SEATTLE — Pianist Keith Jarrett is buzzed about his excellent new solo album, “Rio,” released last week by ECM.
Jarrett wrote the book on open-ended, spontaneous solo improvisation, starting with his 1971 album, “Facing You.” He hit the jackpot in Rio de Janeiro in April, keying in to something utterly transparent and beyond himself.
The 66-year-old Pennsylvanian brings the same sense of serendipidity and surprise to his trio with Gary Peacock (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Formed in 1983 at the suggestion of ECM producer Manfred Eicher, the trio focuses mostly on “standards” — tunes from the Great American Songbook — done in a swinging, romantic style. The players approach the material not as a sacred canon so much as a familiar road from which they can stray into spontaneous interplay.
Often, said the pianist, even the lyrics of those old tunes affect how he plays them.
“I am a romantic, I admit it,” he said. “I mean, I don’t care if I don’t know the words, but if I do, I don’t play the song the way I would otherwise.”
Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette have developed a near-telepathic level of communication that sometimes even takes them by surprise.
“Sometimes it makes me smile,” he said. “If we play the last note of something, and we’re in a rubato section and I might be playing a little coda, how Gary knows exactly where that chord is going to come is beyond me. More often than not, we end at exactly the same time.”
Of DeJohnette, Jarrett said, “Most drummers just play the drums. And they’ll say, ‘I don’t like playing that hall because of blah blah blah.’ But you have to be able to change dynamics, the whole spectrum. You might have to shift radically. We played a hall in Vienna that never had jazz before — for good reason, it was so (acoustically) live. Jack just never picked his sticks up because there wasn’t any way that would work. And we were swinging. He just did everything with brushes.”
Before Peacock played with Jarrett, the bassist lived in Seattle, teaching at Cornish College. Jarrett prizes Peacock for his flexibility and openness.
“He enjoys equally whatever it is that’s going on,” said Jarrett. “He has no preferences. He’ll just put himself wherever it is, wherever the music is. It’s not a matter of playing certain notes, it’s that I can always tell that his — let’s say enthusiasm — for the music doesn’t depend on what we’re playing. Vamps? Great. He’ll do that forever. If we’re doing ballads, he’ll do that forever. That’s the reason the trio has been together this long. Nobody has any complaints about anything! It’s like a marriage that works.”
The metaphor was apt. Jarrett’s 2009 solo album, “Testament,” was a dark and tortured excursion that reflected the breakup of his actual marriage. During that difficult period, Jarrett also got into a notorious tiff with the producers of the Umbria Jazz Festival over errant cameras (on YouTube, search “Keith Jarrett” and “Umbria”), which got him banned from the festival. Jarrett was roundly criticized for his behavior, but the pianist was unrepentant. Bootleg recordists irk him.
“I didn’t feel that was a slip-up at all,” he said. “I felt like it had to happen somewhere, because I’ve been in so many situations like this. I stopped playing (outdoor concerts) because it was impossible to control.”
Since all that, the pianist has met someone new and his outlook appears to have brightened considerably.
During his Rio concert, he depended on her for moral support. “That person in my life was more than half way around the world,” he said, “and I was in touch with her all the time. There was a feeling of hope in my life. There was no confirmation and no guarantee, but it was there.”