In 1985, Keith Jarrett had a breakdown of sorts. His forays into classical music were taking him away from jazz, and the strain caused by this clash between his schedule and his desires left him in shock, withdrawn from music. He retreated to his home studio and began recording songs using a variety of instruments. The songs aren't really jazz, and he eschews, for the most part, the piano. He emerged from this crisis with Spirits, a double album of this self-made folk music, and a new schedule that allowed for both classical and jazz work.
In the past few years, Jarrett has again faced an ailment that derailed his career. For the last three years of the '90s, the pianist dealt with a chronic-fatigue syndrome type illness that left him unable to play. But where in 1985 he battled back by tackling something new, this time he turned to the past in his quest for an entry point back into music.
The result, The Melody at Night with You, was a home-recorded, solo piano album that found Jarrett taking quiet, deliberate runs through a set of standards. Though Jarrett is one of the best improvisers in jazz, on the piano or otherwise, The Melody at Night allowed him to focus on that melody, regaining his touch with familiar tunes.
Jarrett's latest disc, a double set recorded live in Paris last year with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, with whom he makes up the Standards Trio, is his first real return since his illness. Over the course of 14 songs and nearly two hours, Jarrett shows that he has fully regained his chops, but has done so with the renewed focus on melody and structure first hinted at on The Melody at Night.
It's a fitting return for Jarrett. He joined Peacock and DeJohnette in 1985 for a show that would become the Standards Live LP the same month he completed Spirits. Musical standards and the trio provide obvious sanctuary for this musician.
At this point, with more than a dozen discs to its name, many of those live, one may wonder what the need is for yet another Standards Trio disc. For starters, this two-disc set sounds as good as any the combo has put on tape, and Jarrett certainly proves himself a restored master.
But it is the way he plays that makes this worth owning. He is still all over the keyboard, as on the fluid runs that punctuate Dizzy Gillespie's "Groovin' High", but, on the ballads particularly, Jarrett's playing seems very deliberate. He mines every nuance and tone from each note, massaging the melody as he explores nooks and crannies for feeling and context.
As a point of comparison, listen to "When I Fall in Love", the Young/Heyman ballad (popularized by Bill Evans) that closes second disc of this set. It's the only song on the program that has been recorded previously by the trio, and the prior take can be found on the disc Live at the Blue Note, Saturday, June 4th, 1994, First Set. (It's part of a six-disc box that captures all six sets the trio played that weekend). The performance, which closes that 1994 set, is solid, a silky smooth interpretation of a sweet ballad. Jarrett certainly doesn't sound rushed, and the trio seems to fully explore the tune as it plays.
But listen to the song on Whisper Not. Same players, same song, yet the performance is more searching, more focused. The trio, Jarrett in particular, plays with the melody like a kid with a puzzle, trying every possible combination as it works its way through the song. Peacock and DeJohnette each dig deep to find the best parts of the rhythm, while Jarrett's fingers fly across his keyboard to wring every last bit of music from the melody. It's a virtuoso performance that does the seemingly impossible, bringing a fresh perspective to an oft-played chestnut.
The trio doesn't play it quiet and deliberate for the whole set, cutting loose on solid bop material like Bud Powell's "Bouncin with Bud" and Clifford Brown's "Sandu". Jarrett's playing takes on a lyrical quality here, while DeJohnette and Peacock channel obvious pleasure through their instruments.
But it's on the slower material that the trio shines. Jarrett need not prove anything at this stage of his career, but if such a goal was at the back of his mind, a desire to show that he was back on top of his game, mission accomplished. Whisper Not is a big, bold shout: Keith Jarrett is back.