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Carving Out a Place for Hybrid Music : Jazz: 'Officium's' mix of a capella vocals and saxman Jan Garbarek has become an unexpected top seller. The music is hard to categorize, even for the artists themselves.

November 04, 1994|ZAN STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the fastest selling, non-pop albums these days is an extraordinary hybrid of jazz improvisation and early a cappella music that was conceived on a road in Iceland.

"Officium," released by ECM's classically oriented New Series, features the Hilliard Ensemble, a vocal group from England, singing 12th- to 16th-Century liturgical works by such renowned early composers as Cristobal de Morales and Magnus Perotinus.

What makes this album different, and provocative, is that the vocal ensemble is joined by jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek. He improvises with remarkable fluidity, at times seeming uncannily like a fifth voice while the quartet sings.

Recorded in the chapel of the St. Gerold monastery in Austria, the acoustics are superb. Tones from both the singers and Garbarek resonate in the small hall.

Released eight weeks ago in the United Kingdom and seven weeks ago in the United States, "Officium" has already sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide and is No. 5 on the current Billboard magazine classical chart. The album, though it has a definite jazz flavor due to Garbarek's sinuous solos, has not yet crossed over and started selling strongly in jazz retail stores.

Manfred Eicher, the owner of ECM, had the inspiration for "Officium" while driving through lava fields in Iceland. Eicher remembers being in his car, listening to early vocal music by Morales and juxtaposing it with a solo saxophone recording by Garbarek. At first, Eicher was so struck by the thought of two disparate styles that he considered the mixture for a soundtrack to a movie he was directing at the time.

"But the music became so vehement that it wouldn't go along with the film," Eicher says in a press video. However, the idea remained to blend Garbarek's improvisations with the early music performed by the Hilliard Ensemble.

Offbeat projects such as "Officium" are nothing new for Eicher, who founded ECM 25 years ago and launched his New Series in 1984. Some of his most notable classical work has involved Keith Jarrett, who has albums of piano and harpsichord music by Bach and whose 20th-Century classical works are performed by the 27-piece Fairfield Orchestra on the recent "Bridge of Light."

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But ECM has long been regarded for its jazz albums. Again, Jarrett is the label's star, having made more than 20 albums, leading trios, small bands and as a soloist: his "Koln Concert" solo recording has sold more than 2.5-million copies since its release in 1974, making it the all-time No. 1 solo piano recording. The music on "Officium" is hard to categorize, even for the artists themselves.

"What is this music? We don't have a name for it," says John Potter, a tenor with the Hilliard in the album's liner notes. "It's not jazz, nor is it early music." Potter does say in a press release that in some of its far-reaching projects--the Hilliard has worked in contemporary classical music as well as early music--the group improvises like "a jazz band."

Chris Douridas, host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on KCRW-FM (89.9), has been playing "Officium" since its release, calling it a "soulful exploration of the possibilities of a marriage between a medieval and contemporary chant group and an avant garde jazz saxophonist." Douridas will feature the Hilliard Ensemble and Garbarek on his Dec. 7 show. (The artists, who will appear in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington on a four-date U.S. tour, will not perform publicly in Los Angeles.)

Garbarek, an often fiery improviser who plays with a bracing economy on "Officium," was an ideal choice for the album's tenor and soprano saxophone soloist. The 47-year-old Norwegian has recorded close to 30 albums for ECM with such notables as Jarrett, Charlie Haden and Egberto Gismonti. The saxophonist noted the remarkable cohesion he felt when recording with the Hilliard. "Starting phrases together, meeting in different places, it was as if the music had been written" for us, Garbarek says in an press video. "It was a meeting in the most natural way, and it was one of the most challenging and complete recordings I have been involved with."

The Hilliard--which on "Officium" is made up of James, John Potter and Rogers Covey-Crump (tenors) and Gordon Jones (baritone)--has often ranged in size, sometimes as many as eight voices, and in content since its formation in 1974.

"Officium" is currently the top-seller at Tower Records Classics in West Hollywood.

Jim McDaniels, sales manager, says, he knew "Officium" would sell swiftly as soon as he heard it. "There's a real niche for this kind of music that didn't exist five years ago," says McDaniels. "Albums like this and Gorecki's 'Third Symphony With Dawn Upshaw' and Arvo Part's "Te Deum" are aimed at a crossover market." "

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