Jan Garbarek Group review – smooth jazz and squeaky toys

<span>Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

This year’s London jazz festival coincides with the 50th anniversary of ECM records and, in celebration, the festival’s opening weekend featured a host of artists from that label’s roster. All share characteristics that have come to define Manfred Eicher’s imprint, performing ethereal European jazz that focuses on texture and often seems quite stridently un-American, even when it features American musicians. Throughout Sunday, German pianist Julia Hülsmann’s quartet reimagined bebop with all the blues surgically removed; Albanian vocalist Elina Duni and British guitarist Rob Luft invented a beguiling Balkan bossa nova through heavy use of looper pedals; while saxophonist Joe Lovano’s densely written new Trio Tapestry project, featuring pianist Marilyn Crispell, owed more to the 12-tone serialism of Schoenberg than to Sonny Rollins.

Related: 'This goes in deep!' Jazz stars give their tips for the London jazz festival

The weird exception to this was Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Recording almost exclusively for ECM since 1970, he has created a twisted jazz that explores Gregorian chant, Nordic folksong and Indian classical music, but for more than a decade he’s been playing the festival circuit with a quartet that’s often reminiscent of MOR American saxophonists such as David Sanborn or Kenny G, playing simple and accessible melodies on his soprano sax over a rather bland, smooth jazz accompaniment.

This gig, however, was a marked improvement on his performance seven years ago with a similar quartet, largely because the band is now dominated by its charismatic percussionist, Trilok Gurtu. His entertaining solo spots (on tabla, cymbals, gongs, squeaky toys and even a bucket of water) take centre stage, but he also pushes Garbarek into his most garrulous and exploratory solos, both on tenor sax and on bamboo flute. It’s closer to the ECM spirit, and all the more compelling for it.