[7 June 2005]
Radiance is the most recent of Keith Jarrett’s solo piano recitals to make it to disc. In many respects it is unique in this venerable line of concert recordings, and it establishes again that Mr. Jarrett is one of the few truly gigantic talents in modern jazz.
Keith Jarrett stands almost alone in jazz as a performer who has earned both enormous popularity and enormous respect as a jazz “purist”. His popularity derives largely from what may be the most audacious act of his career—choosing to give wholly improvised solo piano concerts. Mr. Jarrett claims that he approaches these concerts with no preparation, sitting down at his instrument with a blank mind and then simply letting the music flow out of him spontaneously. While all jazz musicians improvise, few take this Extreme Zen approach, and this high-wire musical mantra partly explains the spectacular popular response to Mr. Jarrett’s best-selling The Koln Concert.
The Koln Concert (also, like all of Mr. Jarrett’s work for the last 34 years, on ECM Records) is arguably one of the most important and influential jazz albums of all time—at least with listeners. While few musicians have followed Mr. Jarrett’s musical lead in completely improvised solo playing, music fans have found in Koln precisely the transcendence that its method suggests. Like almost all of the Jarrett solo recitals, Koln consists of just two pieces, one of 26 and one of 40 minutes, each of which sounds like an unfettered monologue from the soul of a great musician with no intervention or editing. The opening of Koln, particularly, is a heaping slab of melody, underpinned by slowly rocking gospel chords and then spun out in melodic variations that that have the quality of long, vocal lines. And while some will accuse Koln‘s sheer beauty of inspiring the entire movement (since disappeared) of “new age” music, the recording itself remains daring, earthy and boundlessly enjoyable.
The Koln Concert was a commercial bonanza for both ECM and Jarrett, allowing them both to follow their whims. In Jarrett’s case that meant (among other things) making a long series of similar solo piano concert recordings. These recordings, however, were not a cheap stunt to recapture the Koln experience or popularity. If anything, Jarrett made his solo recitals more and more extreme, avoiding the pure lyricism of Koln for long stretches of rumblings, choir-like block chords and angular tinkles. The ten-LP Sun Bear Concerts essentially dared the public to follow his career. That career would diverge into several challenging strands: hardcore classical performance, third-stream jazz-classical hybrid, improvised organ music, and standards for jazz trio that splintered the tradition. Keith Jarrett became a beloved but difficult musician—the thinking man’s George Winston on the one hand, and an ascetic taskmaster on the other hand who commonly berated audiences for coughing too much his concerts.
Then, in the late 90s, Mr. Jarrett fell ill and announced that he would discontinue his disciplined solo concerts. In 1999, during the depth of his illness, he issued a lovely solo piano recording of standards and folk songs (made at home as a gift for his wife), The Melody at Night With You, but it was a whole different bag of cats—impressionistic work that recalled the later Bill Evans and had little to do with the heaping weight of his half-hour pieces of Zen giganticism. Keith Jarrett, it seemed, was human. And his talent, even in relatively modest form, was still beguiling.
This is the history that leads to Radiance, and it helps to define the brilliance of the new record. Mr. Jarrett recovered sufficiently from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to return to solo playing. For the two concerts represent on this record (in Osaka and Tokyo in October 2002), Mr. Jarrett decided to continue approaching his solo concerts with an absence of preconceived musical content, but also to break the music into smaller, discrete chunks. On the evidence of Radiance, this decision was dead-on. The 13 chunks that make up the entirety of the Osaka concert are rigorous and logical, the longest being under 14 minutes and several being the length of pop songs. Mr. Jarrett sounds both more classical and more avant-garde than ever, while imbuing each of those qualities with a see-through clarity and transparency. The opening of “Osaka”, for instance, contains almost no typical “jazz piano”—a right-hand melody and left-hand chords. Rather, this piece is almost entirely contrapuntal, with the two hands either charting different but complementary paths or working together in a swirling style that suggests Cecil Taylor in pastels rather than charcoal.
Mr. Jarrett imposes discipline on each piece of these concerts, forcing himself to close each section definitively. Perhaps as a result, the energy and melodic or harmonic thrust of each piece seems to leak into the next, creating a definite connection between the sections. Thus, while “Osaka 2” starts in great contrast to its predecessor—high rather than low, lyrical rather than angular—the contrapuntal movement and classical gloss remains. While the marvel of Mr. Jarrett’s older solo recordings was the long (sometimes even glacial) journey each piece would take, Radiance gives us a different but equally fascinating pleasure—of hearing Mr. Jarrett build a logical statement out of distinct but still cohesive musical ideas.
This is one of the best Jarrett solo recordings partly because the pianist avoids lapsing into some of his favorite old tricks. On those 40-minute solos, any time inspiration was lacking Mr. Jarrett could move into one of his patented left-hand gospel grooves and play an ecstatic right-hand solo. That rarely happens here. The ostinato pattern on “Osaka 2” and “Osaka 12,” for example, don’t go on too long and they seem logical responses to the music that preceded them. Both are followed by stately ballad creations that are heart-rippingly wonderful. “Osaka 3” is wistful without being delicate, and Mr. Jarrett achieves a few harmonic shifts that should not be possible in a spontaneous improvisation. “Osaka 13”, the finale to the concert, is even better. So logical and lyrical that it calls for lyrics, it is five minutes of bliss.
In the midst of it all, Keith Jarrett also cuts loose like he rarely has in a solo concert. “Osaka 4” is a knotty minute-and-a-half, while “Osaka 11” is a syncopated set of two-handed unison runs that could almost be Oscar Peterson on amphetamines. “Tokyo 2” is a high-drama exercise in extremes, with Jarrett dropping low octaves beneath notes in the piano’s undampened register. “Tokyo 4”, the album’s longest track, is a sustained experiment in which Mr. Jarrett’s left hand plays a continual vibrating pattern that comes out of Steve Reich as much as it comes out of Jelly Roll or McCoy. Eventually it develops into one of Mr. Jarrett’s familiar grooves, but this one is menacing rather than joyous, allowing his right hand to play a game of melodic pursuit and dodge. It brings the house down.
Like Mr. Jarrett’s very first ECM recording, the studio solo album Facing You, Radiance uses relatively short statements to make a single impression. To create something unified over the course of two hours of music is the kind of achievement we usually look for in a Mahler or Stravinsky. And, as glorious as those composers were, could they—with not a thing in their heads—sit down at the piano and create three minutes of pure pleasure like “Tokyo 3”?
Keith Jarrett can. The thirty year-old Koln Concert still shines, and his Standards Trio continues to play and record brilliantly, but there is nothing on this earth quite like Mr. Jarrett, alone, with a piano. Radiance it is.