The wine picks the record this time around. It had been a long time since I’d had a serious, slamming, old vine Zinfandel. Longer still was the last time I’d enjoyed Renwood Grandpère and, this being Portland and not LA, I had to order it from Liner & Elsen. I picked it up and rode home with the next “event” in my pack.
There are a handful of musicians who didn’t just influence my taste, they changed the way I perceived and listened to music altogether. Their pictures hang on my listening room wall: Jacqueline Du Pré, Miles Davis, Michael Hedges, but hanging above the Linn Sondek is Jan Garbarek. He’s been my favorite for a good long time.
Back in the day, I had a system to grow my record collection: buy one ECM Records artist, check the liner notes and buy records from all the other musicians in the band. Much like Johnny Marr led me to a lot of great groups, ECM’s players collaborated on a lot of great records, so my collection grew pretty fast. By my last count, I have almost 50 albums he plays on, either as primary artist or supporting; one is my favorite album of all time. The earliest was recorded in 1968, but most of them are on ECM Records. That made it a little hard to pick just one record this time, especially since I usually play Jan Garbarek albums in twos and threes. And why not?
I started off with my newest LP (reissue; I bought the CD when it first came out), I Took Up the Runes. It’s a go to whenever I turn somebody on to Garbarek. Molde Canticle has fascinated me since the first time I heard it, but His Eyes Were Suns still makes me shiver, and nothing beats the groove they lay down on the title track.
The first sip of the Grandpère brought back a lot of memories on its own. My time in LA was spent consuming copious quantities of dark, jammy Zinfandels—and the jammier the better. I still love them, but when I moved to a Pinot Noir producing state, my tastes started to change. It took me about a year and a half to “get” Oregon Pinot Noir’s delicate, elegant refinement. After that, a few of the Zins with lighter touches that I hadn’t enjoyed before came on my radar, two of them being Renwood’s Grandpère and Jack Rabbit Flat.
That same kind of learning and contemplation goes for music, too, of course. Those really “woolly” improvisational jazz pieces wake up your ears for possibility, somehow preparing you for melody later on. Afric Pepperbird is a good example of this. Garbarek’s first ECM record: after looking for it for years I walked into Beacon Sound and there it was (I found Karen Krog in the same place—great store). After two sides worth of challenging honking, “Beast of Komodo” is a very easy listen. Yes, I’m a fan.
There are lots of stories that go with those albums: Seeing him perform in New York with the Hilliard Ensemble and meeting him after the show (one of the few times I’ve been both star struck and speechless), the girlfriends who have said he sounds like either “duck torture” or “tickling whales” (guess which relationship lasted), and the numerous times that I’ve been asked, “Do you really find this relaxing? How?” But there's no other music like this. You never know what you'll get when the new album comes out.
Ah, but there was more to be had: As I dug into the collection for a desert island album, Photo with Blue Sky, White Clouds, Wires and a Red Roof. The record’s been played so many times it sounds like bacon in a frying pan, but the music’s still fresh after almost forty years. The wine was really opening up now, showing Amador County’s signature raisiny character. My palate has broadened enough over the years that I could pick up the subtler notes of tobacco, cigar box and cedar in the Grandpère. I’m sure I wouldn’t have picked that up before. But there was no shortage of jam, ripe black plums and cherry pie, and the wine’s dark, deep, yet clear garnet color held its own gorgeous allure, a hint of more tales to be told.
I wrapped up the session with the place I started, recalling the moment I first heard Jan Garbarek as clear as day. We were on a union break at the radio station, listening to the Eulipion Jazz Network unfold on a friend’s car stereo, when I asked what album was playing. My now departed friend told me it was a new one called Wayfarer. Discussing the music with the radio bunch back then, I called it a “more playful tune,” to incredulous response. “Hey, some kids like to play in the dark!” and we all laughed. Thirty years later, I think perhaps I still do.