Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Jan Garbarek Quartet - Afric Pepperbird

Jan Garbarek Quartet
Afric Pepperbird


Released 1970 on ECM
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 07/08/2002ce


All right, let's lay it on the line straight away. This is a jazz record. Not rock with jazz overtones, not jazz rock, and definitely not fusion. You'll find it in the jazz section of a decently stocked record shop close to Ella Fitzgerald and Coleman Hawkins. But I bring Jan Garbarek's second album to your respected attention because it appeals to my rock sensitivities, and I suspect you may react positively to it too. Here's why.

This is a far out record. Very far out indeed, with no soft introductions, although it does start relatively quietly. An unobtrusive African thumb piano and sparse cymbal lead into the main theme of 'Skarabee', and a more resigned, world-weary theme is impossible to conceive. Played at the upper end of Garbarek's alto sax, with subtle and other-worldly guitar accompaniment by Terje Rypdal (before the latter's soon-come forays into Hendrix-influenced fusion), the mood is like the end of a long, frustrating day and being denied the chance to sleep. Occasionally overblown sax notes intensify the unwelcoming but laid back feel, while the thumb piano, drums and xylophone tap, plink and crash impatiently behind. You wait and wait for a tune to develop, but it never does. Three minutes in and Garbarek's blowing free sounds that sound more like a trumpet than a sax, coloured by the overblown bugle (yes, bugle) of Rypdal. Then the whole band grabs some percussion and hammers and shakes like a jungle kindergarden overdosing on Sunny Delight. Things calm down a little, then the vague theme re-enters, hits a note half way to Mars, and leaves to that incessant thumb piano. Nothing and everything has happened in six minutes. The brief theme aside, the whole thing is completely improvised yet utterly compelling, never falling into the trap of total freak out, and never really sounding like jazz as much as deranged world music. It needs a few listens, but it delivers.

The next significant track is the album's masterpiece, and the main reason I love this record. 'Beast Of Kommodo' is a big sounding title for an even bigger slice of sound. Beginning with an irresistable acoustic bass and drum riff in hectic 9/8 time, with Beefheartesque, randomly placed guitar chords from Rypdal, the scene is set for a day in the life of Monster Garbarek. Long, lazy alto sax wails signify the end of the beast's slumber, snoring, dozing, yawning. Then, at 1.24, the beast awakes, with screaming howls at the uppermost extreme of the sax's register. Jon Christensen's tom toms are rolled for all they're worth in fright, but that riff races on in the background with Rypdal beligerently in pursuit. At the two minute mark the beast is wide awake, and man, is he pissed off. Garbarek isn't so much as blowing as screaming through his reed, and the band follow and cower behind with ever more intensity. There is so much energy going on here that I defy anyone gleaned on experimental or hard rock not to be moved by this piece. This is heavy music, irrespective of its genre, yet aside from Rypdal's faintly amplified electric guitar, everything is happening on acoustic instruments. It carries on for over twelve minutes, the beast eventually stepping down to give attention to the band's maniacal backing, and Garbarek returning less obtrusively on flute. There's even a false fade and reprise before the ever faithful bass of Arild Andersen falls to pieces in apparent exhaustion. Terrific. Gimme more.

And more comes in the shape of 'Blow Away Zone', which shows that the energy of the previous track was no fluke. A brief half-theme aside, the piece is largely built over a manic, tom tom dominated drum solo lasting the best part of nine minutes, over which Rypdal and Andersen go free-form crazy before Garby lets it all hang out in classic Coltrane/Ayler/Sanders tradition. Christensen and Andersen rock like sin while their leader gets stratospheric. The racket gets so immense four minutes in that Rypdal temporarily puts down his axe and picks up that sodding bugle again. But this is Garbarek's show and he's gonna have his way. At 5.30 he starts taking the piss big time, with licks that sound like Benny Hill chase music. The band stops as if in apparent disgust and disbelief, but Garbarek carries on blowing that reed to bursting point. The notes he hits when the band return are almost beyond the range of human audibility. The hairs on the back of your head don't so much stand up as lift you out of your chair. Then absolute, all-out chaos pervades until the half-theme's short reprise near the end. Exhilerating, excessive, and essential.

The title track is in two parts: the first, a half-minute long, fast and Faust-like non-tune played one-in-a-bar by the whole band in unison; and the second, a drifting but rhythmic vignette built around another masterful acoustic bass riff by Andersen. This feels like a consolidation of all that has gone before, with the meandering, uneasy atmosphere of the opening track letting go to more desperately high alto primal screams from Garbarek four minutes in. Rypdal's guitar embellishments, understated throughout, are masterful, as is Andersen's subtle but adventurous steering around the main key (such as it is). The piece ends with an almost finger-tapping rhythm and Garbarek groaning the opposite extreme of his range with a bass saxophone.

There are four other short pieces on the record, but these are no more than fillers. The real deal is the quartet of epic tracks discussed above. Sad to report that the band that made this record, now all jazz stars of substance, didn't stay together much longer and never matched the inspiration and thrills captured here. Jan Garbarek himself was to leave the free jazz scene soon afterwards for an increasingly anodyne musical climate. A great shame, because way back in 1970 he led a hot young band that played harder and wilder than many better-known rock combos. Unbelievably, 'Afric Pepperbird' is a jazz album. A jazz album that ROCKS, and big time. Do hear it.


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