Sometime between the solo releases of La Scala and The Melody at Night, with You, pianist Keith Jarrett came down with chronic fatigue syndrome. While La Scala marked the end of a period in Jarrett’s career where he would give improvisational concerts with no breaks in the program, The Melody at Night, with You marked his return to recording by way of a quiet album of old jazz standards recorded in his own home. What happened between these two releases has apparently sat in a box for 20 years, until now.
The four-disc box set A Multitude of Angels is the new turning point in Jarrett’s career where he pushed himself too hard. His temporary illness is our gain. If marathon performances like The Köln Concert, La Scala, or Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne were your gold standard for inspiration, you’ll be glad to know that this box piles on nearly five extra hours of it. The CD tracks are not divvied up for a vinyl format, either. With the exceptions of encores and covers of “Danny Boy” and “Over the Rainbow”, these untitled improvisations range from 30 minutes to 43 minutes in length. The shortest CD is 70-plus minutes. Once you press play, you really need to hang in there.
All four concerts come from a seven-day span in Italy. The Modena show was on the evening of October 23, 1996. The Genoa show was on the night of October 30, 1996. In between are shows recorded in Ferrara and Turin. DAT machines were a trusty alternative to soundboard recordings, and Jarrett relied on a particular model to capture all four shows. The clarity is remarkable. You can hear audience coughs (something that agitates the pianist a great deal) and Jarrett’s in-the-moment moans and groans (something that agitates his detractors even more).
Knowing that the pianist was on the verge of a major illness, I incorrectly assumed that the music of A Multitude of Angels would be turbulent. Remember that rapid-fire second movement of the La Scala program? The 12-tone roars of Radiance? The bulk of this box set is not made up of such stuff. A Multitude of Angels is built from Jarrett’s Köln-era lyricism where Guaraldian melodies are plucked from thin air and highly-syncopated left hand grooves are summoned almost way too easily. The most dissonant things he attempts here are the second half of the “Torino” show and the first half of the “Genoa” show — but even then, he can’t help but eventually tame the jumping bean melodies and off-kilter harmonies before wrapping up the pieces.
Instead, experimentation is saved mostly for the format itself. As mentioned earlier, these shows represent the last gasp of Jarrett playing long shows uninterrupted. Subsequent recordings like Radiance , Rio, and The Carnegie Hall Concert had intermissions to help Jarrett pace himself. On A Multitude of Angels, the pianist is just laying it all out in the open one giant chunk at a time. And if it takes more than half an hour to do so, then so be it.
A Multitude of Angels tells the music world what Keith Jarrett fans already knew — that the man could be an endless fountain of music, a one-man jam-band that only needed 88 keys to balance the Law of Fate with the Law of Accident (according to his liner notes). Since that’s the case, this box will not alter anyone’s perception of Jarrett or change his reputation overall. But there’s something to be said for galvanizing something that’s already pretty special, to begin with, and that being Keith Jarrett’s improvisational concerts.