An interview with Jan Garbarek

Jan Garbarek. Photo: wikimedia.org

Jan Garbarek. Photo: wikimedia.org

Jan Garbarek is a Norwegian tenor and soprano saxophonist, active in the jazz, classical, and world music genres. Garbarek was the only child of a former Polish prisoner of war Czeslaw Garbarek and a Norwegian farmer’s daughter.

The following is an interview done by ECM Records. We hope you enjoy!

For many years you’ve been touring extensively and very successfully. Why are you only now releasing your first live album as a leader?

I guess there are a number of reasons, really. First of all it’s so much more practicable these days with the equipment. It’s so much smaller, so much more easy to manage, you know; to bring along the recorders, digital computers and so on. Before you had to have a huge bus and a big mixing board and it got very serious, so that some musicians would actually freeze and not really do that well because it was that one opportunity, when everything was happening. It was a live recording, and it was a bit of pressure involved in that. It can be good but also not so good. But in this case it’s quite easy to bring it along in a small car. A sound engineer travelled with us and all the equipment, and it was very easily set up and taken down every day. We recorded five nights so we would have the option. It must be something good in five nights we thought. I listened to all these five concerts and in the end we went for the one you know, I don’t know what do you say, good or bad that’s what it is. That’s a concert. But in this case of course we have done the concert quite a few times, the same repertoire, before we actually brought along the equipment. So we felt fairly confident about the shape of the concert and the way it went, you know. So it’s just a matter of getting decent sound and I think out of the five, Dresden was the best sound. And for that reason it was the best starting point for me.

The group’s programs tend to be quite consistent: there isn’t much change regarding the sequence from concert to concert. How do you compose these sets?

That’s the way we like it, that way we all feel confident and we know what kind of dynamic the piece needs in the program. But it’s simply, if you have only slow pieces and you do the concert a number of times, some of them are ending up as fast pieces, because just the situation demands it, you know. So to set up a concert program is kind of tricky in a way, you have to put the pieces where you know they will get the right amount of strength and dynamic, so they don’t get lost, because you have two slow pieces after one another or two soft pieces then it can be too much, you know. For a concert you have to balance things, you need to be aware of this, I think. But a great teacher are all the old symphonies in four parts and so on, you know. So that’s in the back of our minds also, when the sets are being made. I think actually there are some rules of dynamic that seem to work, and they always worked, you know.

You’ve worked with your group for many years now. In which way is this quartet the ideal format for you?

I need rhythm, I need chords and I need melody – and that’s music, you know. And the piano takes care of the chords and the drums and the bass also the rhythm and the fundaments. And I do melody. And it’s a good classic combination; it brings all the ingredients really in a nice way together. I mean for many years I had a guitar, rather than a piano or a keyboard in my groups, because I find the guitar left more open space for me, for everyone really – and it’s a more flexible instrument in the way the sound is made, instead of the piano, which is more mechanical in a way. But then of course I realized, that when I make up my pieces, I very often sit at the piano also and use that for reference and so there are chords being made, created, which cannot really be done at the guitar.

You alternate between two different drummers these days. Sometimes Manu Katché, heard here on this album, and sometimes Trilok Gurtu. In what way do their respective characters affect the group as a whole?

So we had an extreme fortune, I would say, because I found myself without a drummer and I asked Manu, if he could do some gigs with us and he could do some, but not all. And then I asked Trilok. I have a long history with him and he was willing to do some other gigs. And all together, I think they split “fifty-fifty” all the tours we did in the last couple of years. And they are really very, very different players, different instruments and different approach, different culture, different discipline, different personalities. Everything is different. And you know I enjoyed tremendously playing with both of them. It’s been quite a lesson also for me to switch one drummer and, then the next concert another drummer. It’s been very fresh. I feel free to reach for the sky any moment and I will have the proper propeller, you might say, with me, you know along the way. Either with Manu and Trilok its really been a tremendous fortune for me to have these players, you know very inspiring, so I learned a lot from that.

While you are known for your sense of melody, when composing, you often take a rhythmic cell as a starting point. How does that work?

I get an idea for a rhythm or I hear something interesting and I try to remember what it was, I try to put it into my computer really, with drums sounds and so on. And when I have a beat that I find is interesting, I try to fit some accompaniment to it, in form of chords or patterns in the piano and on top of that a melody will appear. The rhythm is really that’s where it all comes from in the end. So any melody should be shaped by the rhythm. I feel if I have a good rhythm, which I find interesting and comfortable and that flows nicely, a melody will come very easily, you know. Let’s say it’s a matter of convenience. That’s what triggers my creativity, is to have a good rhythm. Also live, when we do more free playing, you know, if somebody starts a rhythm, which I find appealing, then I can improvise for hours with that. Of course, improvisation for me means making up melodies, that’s what I do. The rhythm makes everything gel together and makes it really move and flow.

Improvisation in your group seems to evolve within a relatively fixed framework. Can you comment on that?

I find for myself that, if we have more guidelines or arrangements or, you might say, compositional elements, really, it can give you more freedom. The first time I think I thought about it was, when I played with George Russell. He gave me two notes a “c” and a “c-sharp”, I think it was. And he said: “You can only play these two notes for five minutes”. And that was like a liberation, there was nothing more to think about, you just had to deal with that and make as much as possible – make something interesting out of it, you know. It kind of taught me that limitations in any form can trigger creativity, rather than limit them. And I thought about it also, when we did free jazz in the sixties. If it’s so free, why does it always sound the same, you know? That was a bit of a concern for me. Because if it’s free, then it could go anywhere, it could sound like anything. But it sounded like free jazz and that was a pretty restricted area for me. So this total freedom meant restriction. And the opposite, if you limited the elements that meant freedom. It’s kind of a contradiction, but an interesting one.

