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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Saxophonist Jan Garbarek was a teenage protege of American composer George Russell in Norway in the 1960s and later played in Keith Jarrett's Scandinavian quartet. More recently he's collaborated with the vocal quartet The Hilliard Ensemble, improvising as they sing Medieval music. Jan Garbarek is praised for his Scandinavian aesthetic, but jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says a reissue of three early albums exposes some Southern roots.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Saxophonist Jan Garbarek and guitarist Terje Rypdal, two artists who helped the ECM label find its emerging voice 40 years ago. That's from the 1971 album "Sart" one of three early Garbareks back out in a mini-box called "Dansere," "Dancers." This session led to Rypdal's own first for ECM, beginning the label's ongoing fascination with eccentric guitarists.

Garbarek's saxophone sound became one of ECM's signature voices - austere and astringent with a lot of breathing room at the margins.

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WHITEHEAD: Back in the '70s, Jan Garbarek's sound epitomized a new Nordic jazz cultivated at ECM. Writers likened his howl to an icy wind blowing off a fjord. But lines of influence are usually more complicated. There's a nasal, almost shrill quality to his playing, recalling India's double reed instruments like the Shehnai, a cousin to the oboe.

That Indian connection is especially obvious when Garbarek plays his curved soprano sax.

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WHITEHEAD: Carla Bley's tune "A.I.R.," "All India Radio," recorded by the young Garbarek, Bobo Stenson quartet in 1973. Even before Keith Jarrett drafted most of this quartet into his own quartet, Garbarek had loved his music and had heard Jarrett's saxophone as Dewey Redman snarling on his own Asian double reed. Even when Garbarek plays tenor saxophone, working from Norwegian folk material, his microtonal pitch bends suggest the slow movements in Indian ragas. Also a model for how ECM albums often start quietly and slowly build excitement.

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WHITEHEAD: An artist's early years give you the best chance to spot their influences. And on these sessions you can hear a bit of free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler in Garbarek's way of treating folk materials. That influence remains in the heavy vibrato he sometimes uses, though the actual sound is different.

For the album "Witchi Tai To" in 1973, Garbarek and pianist Bobo Stenson hunted up diverse material, still discovering what works for them. They play one tune by jazz globetrotter Don Cherry, a hero to these players, and a Carlos Pueblo song from revolutionary Cuba. Jan Garbarek plays that in the rapturous mode of Cherry's Argentine compadre, Gato Barbieri.

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WHITEHEAD: Co-leader Bobo Stenson brought in Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper on "Witchi Tai To," another kind of Indian music in the mix. I like these early young Garbarek sessions better than many later ones because his style was still forming, before tendencies had harden into mannerisms. But then, sometimes the journey is more interesting than where you arrive in the end.

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DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed reissues of three early albums by saxophonist Jan Garbarek on the ECM label. You can join us on Facebook and follows us on Twitter at nrpfreshair. And you can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

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