the sax man stretcheth

Ragas and Sagas (ECM)
Jan Garbarek/Ustad Fateh Ali Khan.

By John Goodin

Ragas and Sagas. Indian music, right? Nordic legends. You look further. Jan Gabarek, Norwegian sax master, used to play with Keith Jarrett. Four Pakistani musicians; two on voice, one on tabla, one on sarangi (a fiddle with lots of sympathetic strings). A drummer on one cut. Mountains on the cover. Some snow. What can it be like?

Jan Garbarek has successfully integrated himself into the musical world of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and his Musicians from Pakistan. What they produce together is certainly North Indian classical music, but it also carries an element of the western spiritual tradition. It is a meditative music not so much relaxing as it is settling.

Jazz musicians have been playing with Indian musicians since the 1960s, often with excellent results. The newer American musical style recognized its connection with the ancient Indian emphasis on rhythm and improvisation. While Ragas and Sagas is part of that ongoing experiment, it really has more in common with Ornette Coleman's remarkable work with the North African master musicians of Joujouka. Like Coleman, Garbarek's saxophone voice is unconventional, authoritative: rooted in jazz but not restricted by it. Like Coleman, Garbarek meets his partners on an equal footing.

Ustad Khan and his compatriots respond with inspired playing and singing. There is nothing amateurish or sloppy about their performance. These are professional musicians trained to execute with precision and improvise with abandon. Together with Garbarek they play some beautiful music that is both new and old, exotic and modern.