Jan Garbarek / The Hilliard Ensemble: New York, November 12, 2010
A rendition of Arvo Pärt's "Most Holy Mother of God" also stunned the audience, as each of the Hilliards intoned, over and over, the prayer "Most Holy Mother of God / Save us." At first one by one, and then in harmony, the four singers climbed through scales and octaves, with Garbarek's sax lending a restrained foundation beneath them. The baritone again took the final intonation of the prayer, and then the four voices came tightly together again. They crescendoed, and the sounds of the subway passing below the church added a final dulcet drone to their collective harmony.
Continuing through the repertoire of Officium Novum, the ensemble showed how its time together has provided opportunity. One tune found the Hilliards creating an almost field song-like groove, while Garbarek stretched out with a soprano statement that would not have been out of place on any free jazz album. He then came back to the group, and punctuated their own "solo" with staccato pops and growls of blues. When things were going this well, the group swayed together in a kind of meditative rhythm.
To end the concert, the five began to sing and play, then spread out among the church like monks in ritual. The dynamics and proximity of their voices created a kind of shifting, space-oriented improvisation. As they separated and walked with slow steps amidst the pews, the palette of the songs changed for each person in the audience, depending on who was nearest to them and who was farthest away. First the falsetto of the countertenor might be loudest as he passed by, followed by Garbarek's swelling soprano, and then a pure deep drone from the baritone. Each seat became a unique stage unto itself, shaped by the high ceilings, reverberating walls, and gradual footfalls of singers and saxophonist. Drawn out at great length, the song became almost secondary to the changing shape of pure sound within the church. The result was a truly personal and powerful musical experience for each one of fourteen hundred listeners.
At a certain point, the five musicians came together again, and still singing/playing, came up the aisles again. They exited the way they had come, ascending up a stairwell, out of sight, though their voices were still faintly audible. As the sound faded away, the audience strained to make out the voices shrinking into the depths of the church until they vanished. The applause that then followed seemed deafening. With some prompting, the five musicians returned to the pulpit and played a brief, yet deeply moving encore of "Remember Me, My Dear," a Renaissance-era poem that found them again rocking in unison with the rhythms of the music.
Few concerts in New York in 2010 have matched both the distinctiveness and poignancy of this music. Over the years, Garbarek has come under fire for the new age elements that have crept into his music, as well as the occasionally overpowering quality of his own sound. Yet this collaborationreally a pairing of his sax with the powerful four-part instrument that is The Hilliard Ensembleseems like a logical outgrowth of the tradition of the jazz masters that he grew up listening to, and in turn styled his playing. John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler all built unique sounds in pursuit of an intense blend of music and spirituality. And, of course, the long classical vocal traditionas well as the intermingling of world elementsall goes into an aesthetic that gives this group the power to raise the hairs on its audience's collective neck. Yet, in hearing them play, thoughts don't occur of cultural antecedents and audible influences; there is only the pure and ancient feeling of hearing beautiful music.