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Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden

Last Dance

(ECM; US: 17 Jun 2014; UK: 17 Jun 2014)

Charlie Haden is the bass player who stays down low, who plays only the notes that are necessary. He is quiet, in a sense, even as he has a resonant sound, a singing, distinctive tone that speaks of the wood of the instrument, the flesh of his fingers on the strings, the intelligence of man who is thinking his way though the songs he plays and the humanity of a man who can hear the lyrics in his heart with every measure.

Keith Jarrett is the pianist who has both infuriated and thrilled us, but mostly he has astonished — he has remade our understanding of how the American songbook gets heard and re-played through a modern sensibility, and he has demolished the difference between “inside” and “outside” playing by simply playing (always, always) with his ear and his heart connected on a tight line of feeling.

And here they are again, the two of them, often partners before, playing mostly love songs — and all GREAT songs — and making them sound both classic and new, both simple and profound, simultaneously dangerous and comforting and revelatory.

The title Last Dance suggests the song that is played at evening’s collapse, before you head home, the final chance for magic. It also implies that Jarrett and Haden see themselves at the tail end of their collaboration. But I prefer to imagine these two great artists giving us that quicksilver chance for a song that will bring us together with someone we love or offers us that future. I see the moon out. I want to hear “My Ship” or “My Old Flame” at the moment that my eyes find hers. And these are the intriguing, beautiful versions that might get her to look back at me with interest.

Listen to the under-appreciated “It Might As Well Be Spring” from the movie State Fair, a Rogers and Hammerstein tune that blends optimism and tenderness in a special way. Jarrett has never been a more remarkable melodic inventor than here, keeping the statement of the theme simple so that his improvisations can take the basic elements of the song and remix them, invert them, reshuffle them, and refract them. You follow him down the long path of his five-minute solo with the comfort that every turn, every twist will reveal the song’s true heart. Haden follows, equally true to the blueprint — nabbing the original line of the bridge but, inconceivably, making it more beautiful.

There’s some bop here too, some winding and charging stuff to get the blood flowing in a different way. Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels” scoots forward deliciously, Haden giving his walking bass line a syncopated pop that makes a drummer unnecessary. Jarrett plays across the tricky chord changes with a rippling assurance. Monk’s “Round Midnight” is given a more daring ride, with the well-known theme being left to the end. The beginning of this version is purely improvised, with the theme and the song just hinted at in sly allusions. Jarrett’s take on the song is so original that you might not realize the source right away. It sneaks up on you — it tiptoes up from behind and gives pleasure through disguise.

The bulk of the music on Last Dance lives in the ballad space of the opener “My Old Flame”—an easygoing stroll where all of the musicians’ thinking can be heard in their playing. You feel as though each choice he makes about the melody and then his thrilling variations from it is not rote, not a set of licks he leans back on. Haden plays with the same deliberate intelligence — making the choices that do not always surprise your ear but the ones that fit the ongoing dialogue.

Stately is the duo’s version of “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, a wondrous Cole Porter song from 1944. Jarrett’s left hand and Haden’s simple note choices on bass move in steady steps as the melody reveals itself in the right hand. There’s no “solo” here — just the song played twice, each note an arrow straight at your center. Of course, they follow that song with Gordon Jenkins’s implacably sad standard “Goodbye”, the old closing theme for Benny Goodman. Does that mean that this duo is saying “goodbye” to us, the listeners?

I prefer not to think so. Last Dance has got to be a theme of this set of tender and dancing songs, not a hidden message. Why? Because this partnership is too alive, too vital to be fading away or cut off. “Last dance” is just fine for tonight, but we’ll be back for another set another night. Keep playing, Keith and Charlie.


Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.

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