Folk preview: Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek

Saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble, from left, David James,  Gordon Jones,  Steven Harrold. Picture: Contributed
Saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble, from left, David James, Gordon Jones, Steven Harrold. Picture: Contributed
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Within the reverberant acoustic of an ancient chapel, a cappella male quartet gives pure voice to a piece of Medieval or Renaissance liturgical music, by de Morales, say, or Tallis or Hildegard of Bingen.

Suddenly they’re joined by a fifth, mellifluous but non-human voice that twines its way through the more formally structured singing, improvising freely.

The singers are the Hilliard Ensemble, internationally acclaimed performers of early and contemporary vocal music, currently celebrating their 40th season; the “fifth voice” comes from the tenor and soprano saxophones of Jan Garbarek, a Norwegian jazz and world music artist of similarly international stature. In 1993, at the suggestion of Manfred Eicher, presiding genius of the ECM contemporary music label on which they both recorded, singers and saxophonist first met up in the chapel of St Gerold in Austria and tried a few pieces together. The result was the phenomenally selling, genre-defying album Officium.

Now, 21 years and two further collaborative recordings later, Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble are embarking on what will be their last tour together – taking in Scotland for the first time, before the Hilliards retire at the end of this year. Bearing in mind the importance of a resonant acoustic space, the two Scottish venues are Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum on 14 March and St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, on the 15th, as part of Aberdeen Jazz Festival.

“Basically we just got together with Jan at the chapel for a day, with a pile of music, and sang some things to him,” the Hilliard’s baritone, Gordon Jones, recalls of that day in 1993. “Suddenly, in the middle of one, he started playing along, and it was quite uncanny what was happening. I remember Manfred Eicher saying, very quickly, ‘We have to record this,’ so we stopped mucking about, had supper, then went back and recorded the album.”

John Potter, the Hillards’ tenor at the time, has recalled: “Shut away in the monastery of St Gerold, it seemed to us that the saxophone became an extension of our own voices.”

Speaking from Oslo, Garbarek gives his own account: “It was an exciting moment when they gathered around the baptismal font and very casually started singing one of the pieces. I listened for about half a minute then started to improvise something along with it. We played for a minute or two and then we stopped and said, ‘I think we can do this.’ It was fun.”

The resulting Officium, chalked up sales of 1.5 million. “We were very proud of what we did,” says Garbarek, “although I thought it would be more for hundreds of people rather than hundreds of thousands.”

That initial recording was more or less a case of the Hilliard quartet singing from the book and Garbarek responding spontaneously. Many hundreds of concerts later, Jones reckons: “We’re much freer now,” although, he adds, to talk in terms of a group of four singers actually improvising, “harmonically things would get very confused very quickly. But we muck around 
with the printed music much 
more.”

Garbarek, on the other hand, insists that, in certain pieces, the Hilliards were indeed capable of improvising “99 per cent”, particularly in a Delphic paean from 127 BC, in which the voices work up an eerie heterophonic chanting. “That’s a funny old piece,” Jones agrees. “The idea that anybody could transcribe music from that period is slightly dodgy anyway, so I think we did take enormous liberties with it.”

For the saxophonist, playing without either rhythm section or PA “calls for a different approach to timbre and volume, and the room especially suddenly became very important.” Hence their choice, on this Scottish visit, of the airy spaces of Kelvingrove and St Mary’s Cathedral.

Since their first recording, the collaboration’s repertoire has expanded into the works of little-known Armenian and other Orthodox Church composers, such as Komitas and Kedrov, as well as branching out to embrace songs from Peruvian Quecha and Native American traditions.

For Garbarek it’s a far cry from his early jazz influences such as John Coltrane and Archie Shepp. Celebrated as a band leader, as well as for his collaborations with Indian and North African musicians and Scandinavian folk singers, the saxophonist, now 66, argues that the principle remains the same: “I improvise according to what comes to mind, in the setting at hand, and it’s the same whether it’s with a jazz group, an orchestra, a vocal ensemble or whatever.”

Jones regards the Hilliard’s relationship with Garbarek as a major development in their 40-year history, another milestone being their venture into theatre, in the form of I Went to the House but Did Not Enter, musical settings by Heiner Goebbels of texts by the likes of Eliot, Kafka and Beckett, which they premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2008 and are currently reprising in Lyon, France. Another fertile relationship has been with the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

During their 40 years, the Hilliards have seen relatively few personnel changes, with just nine full-time members over that time. Jones, a member for 24 years, and his colleagues, Steven Harrold, David James and Rogers Covey-Crump, give their final concert in London in December, after which the quartet will disband. “Some decision had to be made about what was going to happen to the group and whether it should carry on with replacement members,” he says. “It’s all too easy to leave things to dilute into some meaningless franchise where there’s not much of the original essence. I don’t think any of us wanted that.”

For Garbarek, who hasn’t recorded under his own name since his live release of 2007, Dresden, making another album may be on the cards later this year, although he’s still trying to decide on the format. “I always have plans,” he chuckles. “There’s no shortage of material, it’s more a matter of concept and personnel – who to bring in, what kind of sound world. It’s just a matter of making a few decisions...which I’m lousy at.”

The Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek play Kelvingrove, Glasgow, on 14 March and St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, on 15 March. For further details, see www.hilliardensemble.demon.co.uk and http://www.aberdeenjazzfestival.com/