette Morreau on Officium, a collaboration between the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek

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There are so many things that haven't gotten into concerts yet - not only issues, but sounds and feelings and possibilities.' These words might have been written by the Hilliard Ensemble and the Norwegian saxophone player, Jan Garbarek, in anticipation of their concert that took place in Kings College Chapel, Cambridge at the end of July. In fact, the words belong to the Kronos quartet, old hands at 'picking and mixing'. Now the Hilliard Ensemble and Garbarek have teamed up to produce one of the strangest mixes imaginable - early music with saxophone improvisation.

The idea for this collaboration came largely from the German record label ECM, to which both the Hilliards and Jan Garbarek are signed. ECM has long been known for its progressive approach to music. Manfred Eicher began the label in 1969 and demonstrated a vision for the label that appeared to be driven more by artistic ambition than commercial concern - although an early disc by Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert (1975), has sold more copies than any other solo piano record.

Eicher, who is still very much in charge of the label, showed that what was important was music regardless as to whether it fitted into some box neatly marked 'jazz', 'minimal', 'post-modern' or any other pre-ordered category. ECM is a 'free-spirit' label, reflecting Eicher's eclectic taste - composers such as Arvo Part, Perotin, Gavin Bryars, Tallis, Alfred Schnittke, Gesualdo, Giya Kancheli, Steve Reich, and performers like Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Gidon Kremer, Gary Burton, Don Frisell, Shankar and John Surman.

The Hilliards have been recording for ECM since 1987 (their 1988 Arvo Part Passio caused an early stir) but became exclusive to the label about four years ago. ECM is an artistic family so it was not surprising that Eicher should link the pure, austere sound of the Hilliard Ensemble with the bleak coolness of Jan Garbarek's saxophone.

Garbarek is a musician who has been defying categories for years. He's something of a musical Peter Brook, working with musicians from a number of cultures but indelibly stamping his own plangent personality on the 45 records he has recorded for ECM since joining the label in 1970.

But mixing early music with saxophone improvisation is a bit of a mind-stretch even if there is a musical correspondence: neither is fully notated and both rely on 'guides' - chords or single melodic lines which are subject to improvisation or ornamentation in performance.

Officium has 15 tracks; three of them different versions of the same piece, 'Parce mihi domine' from Christobel Morales' Officium defunctorum from which the disc takes its title. All the music dates from the 12th, 15th and 16th centuries. The Hilliard sings the music 'straight' while Garbarek chooses his moments to improvise. The Hilliards have no idea what Garbarek will do and occasionally, as the counter-tenor David James admits, he can throw them with his astonishing 'solutions'. Garbarek alternates between soprano and tenor sax.

The music that seems to lend itself best to a saxophone wheeling around comes from the earliest period, the 12th century, particularly Perotin, because the harmony moves slowly and is austere. What becomes of Perotin's Beata viscera is quite extraordinary as Garbarek's tenor weaves around the counter-tenor's single line of chant, supported by a drone with vocal harmonics to rival the Tibetan monks. In the music of the 15th and 16th century - Pierre de la Rue, Dufay, and Morales - where the harmony is tighter and lusher, the saxophone cannot weave discreetly into the texture and it is in these pieces that the clash of periods and colours is at its most extreme.

The sound of Officium is full and rich, suggesting that the CD was made in a recording studio bristling with the latest gadgets. But the actual location was the wholly lo- tech Monastery of St Gerold, in the mountains of West Austria using two stereo microphones and no added reverberation - a positively 'green' recording.

The concert in Cambridge was a 'taster' for the disc. If the audience response to this concert was any indication - 175 discs were sold immediately afterwards - Manfred Eicher has a bank-roller on his hands. In fact pre-sales are rumoured to number 100,000. A disc to rival the Spanish monks?

'Officium' is released on Monday by ECM New Series (4453692 CD; 4453694 MC)

(Photograph omitted)