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The Critics' Awards 1998: Jazz - Good-bye, Tin Pan Alley. Hello, Europe Lane

Jan Garbarek, the Norwegian tenor and soprano saxophone player, has been outstanding in his field (and as fields go, it's a rather dry and stony Nordic one), since his first album for the German ECM label in 1970. Next year, ECM celebrates its 30th anniversary and Garbarek is still on board, with his long-awaited follow-up to Officium - the 1994 collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble that has sold close to a million copies worldwide - due to be released in April.

Throughout this time, Garbarek's style hasn't really changed. His intensely personal sound, which in extremis becomes a harsh keening wail, is one of the most immediately identifiable signatures in contemporary music. Although indebted to the later work of John Coltrane, and fellow Coltrane disciples like Albert Ayler and Gato Barbieri (in 1970 Garbarek was given a grant by the Norwegian government to go to New York and listen to jazz), the sound has long since become his own. Although Garbarek plays fewer notes than he used to, their intensity has deepened proportionately.

In tandem with his label, Garbarek has contributed significantly to a quiet revolution in jazz, drawing the centre ever closer to Europe, and replacing the old lingua franca of Tin Pan Alley tunes with influences drawn from folk music and the classical avant-garde. But while Garbarek has never ceased to be a great original artist, for much of the Nineties he seemed to be treading the same flinty ground. Apart from the masterstroke of creative casting that paired him with the Hilliards for Officium - mediaeval plainsong meets wounded-mammal sax improvisations - recent solo albums were a little lacking in surprises.

This year, however, at the age of 50, Garbarek successfully reinvigorated himself with the terrific double album, Rites (ECM). It's not exactly a new departure, but the combination of subtle electronic effects (at times approaching the ambient end of contemporary dance music), less strident backing from his regular band members, and a greater variety of musical settings, create an almost wholly satisfying portrait of the artist. The scope is also wider than before. There's a composition sung beautifully by a Norwegian boys choir, and more strangely, "The Moon Over Mtatsminda", a song written, sung and conducted (with the Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra), by Jansung Kakhidze.

Garbarek had nothing to do with this last piece at all, but when Manfred Eicher of ECM played him the recording he decided he wanted to include it on the album, partly because it reminded him of how his father, a Pole, used to sing to him in a language he never understood. By coincidence, a book published this year, Born Under The Sign of Jazz, by the Norwegian jazz writer and broadcaster Randi Hultin, includes a photo from a Warsaw Jazz Festival in 1966 showing a young Jan Garbarek playing with - of all people - members of the Monty Sunshine band from England. It may well be an unaccustomed confessional touch that makes Rites the most satisfying album the normally reticent and recessive Garbarek has recorded for some time.

t Jazz artist of 1998: Jan Garbarek