Garbarek's grey voice glitters

First Night: Jan Garbarek; Royal Festival Hall, London
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IN ONLY A few years, Jan Garbarek has moved from cult jazz saxophonist to a renowned and barrier-busting voice in contemporary music.

Although there have been landmarks along the way - principally his global best seller 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 Aberhard Weber, whose singing ringing bass lines 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, these middle-aged middle-Europeans, but there is an anticipatory chill when the leader fills his lungs to deliver that first incantatory phrase on the saxophone.

For much of the evening, though, the rigorous skirling of Garbarek's tenor and soprano was closely meshed with the other players. The group have played together a long time, and they are now as close-knit as in the days of the Garbarek-Bobo Stenson quartet. The first 50 minutes was a seamless tracing of themes from the lavish and expensive new record Rites.

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, symbols and shakers, the ear is drawn to her vibrant precision. It leaves Weber and Bruninghaus to provide the lush underpinnings, and they are rewarded with extravagant solo interludes in the second half. But this is a group music, jazz absorbed into a fine, rather private world view: Jan Garbarek's glittering grey voice.

Richard Cook