April 20, 2024


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CD review: Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek – Luminessence – 1974 – 2024: Video, CD cover

Strings of the Südfunk Symphony Orchestra and Stuttgart Orchestra under the direction of Mladen Gutesha.

Mysterious, dramatic and seductive, Luminessence, recorded in 1974, just after the dazzling album Belonging, belongs to the most creative period of the association between Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek. In this vast piece, Jarrett crafts shimmering orchestral environments, providing Garbarek with the creative framework for some of his most concentrated, passionate and expressive interventions.

“The complicity between the two men is such that the melodies written by Jarrett sound like Garbarek improvisations,” wrote Ian Carr in his biography of Keith Jarrett, while DownBeat magazine, in a 5-star column, observed at moment of the release of the record that “probing into the most intimate of his personal musical universe, Jarrett has brought back a work as disturbing as it is singular, promised to be a reference in the musical landscape of the 70s”.

At the time of this recording, Garbarek was a member of Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet and so the two would have spent much time playing and listening to each other. This fact comes across strongly in Jarrett’s writing for the saxophonist with three pieces for string orchestra and improvising musician.

The rapport between Jarrett and Garbarek is so strong it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing this music. Jarrett has got right to the heart of the music in his beautiful, stirring and at times enigmatic writing and the saxophonist is given a wonderful canvas for his improvisations.

The Garbarek sound is now firmly established, the keening sound of both soprano and tenor saxophones with their impassioned and vocal cries that reach deep into the soul. The score allows the saxophonist to follow his own path, and any sense of linear development is left to the string orchestra as Garbarek casts his phrases in the air.

The opening ‘Numinor’ has its moments of darkness, but lifted by the strings the tenor saxophone throws caution to the wind and the last third of composition has some declamatory statements from Garbarek.

Similarly, the shorter ‘Windsong’ that features the soprano saxophone moves from its lyrical and lush opening theme to a more turbulent passage with Jarrett creating a drone for Garbarek to improvise over.

The final piece on the album is the most overtly joyous, and possibly the most satisfying. The opening by the strings is quite dramatic making effective use of the lower register members of the orchestra that then opens up in to a rich and full musical tapestry setting up Garbarek’s most lyrical and expansive solo.

As the mood lightens in the orchestral arrangement, so the saxophonist follows suit, bring to a close a spectacular what must surely be regarded as a three-part suite.

Jarrett must have been pleased with the results as was producer Manfred Eicher, and six months later Jarrett and Garbarek would be back in the studio with bassist Charlie Haden and Members of the RSO Stuttgart to record Arbour Zena, with Jarrett this time playing piano as well as having composed the music.

Listening again to Luminessence one marvels at the detail in the orchestration and the playing of Jan Garbarek. ECM was a still a relatively new label at the time of recording this ambitious work and both Jarrett and Garbarek were not thirty years old. If much of their best work was still ahead of them, then Luminessence is a remarkable achievement that has not dated at all.

Having come to know Keith Jarrett primarily through his astounding improvisatory skills and classical interpretations, this recording marks my first time encountering him as composer proper. On the one hand, I feel as if setting Jarrett down on paper somehow limits his potential (note, for instance, his understandably longtime reluctance to publish a score version of the lauded Köln concert). On the other, Jan Garbarek is given such free reign of the icy territory into which he is deployed on this recording that he is able to channel Jarrett’s essence to its fullest. It’s difficult to imagine Jarrett’s music being any other way.

Any work for soloist and orchestra may be likened to a conversation in which the former introduces topics for the latter to work through “verbally.” At some point this dialectical relationship begins to take on a life of its own in the recording process. Yet in listening to Jarrett’s compositions one gets not conversation but conversion, a real-time transfiguration through which music implodes rather than expands. Garbarek doesn’t engage with the orchestra so much as traverse it, lifting and dropping his weighted feet across its rosin-dusted expanse. If there is dialogue to be found here, it’s entirely internal.

“Numinor” eases its way into the listener’s field of vision, across which Garbarek uses mournful reedwork to draw a series of jagged constellations. The orchestra sometimes bleeds, as if it were a cloth sheared by the edge of these gritty ruminations. Garbarek shouts with his instrument, treating it more as an extension of his voice by which the placement of his fingers articulates syllables in lieu of notes. Although we might not recognize the language, something intelligible comes through. In spite of some inspired solo passages, the music remains decidedly horizontal: every step forward is countered by one step sideways. There is, however, an incredibly moving scene in the final passage of “Windsong” where the saxophone blends into its surroundings, sharing an intimate moment of continuity made all the sweeter for its unexpected cessation. The title track, which closes the disc, is playful and romantic, slaloming its way through triadic signposts. The mood is contradictory, Garbarek engaged in two entirely different dialogues in a semblance of one.

Overall, I find Luminessence to be a challenging listen. Not because the music is particularly modernist, but because Jarrett makes so visible the often hidden dynamics of authorship we come to take for granted. As one who is continually enlarging the notion of musicality in everything he touches, Jarrett provides us here with an unabashed document of the compositional process. It is the audible equivalent of looking at the master’s sketchbook. I also find this album to be quite dark in spite of its glowing title, like a hidden shadow beneath the unturned page. It is an album that erases as many words as it inscribes, a memoir of images rather than prose. All of this makes for an effective, if threadbare, project. There are very few motives to speak of, which is liberating, as one is never subjected to the often-dominant reprise, nor to the subservience of secondary themes. Notes are sustained in ways they couldn’t have been sustained before, ending as abruptly as they began. This process is illustrative of the title’s clever play on words, a symbiosis of color and opaque desire.

Produced by Manfred Eicher, this audiophile edition of the album which gave its name to the entire Luminessence collection, will be released with new liner notes placing the work in its historical context.

The record will be presented in the form of a simple sleeve decorated with raised letters like the original version from the 70s, with an additional printed insert offering the new liner notes.

Released March 1, 2024

Keith Jarrett – piano, composer

Jan Garbarek – saxophone

Luminessence: Music for String Orchestra & Saxophone: Amazon.co.uk: CDs &  Vinyl

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