Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Jan Garbarek: An Appreciation

Jan Garbarek, saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and musical shaman, has been one of my favorite musicians for several decades. I listen to his recordings with fresh ears every time, no matter how often I've played them before.

I'm not going to write a biography here, because those are available. Most of Garbarek's recordings on the ECM record label, most of them still in print and available. Indeed, Garbarek's characteristic musical style has had an important role in shaping the sound of the entire record label.

What I want to give here is my personal reactions to a music that has meant a great deal to me.

Garbarek can be lyrical, even softly beautiful. His early work with Keith Jarrett has many such moments. But his distinctive tone and compositional style, his signature if you will, is a soprano saxophone tone that is hard-edged, sustained, clear as winter ice, and gets under your skin in the most remarkable way. It's a northern sound—the sound of Arctic Circle winters, the sound of wintermind, the sound of ice in the soul.

There are albums of Garbarek's, such as Dis, that rip your skin off and leave you naked to world. That leave claw-marks on your soul. There are others, such as Twelve Moons, which are the healing mirrors of Dis, in which your ripped-apart soul is reassembled with lyrical attention, with elegiac grace. Sometimes all at once.


Garbarek's music is a kind of improvised and composed music that, in the latter half of the 20th C., can only be described as shamanic. Spiritually, it follows in the footsteps of the late John Coltrane, of Albert Ayler. Like Coltrane's late work, this is music that transports, that transcends, but that doesn't ignore the suffering that led to transcendence. There is always a shadow of northern tragedy in Garbarek's music—this is almost a cliché to say, but it expresses it well—the same sense of tragic destiny and striving against the gods that one finds throughout the Norse Sagas. There is always, in the Sagas, a sense of the hero waging war on himself, as well as on others; of fate being simultaneously resisted and acknowledged.

A lot of Garbarek compositions are directly influenced by Norwegian folk music, and other Scandinavian folk music, including the shamanic chants of the living singers of Finland. There have been times when the music triggers a deep inner imagination, a kind of waking dream, that is very similar to shamanic journeying—at least for me. Perhaps that's because half of my personal ancestry comes from Norway, from north of the Arctic Circle. This music resonates deep in my bones.

There is also a deep inner silence in this music, which also leads it towards that shamanic, vatic, visionary thread in late 20th C. art—a thread often dismissed or ridiculed by the mandarins of artistic culture, particularly in this narcissistic contemporary moment, but there nonetheless. Garbarek is, I believe, part of this often-unrecognized thread of art that speaks directly of vision, of the inner self, of the life of the soul. The music is part of the soundtrack to this thread. It's obviously a thread in art that matters to me, and which I place myself within, as an artist. This is art that is intentionally transformative.

The shamanic aspect is like shamanic initiation: the dismemberment experience found in so many shamanic traditions, in which the spirits rip you apart, symbolically, actually, rip your soul to shreds, then reassemble your body in a newer, stronger, more powerful form. Some of Garbarek's music feels exactly like that to me. I've been listening to it for literally decades, yet it still has the power to rip me to shreds, then put me back together. The feeling emotional cathartic release is quite profound in much of this music, and it has the power to recreate that catharsis in the listener.

That is my main point here. Others can discuss the music in terms of jazz history, music theory, or other forms of discourse. Sometimes those other discourses seem pallid to me, unable to really capture the heart of the music; descriptive words for this kind of music stumble and fall short. So others can talk about musicology and music history.

What I want to say is very simple: jan Garbarek's music has the power to change your life, again and again, if you let it. At least it has, for me. There have been some occasions, when I was close to the dark night, when listening to this music was the only thing that gave me the strength to go on, to get through the night, to make it till dawn, to survive the void and abyss. I have survived my own dark nights possessed by shadow and darkness, in part, because listening to this music gave me the will to endure. Simply to endure. It's something to hold onto, when all else fails.

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Blogger SciReg said...

Oh it is a great post! I really like it! ^_^

4:50 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, and welcome aboard.

10:25 PM  

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