You’d think Keith Jarrett had something to prove.
Each release since a bout with chronic fatigue syndrome sidelined him for three years in the late ’90s has been a greater revelation and more powerful statement than the last. His first steps back were tentative, a clutch of standards played solo at home that saw release as The Melody At Night, With You in 1999. Next came a reunion with his Standards Trio – Jack DeJohnette on drums and Gary Peacock on bass — on the two-disc set Whisper Not. Here, Jarrett and his cohorts ripped through an energetic set of standards that played like a shout from the mountaintop: “I’m back!”
Now comes Inside Out, another outing from the Standards Trio with music that is anything but standard. The group improvises its way through a long, challenging set of bluesy frameworks that find the three soloing and playing off each other with spirit and telepathic interplay that is borne of years playing with together and in improvised settings.
The disc originated with a simple goal: On a tour of Europe, Jarrett proposed shifting to improvisational themes if “we came upon a hall or situation where the tunes didn’t come alive at the sound check.” It didn’t take long for this to happen, and the result was a two-night stand in London during which Inside Out was recorded. The title comes from Jarrett’s stated goal to “turn things inside out to see what they’re made of”. This is clearly an artist wrestling with what it means to do what he does, someone searching for the next thing after decades of performance and recording.
And it’s not just with the music that Jarrett gets feisty. Responding to the recent attempt to define jazz with a certain PBS documentary that left out improvisational music for the most part, Jarrett names names: “People who don’t ‘understand’ free playing (like Wynton Marsalis, Ken Burns, etc.) are not free to see it as an amazingly important part of the true jazz history. Where’s the form? Don’t ask. Don’t think. Don’t anticipate. Just participate”, he writes in the liner notes.
Participate he does. With DeJohnette pushing things along with his typically propulsive drumming and Peacock offering harmonic counterpoints on bass, Jarrett reels off long, fluid rivers of notes, peering into every nook and cranny of each song. Each track plays like an extended game of playful one-upmanship, each player issuing a challenge that is met and then exceeded by the next. When these guys improvise, they really improvise. Three tracks come in at or near 20 minutes in length. These are long, languorous tunes that stretch and spread out across the aural plane, allowing each of the three — in turn and at times in tandem — to explore far and wide within the structure of each song.
The disc is solid top to bottom, but the group is at its best on the 20-minute title track, the song where Jarrett is best able to stretch out with a sneakily subtle melody rolled out over DeJohnette’s martial beat. Don’t miss the opening “From the Body”, however, which is surprisingly engaging and energetic given its 22-minute length.
Though the trio is known for standards, it should come as no surprise that they have such improvisational chops within them. Peacock worked with such free jazz luminaries as Albert Ayler and Paul Bley, while much DeJohnette’s career, from work with John Coltrane and Roscoe Mitchell to more current work with British horn player John Surman, has been in the free realm.
Jarrett, of course, is a master of improvisational music. His solo piano concerts are excursions in improvisation (best documented on the fantastic The Koln Concert disc), and his work with Paul Motian, Charlie Haden and Dewey Redman has long been of a free nature.
What is notable about the tunes is the heavy blues influence within. These tunes swing more than most improvised songs do, but they also resonant deeply with blues themes and overtones. “We somehow couldn’t avoid blues language in London, even in the context of free playing; the blues are so pervasive and true”, Jarrett writes. “Sometimes we live the blues even when we’re free of the blues”.
The group does revert to standards on the disc. “When I Fall in Love”, a track recorded three times now by the trio (most recently on Whisper Not), closes the disc, and a second, unnamed standard is excised by a judicious fade because, Jarrett says, “we eventually went into an actual song and didn’t play a good enough version of it”.
But the focus is clearly on spontaneous creativity, and Jarrett is obviously pleased with the results. He promises more improvisational releases from the trio, and warns they will be even more radical than this. Bring it on.