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New Listen: Jan Garbarek’s ‘Dresden’

Artist: Jan Garbarek
Album: Dresden (2009)

This week I’m actually discussing a new listen.  I didn’t intend for my first two “new music” entries to be about albums from the same label, but that’s how it goes sometimes.  The last few months I’ve been on a mission to add new names/groups to my collection.  I tend to go “deep” when I really like a person/group, and attempt to be somewhat of a completist with their output.  However, every now and then I’ll realize that I need to add different artists and/or styles.  This was the case with Jan Garbarek.

Being an ECM fan, I was surprised to realize a few weeks ago that I’ve never really listened to Garbarek.  He, along with Keith Jarrett, is the label’s big draw.  I have quite a bit by his associates (Jarrett, Katché, etc.), but nowhere is his horn to be found.  So, upon finding his recent live double-disc release, Dresden (2009), at the store, I decided to give it a try.  The personnel is as follows:
Jan Garbarek – soprano and tenor saxophones, selje flute
Rainer Brüninghaus – piano, keyboards
Yuri Daniel – bass
Manu Katché – drums

I will say that, on the surface, I have a few gripes with this record.
1. First, Garbarek’s soprano tone is largely shrill/nasally – sort of a Michael Brecker-Lenny Pickett-Renaissance shawm hybrid.  Not always, but much of the time.  One factor is his preference for the small curved soprano, something I’ve never warmed to.  Overall his tenor tone is very nice (for me – some may consider it too “harsh” or “pop”), but sometimes the upper register gets some of those soprano-esque qualities.
2. The mix. ECM records usually have a dynamite mix, and there’s almost always a definite “ensemble sound.”  For this record, however, Garbarek often shouts above the rest of the group.  Very top-heavy.
3. Fretless bass – Daniel plays this throughout.  The fretless definitely has its place, but I think this contributes some to the record’s mix issues.  There’s just a lack of a good sonic foundation for a good portion of it. Nowhere near enough low end for my taste.

The above comments, however, aren’t necessarily musical.  They’re definitely musical factors, but they’re more technical than anything.  Sure, they affected my inaugural listen, but once I got past them and listened to the music, I found the album quite enjoyable.  The first disc is much more “world music”-heavy.  (I hate using that term, but there are a lot of vamps and folk melodies/rhythms featured; more so than the second disc.)  Even with some of the tunes having quicker tempos, the overall feel of the first disc is pretty moderate, at times slow.  However, after the first cadenza – each of the sidemen get a few minutes to shine as a soloist – by bassist Yuri Daniel (which is very good – sort of Wooten-esque but without the fireworks), the disc finally kicks into high gear with the Metheny-esque final track, “Milagre Dos Peixes.”

The second disc is more “straight ahead” than the first.  (“Straight ahead” is definitely not the correct term, but there’s more consistent rhythmic interest throughout – definitely no rhythm changes on either of these discs.)  It also features piano and drum cadenzas. (Brüninghaus nearly steals the show on “Transformations,” and Katché offers an energetic transition between the band’s final two pieces of the set before the encore.)  The first 1.7 discs of build to the set’s barn-burner finalé, “Nu Bein’.”  Garbarek opens with a virtuosic selje flute solo before switching back to saxophone for the melody, and each member gets at least a few seconds to shine here. The second disc ends with the show’s encore, “Voy Cantando.”  It’s a piece more akin to the first disc (moderately paced, free-flowing), but with the energy of the second.

(As a side note, Katché’s playing on this album is a stark contrast with that of Third Round. He’s quite intense and aggressive here, and it’s great to hear him excel at both styles.)

After giving this album a few solid listens, I can safely say I’m glad I made the purchase.  However I’ll likely be giving the second disc a bit more attention in the long run. Having not previously experienced Garbarek, I feel like there’s a nice bit of variety in this release, covering the gamut of his output.

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