I’ve often talked on this blog about my “desert island list” and the records I would take with me on this most solitary experience and I know all of my readers are wondering if there is one single record that stands out amongst them all. So: father, grandma, grandpa…your wait is over. In this article I will be finally taking a look at my absolute favorite record.
There are many musical treasures I’ve encountered in my life and all of them absolutely priceless and unquestionable colossal constructions of sound but there is one single record that, if I had to chose, I would take with me to the afterlife and beyond. That record is Jan Garbarek’s In Praise of Dreams. Now, that is not to say that this is the greatest musical composition of all time because I would never have the audacity to claim that I could possibly be a judge of such things and in fact, I don’t believe such a thing even exists. While I do make a very clear distinction between good music and bad music I believe that once a work of quality has been produced and can be recognized as a masterpiece it is just a matter of personal preference.
We all have certain records that resonate with the very core of our character from start to finish and this particular recording could not have been more perfect for me if I would have had the talent to compose it myself. I remember reading Wilkie Collin’s Moonstone where the character Betteredge would constantly turn to support and guidance from the book Robinson Crusoe in times of distress, much like others turn to the Bible or their respective book of religious wisdom. In Moonstone Bettredge holds this picaresque novel in the highest regard and claims that it possesses all of the world’s wisdom as well as the meaning of life if one can just bring himself to read between the lines. In the novel this was the source of much humor but in reality it is a good example of the highest goal that a work of art can achieve and that is resonating with someone on such a basic level that it evokes loyalty and becomes more than a source of entertainment or culture: it becomes a constant companion, a friend that one can turn to with matters of the heart that no one else can understand. I’m overwhelmed with pride and honor at the mere thought of all the people who turn to my articles on Dog Door seeking wisdom and comfort among dick jokes and pop culture references, but I digress.
Indeed, there are records I predominantly play when I feel happy (Jimi Hendrix) and some I turn to when I’m sad (Johnny Cash – “don’t worry son it will all be ok”), full of energy (Tom Waits, Marc Ribot), or reflective (Alexi Murdoch) and there is also music I will probably be playing if I’m ever struck with Alzheimer’s dementia (Avril Lavigne). But this particular record, meaning In Praise of Dreams is one that I play regardless of my state of mind, for it is so closely interwoven with who I am that it just seems to fit in, no matter the situation. But enough about why it’s my all-time favorite and let’s move on to the details.
In Praise of Dreams was released in 2004 (incidentally a very prominent year in my life for various reasons) by Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records who are well-known for putting out some of the best music of the past century. Jan Garbarek is one of the most celebrated saxophone players in the world and, with a discography of dozens of records, he has done everything imaginable as far as music is concerned. His records vary in style and influence, in dynamic but also sometimes in quality, which is understandable in such long and productive career. I don’t know if most will agree that In Praise of Dreams is one of his better outings but it has definitely enchanted me. On it, Garbarek strays a bit from his usual routine and ads synthesizers and beats (which, at times, become predominant) to what I consider to be a very good result. But I think the key element that makes this record so incredibly great is the most fortunate pairing of Garbareks’s saxophone with Kim Kashkashian’s viola. Whoever had the inspiration of adding the immensely talented Kashkashian to this record is a musical genius as their partnership brings in my opinion one of the most original sounds of the modern Jazz scene. The ways in which the viola enriches this record are too many to count (much like Nils Peter Molvaer’s trumpet on Robyn Schulkowsky’s Hastening Westward).
The record starts with As Seen From Above a very positive, uplifting, feel-good tune that is for this record what a nice sunny morning is for a day. What stands out most on the track is surprisingly not the smart and energetic sax playing but the brilliant combination of a looped beat with some awesome drums by Manu Katche, who provides most of the percussions on the record. The next track is the highlight of the album and also the song that gives it its title, one of the greatest most fresh-sounding Jazz compositions I’ve ever come across: In Praise of Dreams.
Here, the listener gets introduced for the first time to the viola which will be a close companion to Jan’s saxophone throughout the rest of the record and also the key to the album’s greatness. As I’ve mentioned before, the unlikely partnership between these instruments and the virtuosos who play them produces a sound so complex and sublimely enchanting that so far, to my experience, it stands alone in the Jazz scene. The sound of the looped electronic drum does nothing to cheapen the track and in fact only helps he two main instruments stand out more against the pleasant and low-key background of the synthesizer, providing the listener with a shot of vitality that is the mark of this clever and profound album.
The journey continues with One Goes There Alone a meditative and melancholy (but never sad) song and a wonderful display of Kashkashian’s playing followed by the mysterious Knot of Place and Time which, I think, is one of the best songs on the already stellar record. If you are an imaginative person – say…a writer – you can easily envision the planets and the stars circling around in a giant celestial ballroom dance on the soothing sound of brass and strings. In fact, the entire album has a larger-than-life quality to its musicality and often makes me think of things much greater than I. If that is on purpose or not I could not say with certainty but, as you will see further on, the titles of the songs seem to suggest the composer himself might have been in a reflective state concerning the larger issues of existence.
The next stop is If You Go Far Enough, a pleasant enough short (41 seconds) solo sax tune which plays into ECM’s not always fortunate habit of sticking short interludes between powerful songs whether the situation calls for it or not. In this case the track doesn’t stand out but it doesn’t hurt either and it seems like a proper introduction for Scene From Afar a song that provides a change of pace and an almost theatrical playfulness. Cloud of Unknowing is next and keeps up the more playful tone but in a low-key, meditative state again with perfect symbiosis between saxophone and viola. Without A Visible Sign and Iceburn very similar as far as sound is concerned continue with the narrative thread that unites the last four songs and leads the listener to Conversations With A Stone which is basically the swan song of the record. The low-tempo, reflective track does not really stand out among the others but it does act like a sort of overview of the entire album and it builds a conventionally musical tune that will remain with the listener for a long time after the music has stopped. The song that closes the album is A Tale Begun, which is essentially just In Praise of Dreams stripped of everything but the keyboard background and presented as a new track which is also emblematic for ECM (see NPM’s Khmer ) but is, in this case, a bit boring and unnecessary and really the only weak track on the record.
Overall, it is like I said: every man has a work of art that resonates with every fiber of his or her being. To the music industry, In Praise of Dreams is a wonderfully crafted European Jazz record with the focus on a very inspired collaboration of instruments and with more musicality if less complexity than others of Jan Garbarek’s works. To me though, it is the greatest record of all time, the answer to life, the universe and everything. Either way, it comes highly recommended.