Long before he became the standard-bearer for the "ECM sound," churning out discs with a mildly medieval or Scandinavian flavor spiced with enough new age fluff to guarantee sales, Jan Garbarek produced a string of superb albums, culminating in Witchi-Tai-To, his masterpiece. Intriguingly, with the exception of Palle Danielsson's "Kukka," all of the pieces here are cover versions, largely culled from the then burgeoning Jazz Composers Orchestra catalog or related musicians. It opens with Carla Bley's "A.I.R.," an incredibly infectious melody heard on her Escalator Over the Hill. Garbarek's soprano slithers sensuously around the theme, searching for and finding all manner of variations, while Stenson, a chameleon-like pianist who shows aspects of Jarrett, Tyner, and Alice Coltrane, makes all the right choices in support. Charlie Haden used the Carlos Puebla composition "Hasta Siempre" as a cornerstone for his Liberation Music Orchestra, and Garbarek rips into it with total romantic gusto; his tenor playing has never sounded more robust, muscular, or inspired. The title track by Jim Pepper is given a short but lovely reading, Garbarek withholding its gorgeous theme until the end of the piece, leaving the listener dying to hear more. Which is exactly what Don Cherry did on his Relativity Suite, where his supremely beautiful song "Desireless" lasted barely a minute. Here, it's stretched out over the 20-minute mark, Garbarek summoning the spirit of John Coltrane and offering a stunning amount of indefatigable creativity. He might never have reached similar heights since, but Witchi-Tai-To, along with Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds, is one of the two finest jazz albums that ECM ever released, and simply one of the very top jazz albums of the '70s.
AllMusic Review by Brian Olewnick