THE DOZENS: ESSENTIAL KEITH JARRETT by Ted Gioia



                        Keith Jarrett, by Richard Laird


Fans today who know Keith Jarrett primarily from his Standards Trio (now more than a quarter of a century old) can hardly imagine the range of activities this artist has pursued during the course of his career. Jarrett not only expanded the vocabulary of the piano in jazz with his early ECM recordings, and helped bring back solo performance after two decades of decline, but he has also tried his hand, over the years, at soprano sax, guitar, organ, percussion, even vocals.

At mid-career, he made a plunge into classical music, and created works—both as composer and interpreter of the traditional and recent repertoire—at a remarkably high level. His American quartet and European quartet of the 1970s were among the finest bands of the era, just as his Standards Trio has been an important force in recent years, while his early sideman stints with Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd and Art Blakey also produced stirring, and sometimes unsettling, music. Looking over this diverse career, one wonders what future goals Jarrett could possibly pursue to match what he has already achieved in the past.

This diversity also makes it difficult to select twelve tracks that sum up Jarrett’s music-making to date. The selections below come from five different decades, and though they are just a small taste of the hundred or so albums that comprise this artists recorded oeuvre, each one reveals an important facet of this visionary artist.


Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (with Keith Jarrett): Secret Love

Track

Secret Love

Group

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

CD

Buttercorn Lady (Emarcy 822 471-2)

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Musicians:

Art Blakey (drums), Keith Jarrett (piano), Chuck Mangione (trumpet),

Frank Mitchell (alto sax), Reggie Johnson (bass)

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Composed by by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster

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Recorded: The Lighthouse, Hermosa Beach, CA, January, 1966

Albumcoverartblakeybuttercornlady

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

This song was a number one hit for Doris Day in 1954, and won an Academy Award for its role in the film Calamity Jane. But if you want to hear calamity, check out Keith Jarrett's piano solo on this live version of "Secret Love" from the Lighthouse in 1965. Jarrett was only 20 years old and full of fire. Everyone else on the bandstand might have assumed that they had been hired to play hard bop. But not the young pianist. He puts such a strong personal stamp on the music that for a moment it is no longer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, but something completely different, fresh and potent and free. The other players shine (and give props to the oft-maligned Chuck Mangione, who contributes a fine solo), but Jarrett's take is so strong that everything else is obliterated in his wake. On the basis of this track alone, you could have predicted grand things for this pianist.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: In Front

Track

In Front

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

Facing You (ECM 1017)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano).

Composed by Keith Jarrett

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Recorded: Oslo, Norway, November 10, 1971

Albumcoverkeithjarrettfacyou

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Here on the opening track of his first solo piano recording, Keith Jarrett announces a new era of jazz keyboard music. Even today, decades later, we can hear the repercussions in contemporary piano stylings. Jarrett helped shape a new language for improvised music, demonstrated the marvels of his conception and touch, explored novel paths of thematic development, and recalibrated the roles of the left and right hands in piano jazz—all in the course of a 10-minute performance. My favorite moments: the funky ostinato groove that kicks in right before the four minute mark, and then the shimmering resolution that dawns two minutes later. Jarrett still had his first solo concert records—the edifices of Bremen, Lausanne and Köln—ahead of him, but here at age 26 he had arrived, no longer the young prodigy of jazz, but a mature artist charting the future.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: Death and the Flower

Track

Death and the Flower

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano, wood flute, percussion)

CD

Death and the Flower (Impulse 9301)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano, wood flute, percussion), Dewey Redman (tenor sax, percussion), Charlie Haden (bass), Paul Motian (drums, percussion), Guilherme Franco (percussion).

Composed by Keith Jarrett

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Recorded: New York, October 9-10, 1974

Albumcoverkeithjarretdeathandtheflower

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Keith Jarrett delighted in subverting the familiar conventions of the piano-led jazz band with his early 1970s combo work. He relied on Redman and Haden, fire tested in the school of Ornette, who didn't really need chords from the keyboard to guide their musical journeys. And sometimes Jarrett would step away from the piano himself. The instrument does not even appear until some six minutes into this track. Instead we have a delicate web of percussion underpinning wood flute, and eventually Haden's bass enters throbbing like a slow heartbeat. But Jarrett's solo, when it arrives, is worth the wait. His touch and melodic inventiveness are shown off to good effect. Tone control, always one of his strengths, is especially evident here, with Motian and Haden giving him space and dynamic room to make best use of his ethereal pianissimo. Redman imposes a more macho attitude when his tenor enters the fray, and one can hear the whole group adjusting. In fact, the give-and-take throughout this entire performance is noteworthy. Jarrett doesn't so much lead this band as immerse himself into its suchness. Yet his composition serves as the fluid structure that makes it all possible. This extended work (some 22 minutes) is essential listening for anyone who wants to come to grips with the artistry of pre-Standards Jarrett.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: Everything That Lives Laments (1975 version)

