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Remember me, my dear
Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble

by Robin Kidson

 

 

Remember me my dear album image

 

In 1993, Manfred Eicher, founder of ECM Records, had an idea. Why not bring together the saxophone sound of Norwegian jazz musician, Jan Garbarek, with the early classical music performed by British vocal quartet, the Hilliard Ensemble, and see what happens? Both Garbarek and the Hilliards were on ECM’s roster: Garbarek was an adventurous musician, interested in fusing jazz with all sorts of other musical genres; the Hilliard Ensemble, on the other hand, were straight classical singers rarely straying from a repertoire of medieval and renaissance choral music, precisely and beautifully sung.

Bringing the two forces together proved to be a stroke of genius on Eicher’s part. (I suppose that’s why he’s in charge of a successful record label and most of the rest of us aren’t). The sound produced was stunning and was presented to the world in 1994 with the release of Officium which became a best seller reaching an audience far beyond a strict jazz or classical music one. The album’s formula had three elements: first, the Hilliards sang pieces from their usual repertoire absolutely straight; second, Garbarek improvised on saxophone around, above and below the singing. The final element was the resonant space in which the album was recorded, a monastery in Austria. Combined together, the effect was something refreshing and new, much more than just the sum of its parts.

As an illustration of the sound produced, here is a video of a live performance of Pulcherrima Rosa,
one of the tracks from Officium, recorded at Jesus College, Cambridge in 1994:

 

 

 

Chiesa della Collegiata dei Santi Pietro e Stefano in Bellinzona

 

Over the next 20 years, in between pursuing their own individual careers, Garbarek and the Hilliards kept up their collaboration and toured around the world – it's estimated a thousand concerts in all. ECM released two follow up albums – Mnemosyne in 1999 and Officium Novum in 2010. Whilst nothing on Officium was later than the sixteenth century, subsequent performances and albums introduced more modern pieces together with some of Garbarek’s own compositions.

The Hilliard Ensemble broke up in 2014 and the collaboration with Garbarek ended but not before a farewell tour. And now, ECM has released Remember me, my dear, a live recording of one of the concerts on that tour.

The concert took place in October 2014 in a church in Bellinzona, Switzerland. This is one of those resonant, ecclesiastical spaces so crucial to the success of the whole project. The recording was made in front of a live audience with all of the accompanying stray coughs and shufflings. In a strange way, these extraneous sounds add something to the atmosphere of the album. The only applause is an ovation at the end of the concert. Otherwise, there is silence between the individual pieces. Indeed, some of the pieces run into each other without so much as a pause.

 

 

 

Here is a brief introductory video:

 

 

 

 

The album has fourteen tracks and is a sort of live 'greatest hits' compilation with pieces from each of the three previous albums. The Ensemble’s four singers are David James (counter tenor), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), Steven Harrold (tenor), and Gordon Hilliards Garbarek Remember me my dear albumJones (baritone). Steven Harrold replaced John Potter (who sang on the original Officium album) in 2001. Jan Garbarek plays soprano saxophone throughout. The only track on which he does not perform is a straight rendition by the Hilliards of Arvo Pärt’s Most Holy Mother of God sung in English.

Many of the remaining tracks follow the original Officium formula of Garbarek improvising over medieval and renaissance choral music. The usual practice is for Garbarek to wait until the end of a sung line or phrase before playing. His improvisations often act as a sort of punctuation, but not a full stop, more a series of ellipses prolonging the phrase, embellishing it and then turning it into something else, liberating the music from the constraints of the stave. A good example of this punctuation technique is Sanctus, a track on which Garbarek’s improvisations are particularly imaginative with some interesting but sparing dissonance introducing a nice bit of sour to the sweet. Garbarek also plays a long, completely absorbing solo.

Another way in which Garbarek interacts with the ensemble is by blending in with the singing, acting as a fifth voice. Right at the start of the collaboration in 1994, Garbarek said, “I discovered I could blend with their voices and get lost in them, so you can’t tell if I’m actually one of them”. On the track, Dostoino est, for example, there are passages of wordless singing through which the saxophone weaves almost seamlessly as that other, albeit freer, voice.

 

Listen to Dostoino est.

 

 

 

The sax blends particularly well with the counter tenor voice of David James. There are parts of Procendentum sponsum, for example, when the sax merges so imperceptibly with James’s voice that one can’t always tell when one finishes and the other begins.

A number of tracks on the album explore liturgical music from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The opening track, for example, is Ov zarmanali, by the Armenian composer, Komitas (1869-1935); and Litany is by the Russian composer of religious music, Nikolai N. The Hillirads and Jan GarbarekKedrov (1971-1940). On both of these pieces, Garbarek’s sax takes on a distinctly Middle Eastern, exotic flavour. The instrument wails, sounding at times like the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, taking the music to another religion altogether. Even on an ostensibly “western” piece – O ignis spiritus, by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) – Garbarek manages to convey that sense of eastern exoticism. Indeed, the whole piece is turned into something quite disjointed and eerie but in a most appealing way. John Potter once remarked that their music was “saying that something can be old and new at the same time” and O ignis spiritus is a prime example.

Turning something old in to something thrillingly new is what Garbarek and the Hilliards also do to the 13th century Alleluia nativitas. The arrangement is a riposte to those who might say that this sort of music is not jazz (as if this could ever be a clinching argument). The piece is taken at a lively foot tapping lick with Garbarek’s sax sounding very jazzy and bluesy indeed.

Although the Garabrek/Hilliard collaboration was extremely successful, it was not without its critics. One particular beef was that Garbarek’s improvisations had no context and no firm root in the Hilliard’s music – “pointless noodling”. I disagree. Most of the music sung by the Ensemble is religious in nature and Garbarek’s playing is entirely in line with this, heightening the sense of sacredness and spirituality. There is surely nothing so spine-tinglingly thrilling in contemporary music as Garbarek’s sax soaring through a cavernous space, taking the music both literally and metaphorically to the heavens. 

 

This video from eight years ago made during a soundcheck illustrates the point:

 

 

 

The final track on the album is Remember me, my dear, an arrangement of a 16th century folk song which originally appeared on the Mnemosyne album. It is a kind of summary of all the things which made the Garbarek/Hilliard project so compelling: beautiful singing, soaring sax, resonant space. It is a fitting end to a collaboration which will be much missed.

 

Here is a video of a live performance of Remember me, my dear recorded in Berlin in 2014

 

 


Click here for details and samples of the album. Further details of the recording can be found on the ECM website - click here.

 

 

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