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Music Review: Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble’s Officium Novum

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I first heard saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble in Saint Matthews Cathedral in Washington, DC. The combination of sacred voices and searching saxophone reverberated in the same hallowed space where John F. Kennedy was laid to rest in 1963. While that music is unlike that which is regularly performed at Saint Matthews, it gives pleasure to both religious and secular listeners alike.

That Saint Matthews concert was on the occasion of Garbarek’s first collaboration with the vocal ensemble, and now, ten years since their last recording together, Officium Novum marks their third recording under the auspices of ECM producer Manfred Eicher.

Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. Photo courtesy of Bremme and Hohensee http://www.bremme-hohensee.de

From guitarist Jon Abercrombie to Italian trumpet player Enrico Rava to Finnish band-leader Edward Vesala, the ECM label’s jazz line-up has a reputation for austere production values. Such pristine attention to detail can work against an improvisatory medium, but in this sacred context it is essential, and the ECM sound is perhaps a little warmer in these recordings, made in the sixteenth century Austrian monastery of St Gerold.

The repertoire of the Garbarek-Hilliard partenership has grown in the nearly twenty years of their partnership, from a focus on early music to a range of choral music from ancient and modern sources. Officum Novum finds the team exploring the music of distant lands, particularly Armenia, as can be heard in Komitas Vardapet’s arrangements of sacred music.

If you think that a musical setting of a Native American poem from the Passamaquoddy people would be ill-suited to this venture, you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised. Jan Garbarek’s arrangement of the poem blends in seamlessly with with the more traditional pieces, as does a composition by Estonian composer and ECM favorite Arvo Part.

The program does not directly follow the order of the Mass but is structured like a rite, beginning with a hymn of the Baptism of Crist, Komita’s “Ov zarmanali,” and ending with a reading of Giorgos Seferis’s poem “Nur ein Weniges noch” (“Only a few remaining”), performed by legendary German actor Bruno Ganz, best known as Hitler in Downfall.

The collaboration between Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble is an encouraging metaphor for the respectful interplay of modern sensibilities and technology with ancient traditions. From the monastery to your iPod, Officium Novum is a recording for both contemplative enrichment and sheer aural pleasure.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.