Track

Everything That Lives Laments

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

Mysteries (MCA/Impulse MACD-33113)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano), Dewey Redman (tenor sax), Charlie Haden (bass), Paul Motian (drums).

Composed by Keith Jarrett

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Recorded: New York, June 1975

Albumcoverkeithjarrett-mysteries

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Jarrett had recorded this same piece in 1971, but this version is longer and richer. The opening section, played in a free tempo, takes on a funereal stateliness. The ensemble plays with great control and sensitivity, but the quality of sound Haden extracts from his bass deserves special mention. Then, shortly after the two-minute market, the combo settles into a lilting groove over a quirky six-bar chord pattern, where what sounds like the start of the turnaround (because the listener is expecting an eight bar structure) is actually the return to the top of the form—a clever device that is very effectively employed here. Jarrett would soon leave this band behind, and start afresh with his European quartet, but this recording testifies that his American combo ranked among the finest jazz groups of the mid-1970s.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: Bremen, Germany, July 12, 1973, Part I

Track

Bremen, Germany, July 12, 1973, Part I

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

Solo-Concerts: Bremen / Lausanne (ECM 1035/37)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano).

Compsed by Keith Jarrett

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Recorded: Bremen, July 12, 1973

Albumcoverkeithjarrett-soloconcerts-bremen-lausanne

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Jazz musicians have always emphasized improvisation in their work. But few have taken this reliance on spontaneous creation to the lengths Keith Jarrett has assayed in his solo concerts. He pioneered the (still rare) concept of an entirely improvised piano recital, wholly inspired by the muse of the moment. But if the concept is exciting, Jarrett's execution of this ambitious idea is even more impressive. The ECM recording of Jarrett's 1973 Bremen concert represented the first attempt to capture this type of work on tape and present it on record. This disk may not have sold as well as the The Kln Concert from 1975 or matched the scope of Jarrett's massive Sun Bear Concerts (originally released on ten LPs) from 1976, but for sheer musicality and inventiveness it is hard to top the recital in Bremen. Here is piano music that is rich in complexity, subtle in detail, and completely free of clich. One of my desert island disks.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: The Survivors' Suite

Track

The Survivor's Suite

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano, soprano sax, bass recorder, celeste, osi drums)

CD

The Survivor's Suite (ECM 1085)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano, soprano sax, bass recorder, celeste, osi drums), Dewey Redman (tenor sax, percussion), Charlie Haden (bass), Paul Motian (drums, percussion).

Composed by Keith Jarrett

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Recorded: Ludwigsburg, Germany, April, 1976

Albumcoverkeithjarrettthesurvivorssuite

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

As with so many other Jarrett extended combo works from this period (such as "Mysteries" and "Death and the Flower"), The Survivors' Suite takes on a majestic (and sometimes somber) ceremonial tone. Listening to this performance, I can't help recalling anthropologist Victor Turner's emphasis on the linkages between artistic performance and rituals, connections that have slowly been drained out of art-making in the postmodern era, where the sting of irony seems ever present. The Survivors' Suite, in contrast, is an irony-free zone, music-making as serious as the title might indicate.

The first movement's opening is almost an invocation, a summoning of spirits. The piano does not show up until almost nine minutes into the performance. But this is no surprise to listeners familiar with the work of Jarrett's so-called "American Quartet," which was a master of the slow build, of a gradually intensifying soundscape. Nothing is rushed here, and as in a ritual, even the smallest gesture resonates with rich layers of meaning. The second movement is freer and fiercer, a shaman's possession dance which resists limits and constraints, yet still retains its larger-than-life ceremonial aspects. Even when the tonal center emerges, and the chord changes return to guide the performance to its terminus, this sense of transcendence remains.

