The collaboration between saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the a cappella vocal quartet Hilliard Ensemble is an avant-garde blend of modern European jazz and early music. On “Mnemosyne,” their recent collaboration, the origin of their songs extends back to the second century B.C. with a Greek hymn to Delphic gods and ranges through ancient, obscure musical traditions as diverse as Quechuan folk songs, Estonian lullabies, Iroquois dances and Christian chants.
The Hilliard Ensemble specializes in this early music, often captured only on small written fragments of unknown origin. Garbarek, meanwhile, is one of the most prolific European sax players connected to the ECM label, having produced some 30 recordings since the early ’70s under his own name and contributed to over 40 recordings with other jazz and world-music artists, most notably Keith Jarrett. The two, however, are well-suited.
Garbarek’s saxophone adds a fifth voice and a different sensibility to the quartet’s otherworldly sound. His improvisations at times blend in with the meditative power of the vocals and at other times rise up above their harmonies or swoops through them.
On both his and the ensemble’s recent joint release and their earlier “Officium,” the tempo is glacially slow, lulling the listener into a contemplative tranquillity. The lack of a beat may not appeal to jazz lovers, and the improvising may partially turn off classical fans, but the sheer beauty of the sound should appeal to everyone. Though the musical pieces come from ancient times and diverse places, they share a common humanity and deep spirituality. The recordings were made in the monastery of St. Gerold in the Austrian mountains and were produced by the technical expertise of Manfred Eicher, founder of ECM records. The name of the collaboration — which refers to Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and mother to all the Muses — is well-chosen. Listening to their music feels like an act of collective memory.
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