EFG London Jazz Festival: Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble bid farewell to London in style

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Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and vocalists the Hilliard Ensemble first performed together in the remote, alpine monastery of St Gerold in 1993. Just over 20 years and three albums later, their partnership is coming to an end as the Hillards go into retirement. Their farewell tour as a quintet has them zigzagging across much of continental Europe but there was something very English about this, their final appearance in London and its air of low-key spectacle. 

As we took our seats in the creaking pews of Temple Church, Garbarek appeared on stage. Turning his back to the audience and using the round nave as a vast stone amplifier, he began to play and, from the corners of the chancel, the Hilliards answered, singing fragile multiphonic drones and plodding solemnly towards him. 

Much of their set, which ranged from works of plainchant to the hauntingly beautiful ‘Most Holy Mother of God’, written for the group by Arvo Pärt, was solemn too, but there was no shortage of glorious, ethereal moments. Members of the audience closed their eyes in contentment as Garbarek’s soprano soared above the gently unfurling vocal lines and hypnotic, unison sibilants. Glistening like sunlight through stained glass and ringing with an icy fury, it was an angelic fifth voice that lifted the performance and varied the harmonic palette. 

On a spritely medieval number with a gentle pulse, the saxophonist stamped his feet and played a string of folk melodies before weaving in a bluesy cadenza. At times his improvised responses whispered of eastern mysticism and there were even hints of bebop chord changes – unmistakable but, somehow, not at all out of place. 

As the concert drew to a close, the four singers strayed from their music stands once again, walking through the audience in the penultimate number and leaving through a side door at the very end, with Garbarek in tow. Throughout, no one said a word. Whether out of English reticence or simple good taste, there were no thank yous or goodbyes and, despite multiple standing ovations, just a single monastic hymn by way of an encore. But then there was no need to over do it. Better to go out in style and let a 20-year legacy and an uplifting final programme do the talking.

– Thomas Rees

@ThomasNRees