Do you consider your own music to be jazz in the conventional sense of the word?

Jazz for me is some… It starts with Louis Armstrong and it kind of closes the circle around 1960 or 65, I think. That’s jazz. And anything new that started after that is something else, it’s sort of beyond that realm of jazz the circle that contains, what I call jazz, you know. Jazz is Armstrong, Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon. Even some early Miles and Coltrane but then, I think they brought it out of what I consider to be jazz. So it’s a matter of definition and categorization you know. What’s the limit? If it means instrumental music with rhythm is jazz, if all of that is jazz, then you know, it doesn’t make sense. The word jazz then becomes diluted, I think it’s the word…So no, I don’t consider it jazz but on the other hand my long history as a listener and a player of jazz myself, certainly brings all these elements into the music as well. But it becomes partly something else and I’m very happy, I don’t have to find a name for it or anything like that.


Why did you begin playing music?

I had absolutely no fascination for music in itself, except as, you know, it’s fun to dance with the girls when you are twelve, thirteen years old and so on; to some old Elvis records or whatever at the time. But then, of course, I heard Coltrane on the radio and it changed everything. That’s like a very serious moment in my life. I had been out with my friends, you know, and I came in, because it was getting dark probably and I heard this music; something made me stop, you know, this is something very special. And after the music was finished the presenter said, this was the end of the weekly “jazz-hour” … so I knew it was jazz. And then I found out that what they actually played on the radio at that moment was an excerpt from John Coltrane’s new album “Giant Steps” and it was a piece called “Countdown”. And then eventually I found this album and it was on my record player every morning for at least a couple of years, before I went to school, at breakfast I listened to “Giant Steps”, every day. I immediately started hassling my parents for a saxophone, of course, and finally I succeeded about half a year later they got me one for Christmas, you know. As I found out later, a very old and bad instrument. And the funny thing for me was I had to wait because they had to overhaul the instrument, put on new pads and so on for it to be playable and in the meantime I had this instruction book for how to play the saxophone. So in the two weeks I waited for the instrument I was every day studying this and trying to do fingerings according to the book. So when the saxophone finally arrived, I could play quite easily some simple things, you know, right away, so it was a good boost and a good motivation to go on for me.

Can you tell us something about ECM in the early days?

It was just a very creative atmosphere at that time. We were all sort of coming up with ideas and it was all very loose and free and then of course we had a great engineer in Jan Erik Kongshaug. So I suppose Manfred took the train from Munich to Oslo and I was told to get a hotel for him downtown. Not too expensive so we got one, I think it was rather terrible, very cheap and like a “red-light” type of hotel, you know. So it’s a big history and then he went back on the train again – I think it’s a 24 hour train ride – sitting with all these precious tapes in his lap, because they were worth something, you know, I mean, it’s like an investment, I suppose. And that was the first album I was on for ECM. And then soon after we did another one because it turned out to be quite successful – you know it got good reviews internationally and so on and yeah – good enough reason to repeat the process. And here we are still doing it.


And what has ECM meant to you in terms of your career?

Oh it’s pretty much my life as a musician, you know. It has taken place within the – I wouldn’t say “limits” – because that’s exactly what it’s not. I have been able to do whatever I wanted to do and more – things have been suggested to me which I would never have dreamt of or thought about myself. In the house of ECM, you might say, my life as a musician has taken place. So that’s extremely important, and it just struck me now that how I came to be acquainted with Manfred was through George Russell actually. Because I was on tour with him in Italy with his sextet and we played a festival in northern Italy. That’s where I was introduced to Manfred, actually – and asked him if he would be interested in releasing some tapes we had. Somebody told me he was just about to start a label in fall of 1969. And Manfred said no! He was not interested in those tapes, he would like to make his own recordings, his own tapes. And I frankly took that as a “don’t call us we’ll call you”, and I would never hear from him again but I think three or four months later or half a year later, I got a letter from him asking me to put a band together and some repertoire and find a studio in Oslo, and he would come and we would do the recording. So it all started there on my gig with George Russell in Italy. And then we just went on from there, you know. We made the first ECM album, the first we did anyway, which was called “Afric Pepperbird”.


And what has it been like to work with Manfred Eicher over all these years?

Manfred, as a producer, is absolutely committed to the recording, to the input, you know. And if he knows there is some potential somewhere he will get to it in a way, with the musicians involved. And I know that he is intensely involved in every project and I can count on that, you know. So I can take his input very seriously, because it really means something. I can also count on covers being taken care of in the most minute detail, you know, from all points of view, aesthetic and so on. I know also what goes into that – all these decisions, the smallest thing you know: The size of the letters and colors and… And I really count on that being done with the utmost care, really. I think most other musicians would do the same, you know. The presentation is fabulous, always was. I also felt I was totally free to do whatever I wanted to do. If I had an idea for something I wanted to do, then yeah, it could easily become reality. And very often Manfred come up with ideas, which I never thought, or musicians I never heard of, but he has a sense of what might work together, what might gel in a sense and so I have come to learn to trust that input, that side of it as well, you know. A lot came out of that, a lot of inspiration for me.

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