Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s distinctive sound has shaped European jazz for more than 30 years. Working closely with the renowned ECM label of producer Manfred Eicher, Garbarek has released annual recordings since his first in 1969. Often labeled “chamber jazz,” the music of Garbarek and his cohorts is as deeply rooted in contemporary classical music as it is in the blues.

Early on, Garbarek worked with several visionary musicians, most notably avant-jazz theorist/bandleader George Russell and seminal pianist Keith Jarrett. Garbarek soon formed his own groups and staked out a broad swath of musical territory where European jazz could develop in its own way.

In the ’80s and ’90s, Garbarek expanded his directions by collaborating with musicians from West Africa, India and Pakistan, such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Most recently, Garbarek worked with vocal quartet the Hilliard Ensemble to create an eclectic blend of jazz and European polyphonic and Renaissance music. They toured Japan together last year, replicating the haunting acoustics of the Austrian monastery where they recorded their two CDs (“Officium” and “Mnemosyne”) in pristine symphony halls. This year, Garbarek brings over his newest jazz group featuring longtime European bandmates. He took time to talk by phone from Norway where the temperature was far below freezing and the snow piling up deep outside his mountain home.

In the early ’60s, it must have been unusual for a young boy in Norway to play jazz. Did you hear a lot of people who came through?

Norway has a whole generation of very good players. All the styles of jazz were well represented. Oslo has had its own jazz festival since 1961. I got a chance to hear John Coltrane in 1964, which was truly amazing. And, of course, Dexter Gordon lived in Copenhagen so he came often to Oslo. Actually, the rhythm section I played with always backed him when he came. George Russell came through, and invited me to join him, but I was only 17 and hadn’t finished high school, so my parents wouldn’t let me go. I had a chance again later and took it. That was a wonderful experience.

George Russell was a great jazz theorist. Did he talk about his theories?

No, not at all. He was very practical. I was in his big band and had no idea he had written all these theoretical works. Later I read his books, but he always said his theories were just tendencies and categorizations that make composition and playing a little easier. With music, he said, there were no wrongs and no rights. I remember I had a private lesson with him and he spoke about various aspects of music-making. Then, he stopped himself and said, “No, no, no. I made a rule there — cancel that.”

Your sound is very distinctive. Many people refer to it as icy — would you?

No. I find that my sound is very expressive, and I hope it includes all the human expressions that one would expect. I guess the “icy” comes from the fact that people know I’m from Norway. I don’t really think about my sound in those terms, though. I know that in the 1970s when ECM started, that was the natural sound coming from me and the other players. That became a kind of “ID” of the European jazz sound. It just happened that way.

You have had brilliant collaborations over the years. It must be challenging to play those different kinds of music?

I find the potential for collaboration to be unlimited. To be honest, I don’t know anything about Indian music, for example, though I was always interested. In the ’60s, I read on an album cover that John Coltrane loved Indian music, so I went to hear a concert advertised in the paper. I went to this huge hall in Oslo, and it was Ravi Shankar, a fabulous musician. There were only 25 people there, but it really opened my eyes. It is very intricate and highly complex music.

Do you find yourself feeling quite different with musicians from other genres than you do with your core jazz group?

It’s exactly the same. It’s trying to find the common humanity with them. I don’t find myself doing anything so different. As the sounds change, I try to change my input. So, I don’t see it as playing Indian or Renaissance music really. Those musicians were on another level with their music and studied it from a very young age. They were masters, but we could find a way to communicate. I think of it more in terms of meeting other individuals. I don’t think of it as playing Renaissance music, but as playing with that particular person. Whatever it is, Indian, West African or early European music, it’s really the people.

I detect a strong sense of spirituality in your music. Is that an important element in your music-making?

If someone hears that in the music, it shows a capacity for that personal way of experiencing music. Music just triggers that. I don’t think that spirituality is a conscious part of what I try to put into the music. Of course, music is always very spiritual, but the term “spirituality” is so complex it would be hard to define for anyone else.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.