• Jan Garbarek. Picture: Complimentary
Forged through an early, epiphanic hearing of John Coltrane, and later tempered by exposure to folk music from his native Norway and elsewhere, Garbarek's lyrical playing and cool, clean sound have earned him the soubriquet of "the jazz Sibelius".
Garbarek's interest in folk music, in a way, makes him a natural jazz choice for two forthcoming concerts at Celtic Connections – one with his own quartet and one with a long-time collaborator, the Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu. Garbarek has played and recorded with musicians from a wide diversity of cultures, from Indian virtuosi such as Gurtu and Indian violinist L Shankar to Agnes Buen Garns from Norway's Telemark fjord country, but Celtic Connections could possibly see his first time playing with Scottish folk musicians, as among Gurtu's other guests are the high-powered Scots trio Lau.
"I'm looking forward to it, although I have no idea whether or not I'll end up playing with them," says Garbarek from his home in Oslo. "I'm coming on stage for a few pieces, mainly with this Indian singer, Shankar Mahadevan, that Trilok is bringing, but it would great if at some moment we can all play together on stage."
Folk influences, says Garbarek, now 62, are inextricably bound up with his music. "It's something I cannot avoid, even if I wanted to," he says. "It started quite early for me, in the 1960s when I was a very young player. I knew about Norwegian folk music, of course, and I knew that Coltrane, who was my idol, used to listen to African and Indian music – at least according to the liner notes I was reading." Garbarek laughs. At that time he was steeped in the music of Coltrane and what he calls "the triumvirate" of Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders – "That was the heritage, you know?"
Ironically, it was an outsider who attuned the young Garbarek's ears to his native music. The innovative cornetist and world music pioneer Don Cherry visited Norway, recruited Garbarek and others to play with him for a radio recording, but also insisted on roping in a Norwegian folk singer. "That really opened my eyes to that possibility," Garbarek recalls.
"The way Don organised it, spontaneously, it just felt so right and from that moment on it's just been part of what I do."
Garbarek's eclectic collaborations – ranging from European jazz stars such as Keith Jarrett, through Indian and North African musicians and Norwegian traditional singers to his genre-defying collaboration with the English early music vocal quartet the Hilliard Ensemble – have produced diverse recordings but have also prompted critical grumblings that he was forsaking real jazz improvisation.
Garbarek has his own feelings about that. "I wouldn't agree or disagree, but I think in live performance it was always like that – a little bit up and down. I once saw an interview with Miles Davis and he was asked the kind of music that he liked and he said, 'Well, it has to have some highs and it has to have some lows.' I like that as a concept."
Any accusations of sitting back were vigorously dispelled by last September's release of the Jan Garbarek Group album Dresden – In Concert, the band's first live disc and Garbarek's first recording under his own name since his lyrical if chamber-ish 2003 collaboration with American-Armenian viola player Kim Kashkashian, In Praise of Dreams. Anyone looking for evidence that the saxophonist is still firing on all cylinders should listen to the searing break he tears out of Dresden's opening track, a dynamic re-working of Paper Nut, a number he first recorded 25 years ago with Shankar.
Gurtu played on that 1985 recording and has remained a frequent collaborator: not only will Garbarek play in the Indian's concert next Wednesday, but Gurtu takes the drum seat in Garbarek's band the following evening, and has been alternating on percussion with Manu Katch within the band. It's Katch who plays on Dresden, along with regular Garbarek keyboards sideman Rainer Brninghaus and the energising young Brazilian bassist Yuri Daniel, both of whom will be on stage on Glasgow.
In the meantime, Garbarek's next recording will see a return to his phenomenally successful joint project with the Hilliard Ensemble, which in 1994 recorded in an Austrian monastery an album of Renaissance and medieval liturgical music, Officium, which sold more than a million copies worldwide and was widely aired on classical music stations. He remains bemused by the unclassifiable album, which far outsold any of his jazz recordings. "We had no thoughts along these lines at the time," he says. "We did think it was a very special project and we did it as well as we could, but suddenly we started hearing these rumours that people were calling radio stations to find out what it was, and so on.
"This went on for quite a few years, and I think it's still OK."
Celtic Connections audiences, however, are unlikely to be regaled with any strains of saxophone-threaded plainchant next week – just Nordic cool, spiced on occasion with Indian heat.
• Jan Garbarek plays with the Trilok Gurtu Band at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 27 January, and with his own quartet at the City Halls, Glasgow, on 28 January, www.celticconnections.com