Jan Garbarek was best known as a member of Keith Jarrett's early '70s European quartet but the Norwegian saxophonist has been a fixture at the ECM label since that time. ECM had a reputation for an ethereal, "pastel" label sound so it's not surprising that Garbarek sounded like the godfather of Nordic new age music in his local debut at the L.A. Theatre Center on Thursday.
His high-tech quartet played music of the mind that largely abandoned rhythmic pulse to stress textural improvisation. The severe, ascetic-looking Garbarek's full tenor tone recalled Gato Barbieri and was most effective when stating simple, emotional melodic themes.
Garbarek was more improvisationally daring playing a curved soprano sax in a Wayne Shorter vein and on one selection featuring a small Norwegian wood flute called the seljeflote. But he was often so self-effacing musically that it was more interesting to focus on group members like bassist Eberhard Weber or guitarist David Torn.
Between the tremolo bar on his electric guitar and the 10 switches and foot pedals arrayed in front of him, Torn ignored the instrument's natural tone to add keyboard-like tonal embellishments to the ensemble. During one unaccompanied solo, his guitar shifted from the kind of celestial synthesizer tone you would expect to find in a Werner Herzog film sound track to a droning Indian sitar within 30 seconds.