Those who know Jarrett through his solo piano efforts or his well-documented trio work should familiarize themselves with this piece, and the American Quartet's other works from the era. You may be surprised at how generously (and movingly) Jarrett sublimates his own pianism to a larger sense of combo and composition. All too soon, this period in his career would pass. Shortly after this recording, this fertile ensemble disbanded and Jarrett headed off in other directions.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: Encore (Tokyo)

Track

Encore: Tokyo Concert

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

Sun Bear Concerts (ECM 1100)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano).

Composed by Keith Jarrett

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Recorded: Tokyo, November 14, 1976

Albumcoverkeithjarrettsunbearconcerts

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

For much of the 1970s, Keith Jarrett was releasing so much music that few fans or critics could keep up with him. He was recording with his American quartet and his European quartet, doing solo piano projects, composing quasi-classical works, and pursuing other miscellaneous projects. If you saw him in concert at that time, you might hear Jarrett playing soprano sax or percussion, as well as piano. Just a few weeks before this concert in Tokyo, he recorded an album of organ music, followed a few days later by the quartet session featured on the Impulse release Byablue.

Keith Jarrett

In the midst of this flurry of activity, Jarrett tossed off the Sun Bear Concerts as though they were just a passing whim, and the high price tag attached when this music was released (originally in a box set of 10 LPs) limited sales to a select few. But this project (now available on six CDs)comprising the music performed at five solo piano concerts in Japanmust be considered one of the high points of Jarrett's career. This encore from his Tokyo concert finds the pianist at top form, constructing a taut, lyrical improvisation in E minor over a filigree of mostly sixteenth notes in the left hand. At first, one expects Jarrett to move into a repeating pattern or vamp, as he often does on these solo outings, yet instead he pushes the harmonies in surprising ways. The effect is much like hearing a classical composer, working within a late Romantic or early Impressionist tonal palette, in the midst of creating a new piece. Only a few years earlier, music of this sort would hardly have been considered jazz, yet Jarrett, through his visionary conception of improvisation, was pushing the art form on to new terrain.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: The Journey Home

Track

The Journey Home

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

My Song (ECM 1115)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano), Jan Garbarek (tenor sax), Palle Danielsson (bass), Jon Christensen (drums).

Composed by Keith Jarrett

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Recorded: Oslo, Norway, October 31, November 1, 1977

Albumcoverkeithjarrettmysong

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

When Keith Jarrett left behind his highly esteemed American quartet for a new band of Norwegians, the jazz world was puzzled and a little bit skeptical. Yet this group—the so-called European quartet—produced some of the most successful music of Jarrett's career, and had a very big seller with the My Song album. Even today, critics are quicker to praise the looser, more unpredictable American quartet; and, certainly, if jazz were sports, you would get fired from the GM job for trading Paul Motian for Jon Christensen, etc. But jazz is not sports, and this band achieved a holistic transcendence that made them an ideal ensemble for realizing Jarrett's compositions of the period.

"The Journey Home" is a case in point. The star here is Jarrett's composition, which moves through several distinct moods, from a melancholy rubato which leads into a spirited folksy melody with a very danceable beat (one of this composer's most inspired moments) before the piece settles into a slow 9/8 section that could stand on its own as a significant composition. The four musicians enter into the inner workings of this music with perfect sympathy and—that great rarity in the jazz world—almost no signs of ego. The whole My Song album is essential listening for Jarrett fans, and perhaps came the closest of any Jarrett quartet album to matching the type of musical personality he showed when playing his famous solo piano concerts. But if you want to start out with a single track as introduction to the European quartet, this is a very good place to begin.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: Autumn Leaves

Track

Autumn Leaves

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

Still Live (ECM 1360/61)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano), Gary Peacock (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums).

Composed by Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prvert

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Recorded: Philharmonic Hall, Munich, July 13, 1986

Albumcoverkeithjarrettstilllive

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

The Keith Jarrett Standards Trio has recorded frequently, and maintained a high level of inspiration for more than a quarter of a century. But it is hard to top this 1986 live recording in Munich for sheer inspired interaction and unbridled intensity. There is much to admire here: the disjunctive rhythms, the simmering energy, the shifts in mood, and above all the ability for each player to stand tall and assert himself without rupturing the overall union of the three voices. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette take on "Autumn Leaves" with the zeal of a S.W.A.T. team knocking down your front door. This is assault jazz of the highest order, and if they can do it to "Autumn Leaves" . . . well, I guess they can do it to about anything, huh?

