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Jan Garbarek / The Hilliard Ensemble: Officium Novum

John Kelman By

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With the unexpected massive success of Officium (ECM, 1994), Jan Garbarek's first collaboration with The Hilliard Ensemble, it would be all too easy for the Norwegian saxophonist and British vocal ensemble to rest on their not inconsiderable laurels, and simply repeat the formula. But while Officium featured a repertoire of structured early music—from Gregorian chant to early polyphony, over which Garbarek soared improvisationally—the double-disc follow-up, Menemosyne (ECM, 1999), expanded the quintet's purview by introducing music of a more contemporary nature, including fragments of minimal notation that encouraged The Hilliard Ensemble to extemporize alongside the saxophonist. A decade later, Officium Novum continues to broaden this remarkable pairing's already expansive perspective, by bringing in music of a distinctly eastern flavor, with considerable focus on music composed or adapted by Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935).

As with Mnemosyne, the lines between form and freedom are completely and utterly blurred by Garbarek and the Hilliards. Even when turning to one of two Garbarek compositions—the first time this group has adapted an extant piece from the saxophonist's repertoire, in this case the calm-inducing "We are the Stars," first heard on the saxophonist's Rites (ECM, 1998), where Garbarek performed the piece with a larger boys choir—it's hard to know where notation ends and improvisation begins. More likely, it's a case of the two existing conterminously, with melodies preconceived and lines pulled from the ether occupying the same multidimensional space.

As ever, Garbarek's attention to the purity and precision of each and every note is matched by countertenor David James, tenors Roger Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold, and baritone Gordon Jones. By using both tenor and soprano saxophones throughout the program, Garbarek augments the vocal group at both ends of the spectrum, moving underneath and soaring above, often within the same phrase. That reeds and voices merge together so effortlessly—engendering a curiously paradoxical combination of peace and passion—is this ensemble's particular strength; even brief moments of dissonance, as in the Hillards' approach to Garbarek's other original composition, "Allting finns," only serve to create a momentary sense of tension that softly resolves back to translucent beauty.

Once again recorded at the acoustically profound Propstei St. Gerold in Austria—a favorite locations when the label looks to include the sound of the room as a near-equal partner to the musicians performing in it—timbral purity is matched by sonic transparency; even as the five voices merge together into a seamless whole, so, too, can each and every part be discerned with pristine clarity.

Officium Novum's repertoire is the quintet's most intriguing yet, finding a nexus point where Garbarek and Vardapet can coexist with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose "Most Holy Mother of God" represents the album's spiritual high point, and 13th century composer Pérotin, whose "Alleluia, Nativitas" represents Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble at its most buoyant. If music is meant to be a transporting experience, then Officium Novum is Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble at its transcendent best.

Track Listing: Ov zarmanali; Svjete tihij; Allting finns; Litany: Litany, Otche nash tradition, Dosoino est; Surp; Most Holy Mother of God; Tres morillas m'enamoran; Sirt im sasani; Hays hark; Alleluia Nativitas; We are the stars.

Personnel: Jan Garbarek: soprano and tenor saxophones; David James: countertenor; Rogers Covey-Crump: tenor; Steven Harrold: tenor; Gordon Jones: baritone.

Title: Officium Novum | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: ECM Records

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