Keith Jarrett: Hymns/Spheres

Cha Keith Jarrett

In 1976, jazz was in the midst of a strange period: both intensely creative and weirdly uncomfortable. Fusion was raging, but lofts were generating daring music; Chuck Mangione was steering jazz into feel-good smoothness, yet Keith Jarrett was generating almost the same degree of popular attention with acoustic jazz that stretched all kinds of limits.

If we are going to remember a single career from this period, Jarrett’s may be the most emblematic and vital. He was engaging in intense exploration: as a free-form solo pianist, in conversation with two strikingly different quartets, as a composer of extended works, as a classical composer and musician, and as a natural experimenter with unusual instruments — including the baroque organ. This work could be brilliant or lugubrious, from project to project, and not a few critics accused Jarrett of pretentious dabbling or egotism. 1978’s ten-LP Sun Bear Concerts package — almost 400 minutes of completely spontaneous solo piano — said it all to many who derided Jarrett’s ambition.

But this 1976 encounter with the Karl Joseph Riepp baroque “Trinity Organ” at the Benedictine Abbey in Ottobereuren, Germany, may have taken the cake. Hymns/Spheres packaged a nine-part improvised suite between two grand hymns, featuring the jazz pianist experimenting with sounds and composition ideas on a new instrument. The project is, by any measure, overblown and unlikely.

It is also a triumph of a sort, if one that few jazz fans will want to pop on the ols stereo system all that often.

The core of this recording is “Spheres”, a nine-part set of related improvisations that finds Jarrett testing the sonic limits of the instrument, generating original sounds that shimmer and pulse and mutate even if they can never swing. It’s hard to catalog or explain what Jarrett is doing here, part by part, because listening to “Spheres” is a very complete, whole experience. At times it sounds like contemporary classic music for organ. It moves in and out of dissonances, avoiding too much pulse except what is developed, quite naturally, from the reverberating overtones of the organ itself. But the music is also radical in how Jarrett manipulates the sound of the instrument to achieve originality.

These sonic experiments seem to have no precedent that I know of in classical organ music and certainly not in the jazz approach to the instrument. Jarrett fiddles with the stops in such a way that the organ cries and quivers in wholly remarkable and original ways. The effects achieved sometimes seem spacey or ghostly, sometimes electronic, sometimes otherworldly or psychedelic. My own vocabulary for this kind of thing is limited. It’s cool. It’s astonishing.

In the first couple of parts of the suite, for example, the long held tones (for which organs are rightly celebrated) develop throbbing vibrato that seem to move in and out of phase with the shiver of other held notes, such that the chords themselves seem to present as clattering waves of rhythm. In other places, Jarrett moves the stops in such a way that certain notes gliss downward, as if the organ keyboard could somehow bend a note blue like Billie Holiday. These effects are astonishing and musical, not mere party tricks. Jarrett makes each sonic move seem like part of a unique, Jarrett vocabulary.You can’t help wondering how much time he spent with this instrument to engineer these remarkable moments.

As with so much of Jarrett’s solo keyboard music, the great moments (say, the 5th movement of the suite, which moves quickly across a range of melodic ideas without much repetition but also in a way that seems logical, linear, and satisfying) are breathtaking. Though the vocabulary of this music has little in common with his solo piano music (so, for example, there are no rocking gospel moments in which Jarrett locks into a joyful groove), it seems completely whole with that spirit — the sense of exploration toward ecstasy.

But there are tedious moments as well. There’s little chance here for Jarrett to relieve the long, held tones with more rhythmic playing or with moments that default back to certain blues or gospel licks that will draw a listener closer to pleasure. In these moments, monotony can either develop a meditative intensity or just devolve into droning. In the eight-minute seventh movement, for example, texture seems to be the only ingredient. And while hearing that texture in context of the whole piece — and in the high fidelity that this first-ever complete CD issue of the whole recording offers — gives it meaning, it remains a bit of a chore.

The best parts, however, are as rich in genius as any Jarrett recording could be. The 8th movement hums with melodies that interlock in surprising and pleasing ways. But at the same time, Jarrett uses the different voices available on this organ to create an orchestral sound — as if he were bringing different human voices to bear on a completely improvised thrill ride. When you are listening to those moments of Hymns/Spheres you simply want to hug ECM chief Manfred Eicher for having the fortitude to finally reissue this double-disc set, even though it’s hard to imagine it making any money.

The “Spheres” suite is packaged between two traditional hymns. On these track, Jarrett seems to be playing the organ in its intended manner, and these are enjoyable moments as well as proof that the old jazz guy can actually get around on this rig in a more traditional way. But more importantly, these hymns make clear that the improvisations that sit at the center of the recording are, indeed, acts of daring individuality and innovation.

How, you end up wondering, did Jarrett coax such mind-blowing sounds from that old beast? Why didn’t anyone before him delve into the mysteries of sound that the instrument might inspire? Which means that Hymns/Spheres is as personal an expression as The Koln Concert or Belonging.

Is it indulgent? Sure. But we’re lucky to have this kind of indulgence from an artist as interesting as Keith Jarrett. Heard again, apart from all the egotism that seemed characteristic of Jarrett in 1976, Hymns/Spheres is daring and risky and fascinating. Not essential or even characteristic of Jarrett, except in showing that great artists tend to go beyond what’s easy.

RATING 6 / 10
Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers