Acoustic Sounds

Jan Garbarek Quartet

Afric Pepperbird



Label: ECM

Produced By: Manfred Eicher

Engineered By: Jan Erik Kongshaug

Mixed By: Jan Erik Kongshaug

By: Jan Omdahl

March 11th, 2024



"Afric Pepperbird" Spearheads Jan Garbarek's ECM Reissue Trifecta

Early ECM barn burner by Norwegian quartet gets first vinyl reissue since 1976

Late in 1970, the fledgling German record producer Manfred Eicher wrote a letter to Keith Jarrett. Eicher suggested the pianist might perhaps consider doing a recording for his new label, ECM. He enclosed a fresh test pressing of ECM’s seventh recording, Afric Pepperbird by the Jan Garbarek Quartet, thinking it might help convince Jarrett of the creative possibilities of recording for the label.

It was that kind of record. The Norwegian quartet sounded like nothing else at the time: a wild and wonderful stew of free jazz, early fusion, post-bop, rock, Norwegian folk and African percussion. The quartet, led by saxophonist Jan Garbarek, featured guitarist Terje Rypdal, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen (1943-2020). Afric Pepperbird was recorded just six months after the release of Bitches Brew, but was closer in temperament and style to recent works by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders. 

Afric Pepperbird had sonics of its own, too. Unlike most jazz recordings at the time, it had a combination of intimacy and space that was more common in recordings of chamber music, and that would become something of a hallmark for ECM. On the first of what was to be several hundred recordings Eicher and the Norwegian engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug (1944-2019) worked on together, they found the sound Eicher had previously only heard in his mind’s ear: Closely and carefully miked so you could hear every rattle and every shimmer of overtone, the musicians truly listening to each other, the instruments supremely balanced, with a reverberant space around the music created mainly by Kongshaug's use of the EMT 140 plate reverb. Artificial reverb wasn’t common in jazz at the time, and Afric Pepperbird was criticized by some for having too much. By modern standards, though, it sounds quite dry.

The Jan Barbarek QuartetThe Jan Garbarek Quartet on the eve of recording Afric Pepperbird in the Arne Bendiksen Studio, september 22, 1970. Drawing by the late Jon Christensen, from his photo album.

The reissue at hand is the first on vinyl since 1976, spearheading the 2024 season of the  label’s Luminessence reissue series. Afric Pepperbird was a landmark release, both for the group and for ECM. It was also the starting point for half a century  of collaboration between Eicher and Kongshaug, and for a lifelong creative relationship between the label and the four artists. Garbarek, Rypdal and Andersen went on to prolific solo careers on ECM, while Christensen would become one of the label’s most frequently used drummers. Later, they would be followed by dozens of other Norwegian signings to ECM, all very much inspired by the breakthrough of the Garbarek quartet. The disproportionately large influence on European jazz of a country with just a few million people can be traced more or less directly here.

Afric Pepperbird documents the meeting of six young, fiercely creative individuals. The 27-year old Christensen was the oldest, just a few months older than Eicher. Garbarek was the youngest, at 23. He, Andersen and Christensen were firmly rooted in jazz, while Rypdal came from a rock background. They met in a loft studio atop an old warehouse on the eastern side of Norway’s capital, Oslo. The studio belonged to the record company owner, producer, composer and artist Arne Bendiksen. Kongshaug was the house technician, and had been about to close for the day when he received a call: Could he accommodate the Jan Garbarek quartet and the German producer Manfred Eicher for a late night session? Eicher had taken the train from Munich to record the quartet for his newly started label, ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music), after hearing them at the jazz festival in Bologna, Italy. An unsuccessful recording attempt had been made earlier in the day in the studio at the Henie Onstad Art Center outside Oslo. The quartet had previously recorded their George Russel-produced debut album there under the short-lived moniker The Esoteric Circle, but the room proved far too «live» for Eicher’s tastes. Kongshaug agreed to what would turn out to be a meeting of musical minds.

Fast forward for a moment to September 2017. While working on my book about Afric Pepperbird (a translated excerpt can be read here), I spent time with Kongshaug for interviews and listening sessions at my house. The 73-year-old engineering legend was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic and incurable disease that would claim his life a little more than two years later, but graciously agreed to a deep dive into the album he recorded 47 years earlier. We listened together to the first pressing, Jan Erik laughing out loud at the beautiful wildness of some of the tracks. It wasn’t really his kind of music, he commented. An accomplished jazz guitarist himself, he was more into players like Grant Green, Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel. He observed how he had worked carefully in the Bendiksen studio with microphone placement to achieve a good balance before touching the Neve console, how he had panned bass and drums slightly to the sides, and how recording everyone in the same room had produced plenty of microphone leakage, contributing to the «live» atmosphere on the record. This would be his preferred method throughout his career, including several hundred recordings for ECM. The first meeting with Eicher went smoothly, he remembered, there was very little discussion about technical or sonic issues. Clearly, there was creative chemistry from the get-go.

