Jan Garbarek was born in Mysen, Norway, in 1947, the only child of a WWII Polish prisoner of war and a farmer's daughter from Norway. He was raised in Oslo, but stateless for the first seven years of his life: no automatic citizenship or sanctioned residency was offered at that time. At 14, he heard John Coltrane on the radio, prompting an epiphany: He immediately bought a saxophone instruction book and learned fingering positions before he even had a horn. When he did get one, he took to it like water. By 1962, he'd won a competition for amateur jazz players and formed his own band. Knowledge of Coltrane's interest in Ravi Shankar brought Garbarek to an awareness of Indian music as early as 1963. From the Coltrane Quartet, he learned much about leading a band. Coltrane's appreciation and support for the freest spirits of "the New Thing" inspired the young saxophonist's appreciation for Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and most notably, Albert Ayler. Scandinavia was a haven for American musicians at the time. Garbarek was able to see, hear, and learn from Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, and Johnny Griffin. In 1964, he played with Don Cherry, whose embrace of world folk traditions in free jazz proved a significant influence as well. Most important in this formative period was a four-year association with American composer and pianist George Russell. In 1969, the saxophonist's group (that also included guitarist Terje Rypdal, bassist Arild Andersen, and drummer Jon Christenson) cut an album produced by Russell. That same year, Garbarek was invited by ECM's Manfred Eicher to join the fledgling label's roster; his classic debut, Afric Pepperbird, was released in 1970. In 1971, George Russell Presents the Esoteric Circle was released by Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman label.
Garbarek kicked off the '90s in many places at once. First, I Took Up the Runes explored modern improvisational approaches to Scandinavian folk songs and included startling originals. Accompanied by pianist Rainer Brüninghaus, bassist Weber, drummer Manu Katché, percussionist Naná Vasconcelos, synthesist Bugge Wesseltoft, and vocalist Ingor Ánte Áilo Gaup, its most notable track was a cover of Mari Boine Persen's Sami anthem "Gula Gula." The set also featured the saxophonist's five-part Molde Canticle suite. The following year, Garbarek was firmly back in the jazz camp with the trio date Star alongside drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Miroslav Vitous. His early work with Karaindrou was reissued on her debut ECM collection, Music for Films. In 1992, Garbarek's family came into view: He was a featured soloist on his daughter Anja Garbarek's debut album, Velkommen Inn, and his wife, author Vigdis Garbarek's audiobook Stemmer. He also worked with Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and a band of Pakistani singers and players on Ragas and Sagas. In 1993, the saxophonist was all over the place: He and Vitous issued the duo set Atmos, and the Jan Garbarek Group released the acclaimed Twelve Moons. But it was Officium, with the Hilliard Ensemble, that changed the landscape. Employing the celebrated group's approach to medieval polyphony with saxophone improvisations in a program of songs dating from as far back as the 14th century, the album resonated with jazz and classical fans alike, as well as with ambient and rock listeners. Followed by a tour, it became a cornerstone in the classical crossover genre. After a collaboration with Brahem and Shaukat Hussain on Madar in 1996, Garbarek went back to his own interior explorations with Visible World, but this time he employed a selective group of other players. In 1997, Garbarek appeared as a guest soloist on the track Night Prayers on composer Giya Kancheli's ECM breakthrough, Caris Mere, conducted by Dennis Russel Davies with the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester. The saxophonist closed the decade, and the century, by releasing his magnum opus, the double-length Rites in 1998. For this date he led a quintet of Brüninghaus, Weber, drummer percussionist Marilyn Mazur, and keyboardist/electronicist Bugge Wesseltoft. It was a summation of all of Garbarek's work to date, included a tribute to Don Cherry, and reworkings of his own "It's OK to Listen to the Gray Voice" and "So Mild the Wind, So Meek the Water." It featured abundant references to world music, from Norway to India, as well as a setting — for voices and saxophone — of a Native American poem, and the surprise inclusion of Jansug Kakhidze's "The Moon Over Mtatsminda," sung by its composer with the Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra.
Garbarek appeared only on others' recordings for the next few years (Vitous' celebrated Universal Syncopations among them) and didn't issue a date of his own until 2004's In Praise of Dreams. On it, Garbarek handled most of the instruments himself. The set's only other players on the recording were violist Kim Kashkashian and drummer Manu Katche. That same year he guested on Monodia by pianist Tigran Mansurian and Kashkashian. He also played on Katche's solo effort, Neighborhood, in 2005, and his daughter Anja's Briefly Shaking. In 2008 he was percussionist/drummer Mazur's only accompanist for her provocative breakthrough Elixir. A year later, ECM released the first live album by the Garbarek Group. Dresden was a double-disc set that included new and earlier work played by a quartet that included Katche, Bruninghaus, and bassist Yuri Daniel.
In 2010, the saxophonist and the Hilliard Ensemble collaborated again, this time on Officium Novum. While their first effort offered music from the 14th and 15th centuries, and their sophomore outing Mnemosyne contained music of a more contemporary variety, this outing was comprised of music of a distinctly Eastern sensibility. Its primary focus was on compositions written or adapted by Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935). The album was more successful commercially than either of its predecessors and placed near the top of classical, jazz, and crossover charts. Two years later, ECM issued a series of archival recordings that included the saxophonist: First, a stunning 1981 live performance by Gismonti, Garbarek, and Haden entitled Magico: Carta de Amor. It was followed by Sleeper from a 1979 gig by Jarrett's European quartet, and finally, Weber's Resume, consisting of live performances between 1990-2007. The following year, the label released Eleni Karaindrou's retrospective, Concert in Athens, which was recorded in 2010. Garbarek appeared on more than half of the album's 18 selections. The saxophonist was part of the celebration for Weber that occurred on 2015's Hommage a Eberhard Weber, a live concert attended and performed by a wide range of admiring artists including Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Michael Gibbs, Scott Colley, the SWR Big Band, and many others. He also performed on Anja's The Road Is Just a Surface in 2018. The following year, ECM, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration — and also of the saxophonist's signing with the label — released Remember Me, My Dear, a live effort from Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble, recorded during their 2014 farewell tour. ~ Thom Jurek