Keith Jarrett: Setting Standards

Keith Jarrett
Setting Standards: New York Sessions

Keith Jarrett straddles a line in jazz that few musicians even dare to cross. He is both an utterly essential traditionalist and an iconoclast. At the outer edge, Jarrett has roots in the avant-garde, playing abstract expressionist keyboards with Miles Davis and playing wholly unpremeditated solo piano concerts on his own. On the inside, Jarrett has been staunchly loyal to acoustic jazz as well as both a composer and performer of carefully notated classical music.

As Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself. / (I am large — I contain multitudes.)” That’s Keith Jarrett in a transcendentalist nutshell.

In 1983, Jarrett was at the tail end of a remarkable run of bold discovery. He had helmed two brilliant quartets (one European featuring Jan Garbarek, one American featuring Dewey Redman), and he had sold an unprecedented number of solo piano records that expanded a generation’s notion of what jazz could be. The Koln Concert alone lifted more 1970s college dorm parties into the ether than all of the marijuana east of the Mississippi.

But this was also a point at which Jarrett had reached a creative crossroads. He had tilled so much virgin soil that his crop seemed weirdly spent. Was Jarrett’s music great or was it just itself? Without significant context, Jarrett’s music had become a prisoner of its own aesthetic.

As a result, the appearance of an album from Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums) that assayed only jazz standards was a shock and a revelation. Standards, Volume 1 presented a program of well-known tunes, tunes with actual lyrics that had been played by a thousand other jazz musicians. What was going on with Keith Jarrett? Had he gone neo-conservative on his listeners? Was he plumb out of ideas? Or had he just gotten to an age when settling down with the classics was a sign of good sense?

Now, 25 years after the Jarrett Standards Trio cut its first three records, the jury is more than in on these questions and more. Standards, Volume 1 was quickly followed by Volume 2 and a mostly improvised trio record called Changes, but all were cut at the same sessions in January of 1983. ECM has reissued all three releases in a single box set, beautifully prepared for relistening. In the meantime, of course, Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette have released at least 15 other trio records that have established the trio beyond any quibbling.

These early records sounded dazzling in the mid-1980s. They never sounded like a taming of Jarrett’s wild side, which was certainly the fear of many fans of Jarrett’s expansive work. Though the recordings are undeniably beautiful, particularly the singing ballads such as “It Never Entered My Mind”, they are more often freeing. The powerful low sound of Peacock, combined with DeJohnette’s masterfully architectural drumming, elevates the pianist as well as his own accompaniment ever did. Jarrett is freed to stop thinking about setting up his own groove. As a result, his playing is somewhat more spare but also much more lyrical and free. His flurries of right-hand melody are pure rhapsody. Rather than having the chords of these standards confine him, Jarrett uses the clarity of his accompaniment to allow him to seek even greater momentum toward improvisation.

Generally, the approach to these familiar tunes is not one of overt reinvention. Jarrett does not hide the tunes in cute reharmonization or stylistic masquerade. “All the Things You Are”, for example, is read over a straight and fast swing, with Peacock fluid and DeJohnette snap-happy on brushes. Though the pianist starts in solo on the bridge, everyone is quickly in a-swinging. But what happens during the solos is dramatically wonderful. (Fair warning: Jarrett’s somewhat distracting moaning along with playing is in full-force on many of these tunes.) The piano not only blithely crosses bar lines and allows each phrase to play organically as it must, but the harmonies are also stretched liberally. Jarrett’s new melodies reach out from the chords but often beyond the chords, creating that much more tension and release.

On ballads like “Never Let Me Go”, DeJohnette is stunning. He colors everything in whispering polyrhythms that allow the melody to appear to float without being lost. Jarrett exploits the sonic possibilities of the piano with mastery, coaxing overtones and contrasts that make the most of relatively few notes. He also finds ways to state the melody by implication at every turn even though he is not slavish to it even at the start. Peacock has a full tone in all the registers of the bass, and so he easily operates in every phase of the music, as the composer of counter-lines at every turn.

There is only one performance here that seems to look backward toward what Jarrett had been overtly doing in prior years. “God Bless the Child” is given a rocking gospel feel, much like the portions of the solo concerts that indulge Jarrett’s magnetic ability with a good bassline. But even so, the funky bottom of Peacock and DeJohnette allows the piano to achieve maximum velocity and leave earth orbit.

The last of the three discs in this collection, Changes consists of a Jarrett original, “Prism”, and two wholly improvised performances for the trio. And so, as quickly as the Standards Trio became a sign of a gear shift for one of the music’s grand improvisers, it led right back to freedom. “Flying, Part 1” begins as the exploration of a single tonal center, but it quickly locks into a simmer from which the band can spin out a web of different chords and melodic strands. The true variation, however, is in rhythmic approach. Jarrett turns the trotting groove into a contrapuntal half-time etude at one point, then into a Latinized ostinato the next. “Part 2” is kicked off by drums and bass in a groove time that becomes a rocking kind of swing soon enough. The sense of momentum is remarkable, given that the chord sequences the men are discovering are largely spontaneous. Though both of these performances are about 15 minutes long, they have a logic and consistency that makes them seem not only thoughtful but also appropriate fodder for a trio based on classic material.

Future recordings by this group would, in certain ways, improve on this first (largely unrehearsed) date. The concerts and live recordings were even more fiery and lyrical. The group’s repertoire — not just of tunes but also of feels and style choices — expanded further. They would make further forays into total freedom, and they would record focused tributes to important artists.

But the groundwork for this grand collaboration was started here, in a New York recording studio in January of 1983. (It does seem legitimate to ask what the utility is of re-releasing this music. It is still available in its original CD form. But that’s another matter.) Fans of Jarrett, like myself, will always hear these records as having a fresh immediacy — a sense of a great musician discovering a new part of his talent. And I think that there is validity in that response. Even now, after so many additional recordings, these discs seem to exist in the present tense. They capture the moment when the beak was just cracking through the eggshell. They isolate a sense of coming together — a real fusion.

Today, the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio continues to feed off the energy of these three records. They don’t always burn, but they have a white-hot center of possibility. The fulfillment of that promise continues to this day.

RATING 8 / 10