Jan Garbarek's latest CD, In Praise of Dreams, is his first in six years, and continues his tendency, since the late 1980s, to move in a highly personal direction, creating music that is often seen as linked only tangentially to jazz. Garbarek has both consolidated the innovations from his most recent previous releases, Twelve Moons and Rites, and entered some new territory as well, stripping things down to a series of drum loops over which synth pads create an ambient canvas for Garbarek's diamond-hard, intensively expressive soprano and tenor sax playing and the warm violin and viola work of Kim Kashkashian. The only other participant is frequent Garbarek collaborator, percussionist Manu Katche.
The music on this disc clearly strives for a mystic and transcendental quality, and overall it achieves this aim handily. Garbarek's burst of sax energy is like a burst of thought over a trancelike mantra, and Kashkashian's playing has a folk quality to it that is often hard to place (was that a Celtic figure? Middle Eastern?). This all serves to give the music its otherworldly quality that may cause some to see Garbarek's music as akin to popular New Age artists. While this is somewhat true, the sheer musicality and intensive focus of Garbarek's vision is far beyond the abilities of most New Age musicians.
One really outstanding thing about In Praise of Dreams is the way that it demonstrates that the use of loops does not automatically mean that one's music must slavishly obey the tenets of electronica. Gabarek here uses a variety of rhythms, while the overlying music is rich in influences, sometimes evoking Gypsy music ("Scene From Afar") sometimes Middle Eastern ("Cloud of Unknowing"), at times Celtic ("In Praise of Dreams"), and at others suggesting the Nordic folk music that has long been an influence on Garbarek's work ("Conversation with a Stone"). Garbarek has long been influenced by the music of different cultures, and he does not exchange any of that for a more techno outing. In Praise of Dreams thus manages to sound both warm and human, yet utterly contemporary and not out of step with the digital culture.
Garbarek's saxophone voice has changed little over the years, so how any listener feels about this (or any of his recordings) is likely to be influenced by one's opinion of that voice. Early on he was clearly influenced by John Coltrane, and his wide-open tone can still evoke the master. However, there is little Coltrane influence left in what Garbarek plays. He approaches the soprano sax with the same open, masculine sound, never resorting to the 'prettiness' that is often sought by other musicians on that instrument. That is not to say that his soprano sax playing is not pleasing to the ear, but rather that it is much more like his tenor playing than is generally the case with multi-woodwind artists.
Ultimately, In Praise of Dreams seems to succeed largely because it evokes so much that seems like a vague genetic cultural memory in the listener, regardless of that listener's ethnic origin. Listening to this music one can imagine what it would feel like to be in a mediaeval cathedral, in an inn in Chaucer's England, at Stonehenge when it was built, or contemplating the contemporary world from frozen landscape above the Arctic Circle. It's music that hints at the mysteries that can be glimpsed only when the veil of day-to-day life is lifted. It all this sounds like mystic mumbo jumbo, it is only because there are really no words that can adequately describe this music, nor is a track by track analysis likely to be of much use. In surrendering to Garbarek's musical vision, the listener is truly taken 'off the map' into a place where definitions are meaningless. Some will refuse to take the journey and will see this music as vague, inconsequential sonic wallpaper. For those willing to take the trip, however, In Praise of Dreams provides a heady listening experience, indeed.