Music News & Reviews

Critic's picks: Magico, 'Carta de Amor,' and Jan Garbarek, 'Dansere'

For much of his career, the musicianship of pioneering Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek has revealed a striking duality.

On its own, Garbarek's playing is positively ghostly, especially when his instrument of choice is the soprano sax. Admittedly, the often-stark, wintry shades of his recordings from the past four decades on the European jazz label ECM have contributed to such clarity and ambience. But the exactness of Garbarek's tone and the predominant absence of American jazz accents such as swing and bop make his playing seem almost incantatory.

Then there is his gift of harmony. From recordings that match his playing with the ancient songs and choral singing of the Hilliard Ensemble (where the ghostly meets the spiritual) to sideline work with fellow ECM greats Keith Jarrett (as evidenced on last summer's extraordinary archival release Sleeper), Garbarek reveals himself as a journeyman at home in almost any musical company.

On two new multi-disc sets of vintage ECM music — one assembles three out-of-print and/or hard-to-find early-'70s albums, and the other offers a previously unreleased live recording from the '80s — Garbarek's two musical profiles come brilliantly into view.

Carta de Amor is the stunner. It presents a complete April 1981 concert from ECM's home in Munich, Germany, with the global trio Magico, which also features the vanguard American bassist Charlie Haden and the underappreciated Brazilian guitarist/pianist Egberto Gismonti.

As was the case with the two studio albums that Magico cut for ECM at the dawn of the '80s, the repertoire here is rooted as much in ethnic folk music as in jazz. Gismonti's title tune, which is offered in two versions that bookend the album, is built around a light, fanciful guitar melody and spare bass support. Then Garbarek enters on tenor sax with a tone that is regally plaintive. The tour de force, though, is the 14-minute Spor (Garbarek's lone original work on the album), which offers a saxophone bounce that weaves in and out of beautifully tense trio exchanges.

Dansere resurrects three albums — 1971's Sart, 1973's Witchi-Tai-To and 1975's also-titled Dansere — that established his work with another prime collaborator, Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson.

The latter two records have been reissued before, making Sart the real find. Some might find the wah-wah guitar effects of guitarist Terje Rypdal to be intrusive and dated. But his playing, aside from offering dramatic contrast to Stenson's lean atmospherics, is an exquisite set-up for Garbarek's wails and elephant-like screams.

But the rhythmic drive and recoiling beauty in Don Cherry's Desireless (the 20-minute finale of Witchi-Tai-To) and the more relaxed quartet sway of the 14-minute title tune of the original Dansere offer equally compelling echoes from the formative years of this distinguished Nordic jazz voice.