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Jan Garbarek: Popofoni

Duncan Heining By

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Popofoni was originally issued as a double LP in the early seventies. It was both a reaction and a response by a number of Norwegian composers to a spurious debate that had taken place on Norwegian television in 1969. The debate pitted proponents of popular culture against spokespeople for European Art Music. Popofoni was intended an "artpolitical" manifesto that aimed to "show how 'art for the masses' could be created" that both considered "the needs of a growing mass culture but at the same time reflected a high standard of creative endeavour"

The connections between composers linked here through the Ny Musikk group and the rising new generation of jazz musicians were very strong. These composers saw common cause with these musicians in breaking the conservative stranglehold that operated on cultural activity in Norway at the time and which this debate represented. It is worth brearing in mind also, that the African-American composer George Russell had been resident in Norway during the sixties and had been a member of Ny Musikk -composer Kåre Kolberg wrote the sleevenotes for Russell's masterpiece Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature. And, of course, Russell used Garbarek, Andersen, Rypdal and Christensen -all present here—in his Norwegian sextet and larger ensembles.

Even in those more enlightened times, the prospect that music as experimental, challenging, ironic and satirical as this might have found a mass audience seems unlikely. However, now released on CD, Popofoni is much more than just an historical document. On the one hand, it places several of Norway's finest young jazz players of the period—and now its most renowned—in settings that were at or beyond the boundaries of avant-garde jazz. On the other, it offers a fascinating glimpse into what can happen when jazz and contemporary composition meet. Third Stream? Fifth Column, more like.

All of these musicians, in their own ways, continue to push the limits of what jazz might be, though those familiar with Jan Garbarek's ECM recordings and with Karin Krog's more mainstream music may be surprised to hear these artists in such 'out' settings. But Popofoni represents a unique and highly successful moment, a genuine coming-together, of two musical approaches. What is presented here feels more authentic than, for example, other similar attempts—whether we go back to the fifties and Birth of the Third Stream (1957), to the seventies and Krzysztof Penderecki's Actions featuring Don Cherry (1971) or come more up-to-date and Mark Anthony Turnage's collaboration with John Scofield on Scorched (2004). More than that, there is a naturalness to these six pieces—fragmentary and abstract, though they are—that allows the (open-minded) listener in.

Each of these composers seem to understand jazz—Janson worked as jazz pianist whilst he was a student. And, if there is a dominant influence—or set of influences—here, then this or these must surely lie in the music that Miles Davis was making at the time. One critic wrote later perceptively of Miles' "attempt to make Ellington dance with Stockhausen." Davis had been introduced to Karlheinz Stockhausen's music by cellist/composer Paul Buckmaster and that influence is most immediately apparent in the abrupt elisions and floating textures that one often hears on the trumpeter's post-Bitches Brew albums.

The other influence, I suspect, is George Russell, who was also influenced by Stockhausen—Russell's big band had performed in Copenhagen alongside Stockhausen conducting his monumental Gruppen for three orchestras in 1965/6. In particular, Russell took on board Stockhausen's conception of the 'moment form' (defined as "a formal unit in a particular composition that is recognizable by a personal and unmistakable character"), as well as his use of live electronics. And, obviously, there is the influence of Stockhausen himself on five of the composers represented on Popofoni—I am excluding Terje Rypdal.

The notion of musical moments or of music as a mosaic of such moments certainly seems to underpin Gunnar Sønstevold's "Arnold" and Kåre Kolberg's "Blow Up Your Dreams." But these two compositions/performances could not be more different. "Arnold" is best understood as a psychedelic tapestry of events or as a somnambulistic journey punctuated by episodes of strange dreams. "Blow Up Your Dreams" is more a mash-up featuring passages of song, beautifully sung by Krog, blues and a recurring Love Supreme-like motif that descends into free blowing. Imagine Jefferson Airplane meets Coltrane meets Terry Riley.

Arne Nordheim's two pieces, "Morgenraga" and "Solar Plexus" function very differently. Their feel is more self-contained, though their structure is loose and open-ended. Any fan familiar with Miles' Live-Evil, Dark Magus, Pangea, or Agharta or, for that matter, In A Silent Way will get what is happening here. "Solar Plexus," and not just for its title, reminded me also of some of Ian Carr's work with Nucleus. These two tracks alone justify the purchase of Popofoni.

Perhaps the biggest stretch for jazz fans here will be Alfred Janson's "Valse Triste." Janson uses snippets from the TV debate that inspired the making of Popofoni. They are in Norwegian and, I'm sure, will pass over most readers' heads. Would that I had a translation to offer you. As best I can, their inclusion and continuing repetition during the 25 minutes of "Valse Triste" highlights the vacuous nature of the discussion and sets this against a music that shifts between a populist Henry Mancini/Pink Panther organ and sax tune and something far darker and further out. Garbarek is outstanding here, while Andersen's bass playing is the firmest of anchors.

That leaves Terje Rypdal's "Episode," the shortest track here. It lacks, maybe, the depth of some of the other pieces and might seem out of place. Yet, heard as a coda to the record as a whole, it contextualises what has gone before, providing a glimpse of a music that is both expressive and accessible. It also features some fine flute from Nordheim, while Christensen's percussion behind Garbarek's saxophone is superb.

And what of the musicians? Do not expect grandstanding solos or free-jazz freak-outs. Their contributions are central and frequently startling—Garbarek's shrieks and growls, Andersen's steady pulse arising from moments of musical, Christensen's astonishing textural playing, Rypdal's guitar sound that seems to owe an equal debt to the Shadows and to Jimi Hendrix and Krog's siren-like voice. But, here, these are parts of a whole musical fabric—just like a trombone or cello or harp or oboe in a symphony or chamber orchestra.

Alfred Janson wrote some notes for the CD reissue that speak volumes about the place of music then and now and of music's potential as a force for cultural and, perhaps, social liberation. His words ring loud, indeed,

"From this perspective, Popofoni is in its truest sense an historic document, with music as a weapon in a period where one still assumed that was possible. Maybe it was no longer possible. Maybe it is more necessary than ever. Maybe we need a new Popofoni?"

Track Listing: Arnold (Sønstevold); Morgenraga (Nordheim); Solar Plexus (Nordheim); Valse Triste (Janson); Blow Up Your Dreams (Kolberg); Episode (Rypdal)

Personnel: Composers – Gunnar Sønstevold (1); Arne Nordheim (2, 3); Alfred Janson (4); Kåre Kolberg (5); Terje Rypdal (6) Musicians – Jan Garbarek tenor saxophone; Bobo Stenson piano, organ; Terje Bjørklund organ; Gunnar Sønstevold piano; Terje Rypdal guitar; Arild Andersen bass; Jon Christensen drums; Karin Krog vocals; Arne Nordheim willow flute, ring modulator; Kåre Kolberg synthesizer.

Title: Popofoni | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Aurora Jazz


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