Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, colloquially known in jazz circles merely as “the standards trio”, have played together for over 20 years, and have made a career of reinterpreting the standards that represent the jazz world’s bedrock, as well as by redefining the boundaries that exist between composition and improvisation (a recurring theme throughout ECM’s entire roster). ECM has long stood as one of the most adventurous labels in the worlds of jazz and “new” music, and their embrace of the Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette trio’s slyly subversive approach to the world of jazz standards make them a perfect fit.
The Out-of-Towners was recorded on July 28th of 2001 at Munich’s Nationaltheater München (State Opera House). The proverbial “out-of-towners”, Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette have provided the Munich-based ECM with a startlingly adventurous tour through a handful of cherry-picked—and radically reimagined—favorites from the Great American Songbook. There’s a lot of ground covered in this single show, as the trio’s iconoclastic approach to melody helps remind modern audiences why the underrated art of pop songcraft is so very essential to any understanding of modern music.
As long as pop songwriting has existed in contrast to traditional composition, the two crafts have regarded each other warily across the gaping chasm of a seemingly intractable opposition. Jarrett has spoken to this dichotomy before (this excerpt is courtesy of the artist’s profile on ECM’s website):
Standards are underestimated because I don’t think people understand how hard it is to write melody. Most of the composers I’ve recorded on the Standards albums are not considered ‘serious’ but yet they occupy a space that no one in serious composition could possibly occupy; the ability of the serious composers would stop as soon as they were confronted with that little melody form.
For the entirety of the 20th century, the so-called “avant garde” defined itself through an antipathy towards traditional melodic structures. Even jazz, much of whose technical history has revolved around the evolution of the soloist’s melodic vocabulary in contrast to the constraints of established scalar orthodoxy, has sought out the outer fringes of comprehendible sound in an attempt to “free” musicians from the tyranny of tradition. There’s only so much abstraction that any musical form can handle before, in the immortal words of William Butler Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. In other words, there reaches a point where everything begins to sound like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and unless you are a humorless graduate student in compositional theory, that’s not anything that anybody wants.
Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette are using a deceptively traditional musical vocabulary to make a startlingly incendiary statement. Jarrett’s piano playing is able and muscular, and listening to this disc alone I can easily understand on what basis he was awarded Best Pianist in the 2004 Down Beat Critics Poll. His melodic instinct is the unerring compass that guides the trio through their explorations. DeJohnette, the drummer, approaches his instrument with a restraint uncharacteristic among modern jazz percussionists. He’s no empty formalist; he is a willing and eager accomplice for Jarrett’s sprightly meandering. If there is one compaint I have with the disc, it is that Peacocks’ double-bass seems to be way down in the mix, and while the piano and drums are both recreated in all their crisp and pristine texture, the bass is often muffled, hidden beneath the mix.
Despite this serious error, the music on this disc still represents a wonderful treat for any jazz lover. Traditional arrangement of familiar chestnuts such as Cole Porter’s “I Love You” and Dawes and Sigman’s “It’s All In The Game” are thrown out the window. Jarrett’s solo interpretation of the latter provides the disc’s undeniable highlight, and showcases perhaps the best distillation of the trio’s ethos. The conventional—and instantly familiar—melody line is introduced and repeated throughout the song, slowly deconstructed and gradually sublimated as subtle variations are introduced and amplified. Eventually the initial melody reasserts itself, and the game begins again. This approach is nowhere as layered as on Jarrett’s singular contribution to the album, the mischievous hard-bop workout of the title track. Jarrett is no slouch in terms of melodic composition himself, as this track’s signature loping piano line (which is, ironically, slightly reminiscent of Dion and the Belmonts classic “The Wanderer”) creates an irresistible context for some of the trio’s very best playing (DeJohnette especially reveals himself here).
Jarrett has always maintained that “music wasn’t about material, it was about what you bring to the material”. This attitude may seem apostasy to most modern formalists, but Jarrett’s adherence to the rudiments of pop songwriting has allowed him to offer a deft rebuttal to anyone who maintains that melody is merely affectation. The Out-of-Towners is proof that the tension between tradition and revolution is not a battle that needs to be won, but the driving engine at the heart of the very best modern music.