Jan Garbarek letting rip in the Bendiksen studio, September 22, 1970. Private photo from Jon Christensen's photo album

The first sound on the opening track, “Scarabée”, is Arild Andersen’s South African thumb piano, bought while touring the country with Stan Getz. Jon Christensen follows with light strokes on his massive 22-inch ride. The cymbal is a K Zildjian, cast in bronze from a wood-fired furnace and hammered by hand at the Zildjian factory in Istanbul. Its huge, dark sound was to become Christensen’s trademark. After a few seconds, a hoarse, plaintive tenor sax enters. Garbarek explores the outer limits of the instrument, overblowing, moving from soft to screaming and back. Other percussive sound follows, then Rypdal enters with measured minor chords on his Rickenbacker 365. That’s right, a jazz album with a Rickenbacker. It was that kind of record.

Andersen’s “Mah-Jong” is a soft, ruminative piece, less than two minutes long, dominated by his signature singing bass notes, supported by Rypdal’s arpeggio chords and a soft, energetic pulse from Christensen. 

“Beast of Kommodo” is the side 1 standout: a twelve minute long barnstormer of epic and wild jazz rock. Andersen's pulsating, hard-swinging and hummable bass riff, written for him by Garbarek, is out in the left channel, Jon Christensen's ride cymbal and rolling toms out to the right. The groove is polyrhythmic; it can be counted as 9/8, but also in half triplets as 6/4. It’s not funky and heavy on the one like the electric fusion on Bitches Brew, but rather rolling, whipping, relentless. Garbarek enters center stage with a howl, playing just the mouthpiece of his sax. After a minute and a half, the cries become shrill, nasal, almost as if from a kazoo, before Garbarek unleashes in the highest register. A hoarse roar follows, then it's almost as if Garbarek is speaking some primitive language through the mouthpiece. The timid listener won’t find much solace in Rypdal’s skewed, syncopated minor chords, either.

Garbareks aptly-titled “Blow Away Zone” starts off with a drum break by Christensen. The band joins in with a written chord progression, but soon the drum “break” is back to stay and organized chaos reigns supreme. Garbarek’s playing is fierce, clearly inspired by Coltrane, Ayler and Sanders, far removed from the style and tone he would later be known for. Suddenly the band returns briefly to Garbarek’s chord progression, in a seamless transition between improvisation and compositional structure that is one of the hallmarks of the album.

Afric Pepperbird

“MYB" and "Concentus" are shorter, lyrical compositions by Andersen. They seem almost timid in contrast to the sonic whirlwinds before and after, but this is where you sense the quartet's lyrical potential. On the 50-second long "Concentus", Garbarek interacts beautifully with himself on clarinet, saxophone and flute, in a lingering little theme that seems an early example of inspiration from Norwegian folk tunes.

The peace is short-lived. The title track takes off in something almost akin to a rockabilly groove. Christensen hammers out the beat on a loosely fluttering hi-hat, going four to the floor for the duration. The theme shifts  rhythmically, the dirty sound of the half-open hi-hat creates energy, while Andersen takes the bass for a stroll with Garbarek doubling on saxophone. The band halts abruptly in an exercise of total control, then continues in a quieter, mildly funky groove straight out of the Bitches Brew playbook. Here everything is acoustic, though, with the exception of Rypdal's cutting minor chords on the Rickenbacker, sounding as if they are created with the help of a wah-wah pedal.

Afric Pepperbird ends with the only composition Jon Christensen contributed in his career.  "Blupp” is a little ditty for drums and voice, with Christensen imitating the sounds he heard from his daughter Jannicke in her mother's womb. Some might think it superfluous after the majestic title cut, but they'd be wrong; a certain playfulness is a key quality to the album.

Afric Pepperbird is a pretty wild ride. Loose-jointed, fragmented, alternately joyfully noisy and lyrically serene. Free jazz meets Scandinavian sense of structure. Greater would come, both in music and in sound, but it’s hard to beat the freshness and excitement on display here. Garbarek and Rypdal were yet to find their voices, sounding all the wilder and more searching for it. All four would soon move on to more mature and coherent work, developing their individual styles to become leading names in European jazz and in the ECM roster. 

