April 20, 2024

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CD review: Jan Garbarek Quartet – African Pepperbird – 1970 – 2024: Video, CD cover

Recorded in Oslo in September 1970, Afric Pepperbird was released on New Year’s Day 1971. Half a century later, it still gives the listener the same feeling of newness and excitement as when it was discovered.

The album marks the arrival of four Norwegian musicians, all exceptional improvisers (Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen) within the very young ECM stable – each of them then inaugurating a long-term collaboration course with the label that would allow them to see their fame and influence go far beyond the borders of their native country. In the long improvised sequences which constitute the essential part of Afric Pepperbird, carried by the rhythmic animation of the organic pair constituted by Christensen and Andersen, it is most often to Rypdal’s guitar that falls to the role of occupying the center of the game with its tense chords and to propose the directions of the music. The whole group is at the height of its expressiveness but it is Garbarek, then immersed in the effervescence of free jazz, who impresses the most. At the time of the record’s release, DownBeat critic Joe Klee wrote: “You have to take Garbarek’s measure! I would say that since Django Reinhardt there has not been a European jazz musician as original and avant-garde as this young Norwegian.”

Saxophonist Jan Garbarek has changed with time and age, but already in Afric Pepperbird, his first album for ECM and one that would instigate an unbreakable association with the label, he invites us into a world that is playful yet mature. Half of the album is made up of miniatures, “Skarabée” and “Mah-Jong” the most precise and delicate among them, laced as they are with drummer Jon Christensen’s distinctive cymbal work and overall compositional sensibility. “MYB” and “Concentus,” for their part, drop like seeds into the album’s fertile soil. Bassist Arild Andersen’s steady bass line assures us the title track can swing with confidence, pouring on Saharan charm like fresh honey, while “Blow Away Zone” features an adventurous Terje Rypdal on guitar and an ether-wrenching solo from Garbarek, who squeezes his way through an opaque tornado of bass and drums. Clocking in at twelve-and-a-half minutes is “Beast Of Kommodo,” a rewarding romp of gargantuan proportions. Garbarek gives his all, mixing roars with fluted reveries with equal conviction. The set bows out with “Blupp,” a smile-inducing froth of percussion and vocals that doesn’t so much describe its title as demonstrate it.

This may very well be the quintessential Garbarek album for those who normally don’t care for his style. Whatever your taste in jazz, whatever your opinion on Garbarek and the label he calls home, this is a spirited and robust effort worthy of your attention.

Steamrolls out the gate with its most interesting charms: Garbarek prepares us for the assault and creates glitch 3 decades early on the slow and meditative “Skarabée”, invites us into her home on the nimbly acoustic “Mah-Jong” (the only genuinely calm thing here), and then cruelly evicts us like the squatters we are on the scary and noisy pair of epics “Beast of Kommodo” and “Blow Away Zone”, jazz’s finest interpretations of a dust storm. And emphasis on the dust as this album is possibly the most acoustically dryest and barren wasteland I’ve heard in jazz in a long time: clinical, full bodied rhythm section, tuneless wailing sax, glassy guitars and percussive sounds vaccuum-sealed from the outside world make this album at first uncomfortable to listen to, but more and more alluring the more you get invested in them.

Crucially though, I don’t think any of the songs that follow are as good: “Concertus” is a slow and nice piece but feels like a weaker rehash of the first half with no interesting solos to save it, and you can write off the minute-long “Blupp” that deflates the mildly interesting (at best) title track. In spite of ending on such a weak note, Afric Pepperbird has got to be the most inviting album that reminds me of my childhood asthma attacks.

Jan Garbarek Saxophones

Terje Rypdal Guitar

Arild Andersen Double bass

Jon Christensen Drums

Released March 1, 2024

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