Jan Garbarek / The Hilliard Ensemble: New York, November 12, 2010

Warren Allen BY

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Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble
Church of St. Ignatius Loyola
New York, NY
November 12, 2010

Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the ancient music quartet known as The Hilliard Ensemble first came together through the machinations of ECM records owner and maestro Manfred Eicher. Their auspicious debut collaboration was Officium (ECM 1994), a serene mix of Medieval chants blended with Garbarek's ethereal saxophone. Belonging to neither the classical nor jazz bins, yet with clear roots to both traditions, it proved to be a surprise success among mainstream audiences. Now, fifteen years later, the five musicians haven't gone a year without playing together in concert.

To celebrate the release of their third album, Officium Novum (ECM 2010), Garbarek and The Hilliards took a rare trip across the Atlantic to play a special concert in conjunction with Lincoln Center's White Light vocal festival. On November 12, within the gold-tinted walls of New York City's Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, a capacity crowd of 1,400 filled the church pews, many unsure of what they would hear. The sensitive acoustics magnified every cough and sigh within the space. Four stands were set in front of the pulpit, with no amplification necessary.

Over the years, their repertoire has expanded to include other traditions, including Native American. Their newest album prominently features songs from Eastern Europe, with a particular emphasis on the medieval liturgical music of Armenia. Within the new project, all five voices have found an even greater opportunity to stretch out within the lush spaces of the concert hall. The bond between them seems to have grown intricately tighter, with the four human voices drawing close around the Garbarek's saxophone, framing the improvisation into a distinct and timeless moment.

In a brief interview session before the concert, the four Hilliards spoke about their association with Garbarek, a relationship that hasn't stopped since Eicher first brought them together in 1993. They recalled fondly the first time, when they began to sing the Latin hymn "Parce Mihi Domine," and Garbarek came in behind them with his distinctive sound. That tune would become the signature opening track of Officium.

The four Brits also made a point of noting that nothing Garbarek plays is written beforehand. "He has never once, ever, looked at a single note on the page of music that we do," baritone Gordon Jones said. "He does it all with his ears." The four singers also pointed out the important role of the performance space on their performances. "For us, the room is singing," Jones said. "It's like an extra member of the group."

They showed this singing room quality within the first moments of the concert. As Garbarek stepped to the pulpit alone with his curved soprano sax, the pews hushed from front to back. Flanked on either side by white statues of St. Ignatuius and St. Francis of Loyola, and playing with eyes cast downward and a distinctly Nordic solemnity, he blew the opening of Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet's hymn "Ov zarmanali." While the as-yet-unseen Hilliards provided an ethereal harmony that resonated around the room, Garbarek began to improvise. The voices seemed to emerge from the walls themselves, with Garbarek's saxophone rising in an impassioned wail as the singers converged slowly from the rear of the church and up through the aisles. When they reached the altar, the collective swelled together to a powerful point of sound, then eased.

The Hilliards' voices rose up into the high golden bowl of the church basilica, singing the Eastern-tinged hymns of Komitas and the Byzantines as Garbarek wove tight counter lines on his soprano. At times joining the melodies, at other times stepping to the fore, and elsewhere receding with only a slight drone to accompany, Garbarek's saxophone stood out as one half of the performance, with the four Hilliards forming their own tightly hewn instrument of pure sound. Moments of darkness and serenity ebbed in and out on Garbarek's own, serene "Allting finns," which featured rolling growls and tri-tone lines from his soprano, then coalescing into all five voices, holding onto a single pure harmony that stretched out for a delicately sweet moment.

Still more powerful may have been Gordon Jones' solo on Nikolai Kedrov's "Litany," with his plangent baritone reaching out from to all corners of the church, a sound that was as naturally a part of the sacred space as the stained glass. Over vast stretches of time, he drew himself to the brinks of pitch and dynamics, before the other Hilliards returned almost hesitantly, and Garbrarek joined in a moment later at a near inaudible decibel.

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 collaboration—really a pairing of his sax with the powerful four-part instrument that is The Hilliard Ensemble—seems 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 tradition—as well as the intermingling of world elements—all 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.

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