Jan Garbarek and Ralph Towner – Dis (1977)

I thought I’d keep it in the family today and write about my favorite Jan Garbarek album. This is the album on which he spreads his wings, the album on which he employs the sound which will define his style for the rest of his career. The music feels like it came from a moment of clarity and the sax is complemented flawlessly by the unbelievable acoustic guitar work performed by Ralph Towner, even though he’s not credited on the cover. That’s why I felt it was morally imperious for me to mention him in the post title.

Jan Garbarek is, to me, the man who brought a spacial element to the saxophone sound, unbinding it, playing as if the air from his lungs was an inexhaustible stream, cold and pure. Rarely have I heard jazz this evocative. The music reminds me of Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer who used to walk through forests and play his violin to the trees and the rocks. There’s a feeling of awe, of communion, of elemental immensity and persistence, as natural and stupendous as the sound a footstep makes in deep snow or the rustle of dry leaves. Music makes time relative, much more so than physics, and in this context, listening to this album constantly would, no doubt, make us immortal or, at least, witnesses to the passing of geologic eras. Patience isn’t even an issue here, as it’s more of a controlled awareness of the passage of time than a complete immunity to it. To give you an example of what I mean, were it not for the fact that on the title track of the album Garbarek plays a sort of whistle instead of the saxophone I would never be able to tell how many times I’ve listened to it – it’s just that wide.

Don’t get me wrong, that does not mean it lacks focus, not in the least. This is a very coherent, cohesive album, a record with a true sense of identity. The Garbarek/Towner duo give the impression of perfect chemistry, maintaining a dialogue of utmost quality and relevance from beginning to end. What you hear is never boring because it’s never analytical. Hearing a scientist talking about the connection between geology and endemic life forms isn’t the most engaging experience, believe me, I’d know, my father does that to me all the time. But hearing David Attenborough do it is positively enthralling (sorry, dad), because he brings a human element to the discussion, the small, fragile perspective one man can have when faced with the sheer size of the issue, in this case, the issue being simply musical expression. That’s the feeling I get from this record, a feeling of self, present and expanded in an endless landscape, never monotonous, never plain.

Probably the thing that contributes decisively to this sensation is the overwhelmingly inspired use of the wind harp on some of the tracks. This instrument illustrates what I’m trying to translate into words perfectly. It’s a huge thing, meant to be mounted on mountain tops and suspended over gorges, an instrument of such immense size that it can only be played by the wind. The passing of air through it makes it resonate, creates harmonies and overtones which could never be achieved by a human player, as there’s no way to shut down the brain, prevent it from infusing activity with intention. For the wind, music simply is, it does not evolve, it does not become, it either exists or it doesn’t. The effect this sound has on the album is staggering, it really sets the tone and brings the whole endeavor to a whole new level. The wind harp, neutral, grand, imperious, focuses the players, provides the perspective which ends up draping the entire record in its ethereal garments, like the northern sky, draped in the Aurora.

Again, this album proves to be exceedingly difficult for me to write about, as I feel it’s been with me for a very long time and helped shape my perspective on music. Hopefully, you’ll feel some of the awe I’m confronted with as I listen to this glacial, stratospheric music.

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