In 2020, I was privileged to have Arild Andersen over for a listening session. He had last heard parts of the album a few months earlier, when he and musician friends Bugge Wesseltoft, Tore Brunborg and Nils Petter Molvær picked up Jon Christensen at the nursing home where he was spending the last months of his life. Christensen was dying from cancer, but was game for a day out with some of the boys. They went  to Andersen’s house, where there was a drum set. They listened among other things to parts of Afric Pepperbird, ending with Jon’s sole composition on the record, «Blupp!». Then he played the drums a little, probably the last time the great drummer held a pair of sticks.

Arild AndersenArild Andersen listening to Afric Pepperbird. Photo: Jan Omdahl

At my house Andersen heard the whole album for the first time in many years, and was pleasantly surprised and impressed by the creative audacity on display. We agreed that it sounded pretty great, too, although Andersen couldn’t help but notice that his bass lacked a bit of low end weight.

That the reissue doesn’t try to «fix» this relative lack of bass, is a testament to the conservative facsimile approach of ECM reissues. The sound is in all aspects very close to the original. Is there perhaps a fraction more air on the original, a touch more leading edge to the many percussive sounds? It's almost too close to call, but if so, probably just the difference between a fresh 1970 master tape and what is either a new cut from a more than a 54 year old tape, or from a digital copy of that tape made at some point.

The original also plays a bit louder than the reissue, the opening of «Beast of Kommodo» measuring approximately 1,5 dB louder at my listening position. The original being louder than the reissue? Now, that’s not something you encounter every day.

ECM keeps information about mastering, cutting and pressing to itself, but my record was perfectly flat and quiet, like the Kenny Wheeler and Nana Vasconcelos releases in the series previously reviewed here. When considering the reissue, you should also factor in that finding a perfectly clean original is not easy these days, although a few NM copies are always around in the second hand market.

The original LP came in a non-gatefold laminated sleeve. The reissue gets a gatefold in thick, matte cardboard, with previously unseen photos of each member on the inside spread. It’s unclear whether they are from the night in question – other photos from the session suggest they might not be. The front cover, with a photo of what looks like a crumpled pillowcase, was treated with a duotone technique where a red color was added to the black and white image. As was the case with Kenny Wheeler's Gnu High, the color on the reissue appears somewhat pale and washed out compared to the original.

The record itself is placed loosely inside the gatefold, not inside the rear sleeve. Good for avoiding seam splits, but the cover is just too tight too fit the record without serious effort, as was the case with the earlier Luminessence releases. Some adjustments here would be a good idea for future gatefold releases.

The rear cover seems to be a scan of the cover of the second pressing from 1970, without the «© COPYRIGHT BY ECM» line under the track listing from the first pressing. The typo that misspells Arild Andersen’s African thumb piano as «African thump piano» was fixed on later cd reissues, but here it’s back. 

There is more Garbarek to come in the 2024 Luminessence reissue lineup, further underlining the creative and stylistic breadth of his output, and refuting the misplaced notion that all jazz coming out . He is pivotal to the album that has given the record series its name: Luminessence from 1975 is credited to Keith Jarrett and Garbarek, but Jarrett doesn’t play on the record. He composed the beautiful music for Garbarek and strings, not long after he had written music with Garbarek in mind for their masterful 1974 collaboration, Belonging, with Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen. In his Jarrett biography, author and musician Ian Carr points out that the chemistry between the two is so good that Jarrett's composed parts and Garbarek's improvisations on the album are hard to tell apart.

Later this year, Garbarek also reappears as leader on the Luminessence reissue of Madar, an album that has never before been out on vinyl, featuring Tunisian Anouar Brahem on oud and Indian Zakir Hussain on tablas. “The Nordic sound”? “Mountain jazz”? Not exactly.

Certain phrases describing the music on Afric Pepperbird have previously been published in Norwegian in the author's book about the album.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: 1007ST

Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 180 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Presentation: Single LP


  • 2024-03-11 06:34:04 PM

    Come on wrote:

    My impression is, that the titles of those new ECM reissue series, as a matter of the recording era (and inspite of being AAA) are in a majority anything but good sounding, even just compared to the various available ECM sound quality standards. As long as the Bauer Studio was involved, the sound quality was usually inferior anyway imo. There are real gems among the old analog recordings, but as far as I can see, ECM quite safely shipped around them so far. As you also suggested, I can even not see/hear any improvements achieved by the new ones over the originals. Not sure how much ECM understands of the meaning of today’s reissue projects, it seems they just jumped on a train. But I may be a bit harsh with this impression.

