Norway’s migratory bird wheels over ancient music

Had I died in my sleep? The clock radio clicks on Classic FM one summer morning in 1994, and what awakens me sounds like the song of angels. Then, in that rapid-fade moment when sleep recedes and the music comes fully into focus, I recognise the saxophonist: Norway’s idiosyncratic Jan Garbarek. Four male voices, including a counter tenor, are singing early sacred music, around which the soprano saxophone spirals like a blessed vision.

Jan Garbaek. Photo: Guri Dahl. Top photo with Hilliard Ensemble: Paolo Soriani.

The voices belonged to the UK’s Hilliard Ensemble, renowned for their other-worldly accuracy in singing early music. But adding a jazz saxophonist to the ensemble took them into previously unexplored realms. They called the album Officium.

Two years before it was made, ECM Records’ Manfred Eicher had been alternately listening to Garbarek’s recordings and to Spanish 16th-century composer Morales’ Officium defunctorum, while driving through Iceland’s desolate lava fields. “Morales,” he said in the liner notes, “suddenly appeared to me like the southern mainland over which the migratory bird from the north draws ever widening circles.”

The metaphor was staggeringly apposite. Garbarek was that “migratory bird” in terms of touring, wide-ranging collaborations and the way his sound might wheel above the Hilliard Ensemble. Their voices, meanwhile, were a “mainland” of solid connection to the roots of the Western canon. Eicher duly fostered the odd-couple marriage – a match made in a slice of heaven nestling in the Austrian Alps: the acoustically resonant St Gerold monastery. Counter tenor David James (whose voice lends the music much of its ethereality) vividly recalled the experience when Garbarek suddenly joined in after the quartet had begun singing Morales’ Parce mihi domine. “It was for me one of the most magical moments of my musical career – my life!” he told me in 2001. “I can still feel that sensation. He didn’t say a word beforehand. He just started playing. We went to the end of the piece, and Manfred got up from his seat in the chapel, and just rushed forward. ‘Guys,’ he said, ‘we have to record this. No questions asked. It is amazing!'”

Photo: Guri Dahl.

Garbarek never asked what they were going to sing, preferring – to the Hilliards’ astonishment – to react intuitively. He found that his soprano gave more freedom to soar above the voices’ chords, while also being softer than the tenor, so he could variously submerge himself in the singing, or unleash blasts of silver light that seemed to shriek of the very Revelation. He never thought of the Hilliards as a backdrop, because their music was so complete without him. “In fact I feel that I sometimes break the spell by joining them,” he told me. “But on the other hand, some of the pieces that we have chosen are inviting to me at a certain point.”

Initially a fiery free-jazz saxophonist, Garbarek had swiftly distilled a yearning sound all his own on both tenor and soprano, making such masterful records as the windswept Dis with guitarist Ralph Towner, the massively influential 1970s albums with Keith Jarrett’s “European” quartet, and two magical collaborations with bassist Charlie Haden and pianist/guitarist Egberto Gismonti. In person he exuded a quiet intensity, as did the perfectionism implicit in his playing’s intonation, and in the extraordinary six hours his instrumental quartet spent sound-checking to make the Opera House Concert Hall seem an acoustic marvel in the days when it was anything but.

Officium was among ECM’s biggest-selling albums, and the collaboration, which is ongoing, transformed the Hilliards’ attitude to music making, releasing them from what James called “a hidebound stance of looking at music”. Indeed on their second album with Garbarek they dared to improvise in their own right, the latter quipping that they probably heard him do it, and said, “There’s nothing to it! Let’s do it also!”

Eicher told me that all ECM’s long-term artists share “a passionate life, with music as its centre, and we share also that music may be like bread and water for us.” Bread and water that can be endlessly reinvented.

Officium streams on Apple Music and Spotify; on disc from Birdland Records.