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: Bridge of Light for Viola & Orchestra

Track

Bridge of Light for Viola and Orchestra

Artist

Keith Jarrett (composer)

CD

Bridge of Light (ECM 1450)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (composer),

Patricia McCarty (viola) with the Fairfield Orchestra conducted by Thomas Crawford

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Composed by Keith Jarrett

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Recorded: State University of NYC, Purchase, NY, March, 1993

Albumcoverkeithjarrettbridgeoflight

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Keith Jarrett's work as an orchestral composer is documented in a series of releases, including In the Light (1973), Luminessence (1974), Arbour Zena (1975), and The Celestial Hawk (1980). And these exist alongside potent recordings of Jarrett performing Bach, Mozart, Harrison, Hovhaness and Shostakovich in an almost unprecedented move from jazz to classical music at mid-career. One can chart Jarrett's increasing comfort and skill in channeling his musical vision into written scores, and by the time we arrive at Bridge of Light (1990) we have a work that stands comparison with Jarrett's finest jazz music, and does not require his own presence on piano to achieve its sublime effects. The pastoral temperament that infuses much of his piano work rises to the fore here, but is transmuted in shimmering sound colors that sometimes take on an austere neo-medieval cast and elsewhere embrace a rhapsodic immediacy. With an artist so prolific as Jarrett, it is hard to make the claim that he hasn't given us enough music, but I would trade several dozen CDs from my collection for a few more orchestral works of this caliber.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: Someone to Watch Over Me

Track

Someone to Watch Over Me

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

The Melody at Night, With You (ECM 1675)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano).

Composed by George and Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: New Jersey, 1998

Albumcoverkeithjarrett-themelodyatnightwithyou

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

This is a very nuanced performance, and one almost senses that Jarrett is playing the Gershwin standard for himself, not for an audience. The setting (this track was recorded at his home) and circumstances (the artist was recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome) no doubt reinforce this atmosphere of an artist who has retreated from the world to converse with his own private muse. No flashy passages, no theatrical moments, distract us from his gentle development of the melodic line.

I especially like how Jarrett handles the harmonic movement of this song. As I have noted elsewhere, Jarrett displays a surprisingly respectful attitude toward the old standards, and rarely engages in radical reharmonization, unlike most Gen X and Gen Y jazz pianists, who cannot resist twisting these songs into peculiar new structures. Yet this song, with its simple diatonic melody it's one of Gershwin's most old-fashioned sounding tunes almost requires a jazz artist to do something dramatic to give it some edge. Even so, Jarrett refuses to undertake a surgical reconstruction of the original. He makes small and subtle adjustments here and there to the chords, but remains absolutely faithful to the song's original essence. It testifies to Jarrett's artistry that he can achieve so much with such delicacy and restraint.

I am even tempted to use the word "modesty"not a term typically thrown at Mr. Jarrettin describing this performance. Perhaps it is an unusual word to apply to any jazz outing, given the heroic traditions of jazz, a genre which always seems most at home when it reaches for the excessive and intense. Nonetheless, modesty is not a bad way of describing the maturity with which our pianist allows this Gershwin song to emerge under his sensitive fingertips.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: Intro / Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Track

Intro / Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

Yesterdays (ECM 2060)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano), Gary Peacock (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums).

Composed by Jerome Kern & Otto Harbach

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Recorded: Metropolitan Festival Hall, Tokyo, April 30, 2001

Albumcoverkeithjarrettyesterdays

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

This Jerome Kern standard is probably more popular with the general public than with jazz musicians—in other words, you are more likely to hear it tinkling in the background at the cocktail lounge than at a Berklee jam session. Jarrett himself recorded it previously as part of a session, under Bob Moses's leadership, alongside the late, great tenor Jim Pepper. The pairing of Jarrett and Pepper seemed like a jazz dream date, but the music on that late-1960s date didn't tap into the full potential of the players involved. This version of Kern's warhorse, performed by Jarrett's "Standards Trio" at a concert in Tokyo, is more focused and coherent. The intro is a piece unto itself, a wistful minute-and-a-half meditation, all too brief but enough to demonstrate how deeply Mr. Jarrett immerses himself into the inner feeling-state of the music. When Peacock and DeJohnette enter, it is with gentle whispers and smoke floating past your eyes. Jarrett has achieved great things in his career, but one shouldn't minimize the importance of taking the old songs and making them fresh again. This may not be as dramatic as a piano concerto cadenza, but it's no less valuable as a lesson to the rest of us.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


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