    • 2024-03-12 08:27:37 AM

      Jan Omdahl wrote:

      I politely disagree. The two first records in the series I covered (link in the review above) sounded very, very good, and very close to the originals. The latter goes for Afric Pepperbird also, although the recording is not as mature as later works by Kongshaug and Eicher, therefore a 9 for sound (I'm trying to use the scale a bit, and there are plenty of 10s in the ECM catalog). All three records mentioned here are from there analog era, though, and I wouldn't hesitate to call them "gems". That there aren't «improvements» to the sound made on the reissues is a very conscious choice by ECM, as it is by some more exclusive reissue labels like Electric Recording Company. As covered widely on this website, many later day reissues with "improved" sound end up sounding far worse than the originals.

      • 2024-03-12 09:31:48 AM

        Come on wrote:

        That’s fine, sound quality is somehow also a matter of taste and compared examples.

        Regarding “improvements” by remastering: I didn’t mean necessarily EQ changes (although some recordings might have benefitted, as sticking to the original engineers or artists intents is only good if those surrounding conditions were good and neutral, otherwise this can also mean sticking to bad preconditions of the time).

        What I meant is, that I wouldn’t expect even just slightly worse results of reissues in case of ECM and the 70’s/80’s era, as tapes hopefully should not have suffered as maybe 50’s/60’s tapes and technical equipment to produce the releases from those tapes should have hopefully improved. Everything else wouldn’t make them very interesting, as the originals are still quite easily available in most cases (even if partly a bit more expensive, or cheaper).

  • 2024-03-12 03:32:20 AM

    Bret wrote:

    I am confused if this is AAA or not. In the review you state that “ either a new cut from a more than a 54 year old tape, or from a digital copy of that tape made at some point” but then, under music specifications, it says that the spars code is AAA. It be nice to get some clarity on this. I’m also wondering if the Keith Jarrett Bremen and Lausannr set is AAA.

    • 2024-03-12 08:34:04 AM

      Jan Omdahl wrote:

      Thanks for pointing this out. I classified the release as AAA while working on the review, but was unable to get clarification and should have removed it before publishing. It could very well be that the release is AAA, ECM own all their master tapes and as far as I know have them available in Munich. But the label has not been forthcoming with technical info about the Luminescence reissues, so for now we just don't know.

  • 2024-03-13 04:58:51 AM

    DAVID CLAPP wrote:

    Mr. Omdahl, thank you for the insightful review... I have dozens of LP's by all these artists and find the first 100 or so ECM releases in general still startlingly fresh and interesting. The sense of newness and discovery jumps out of the grooves. Manfred Eicher was the right man, at the right time, with the right vision to nurture a different type of improvised music. Packaged in a unique style and look. I haven't purchased any of the Luminescence releases as of yet, as I still have decent original copies so far.

    IMO that artists like Jarrett, Corea, Burton, Metheny, DeJohnette, Lloyd (and others) have made their finest music for the ECM label is no coincidence. Quality ruled all aspects of album production, down the high standard of the German vinyl pressings themselves. Which I've been told (unconfirmed) were made at the same facility that pressed DG's classical LP's.

    Looking forward to reading more interesting articles about a label and artists I've enjoyed collecting for over 50 years. Thank you again.

    • 2024-03-13 10:31:07 AM

      Jan Omdahl wrote:

      Thank you, and very much agreed. The ECM catalog is a treasure trove. More reviews to come, for sure.

  • 2024-03-13 06:36:24 PM

    Giorgiovinyl wrote:

    I really like your ECM reviews. You did not write about Old Dreams New Dreams what is your opinion of this reissue?

    • 2024-03-14 08:05:14 PM

      Jan Omdahl wrote:

      Thank you. No, I did not, but I have original and like the album. Hoping for more review samples from ECM in the near future.

    • 2024-03-14 08:05:17 PM

      Jan Omdahl wrote:

      Thank you. No, I did not, but I have original and like the album. Hoping for more review samples from ECM in the near future.

  • 2024-03-13 06:36:31 PM

    Giorgiovinyl wrote:

    I really like your ECM reviews. You did not write about Old Dreams New Dreams what is your opinion of this reissue?