The Jazz.com Blog
February 04, 2008 · 4 comments
Back in 1983, jazz fans had come to expect a lot from Keith Jarrett. But one thing they definitely did not expect is that he would form a band to focus on standards by Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and other tunesmiths from the golden years of the American popular song. And even less likely—once he created his "Standards" trio—who would imagine that it would stay together for a quarter of a century?
Yes, it's true. The Standards Trio celebrated its 25th anniversary a few weeks ago. This means that Jarrett has been recording standards in a trio format for longer than Bill Evans did. Or, to toss out another random comparison, Jarrett has been leading this band for longer than Art Tatum's entire recording career. Not even the Modern Jazz Quartet, the benchmark for longevity in jazz, could keep together for 25 years without breaking up the band (although they would have more comebacks than Rocky Balboa). Such longevity deserves a celebration, and to honor the occasion, the ECM label has released a box set of three CDs of music from the Standard Trio's first sessions, held in January 1983.
I saw Jarrett perform in many settings during the decade leading up to the formation of the Standards Trio. I heard him with his "American" quartet, with his "European" quartet, and in various solo settings. His music was always surprising and different, but there was one constant—Keith played his own songs. On a series of recordings for Impulse and ECM, he made his mark not just as a pianist, but also as a prolific composer. He could write inspired extended quartet works such as The Survivors' Suite or "Death and the Flower"; or music for strings, as on Arbour Zena or The Celestial Hawk; or short, melody-rich song forms, as with "My Song" or "Memories of Tomorrow"; or other sui generis pieces ("The Journey Home," "Everything That Lives Laments," "Mysteries") that seemed to define their own genre, follow their own inner sense of form and content. And, of course, there were the solo works, usually (but not always) played on piano, some composed, others wholly improvised.
The sheer pace with which Jarrett released new "major" works during this period suggested that this was one artist who would never exhaust his internal sources of inspiration, and that his sense of his personal musical mission was inseparable from his quest to finish the next composition, to develop the next set of musical blueprints that came into his head.
Of course, I often wondered during this period what Jarrett might do working over conventional bebop changes or standards or even a twelve-bar blues. But that seemed unlikely to ever happen. You might as well ask a Cordon Bleu chef to cook you up a Philly cheesesteak with chili fries. Tasty, yes. Likely? No way! After all, Jarrett would hardly even play his own older compositions during these years, so anxious was he to move on to the next new thing. And when he had tackled standards early in his career—his role as sideman made this necessary—he ripped them apart at the seams with such vehemence that it was hard to believe he had much affection for this body of work.
Track down Jarrett's first commercial recording, Buttercorn Lady, made during his brief stint with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and hear what he does with "Secret Love." After listening to Jarrett's radical dissection, one can hardly believe that Doris Day ever sang this same tune. On "My Romance," from the same release, Jarrett is more respectful of the material, but still one immediately understands that this artist is trying to push the envelope, to move beyond the constraints of the mainstream jazz setting and conventional material. Both tracks are major statements by the young pianist, but not as celebrations of the American pop song tradition.
Yet Jarrett's return to the standards in the early 1980s was not an isolated event. His whole on-stage persona was undergoing a radical transformation. In August 1982 Jarrett showed up at the Cabrillo Festival in Aptos, California to perform . . . the Bartok Second Piano Concerto? Yes, it was true. Jarrett was not only playing other composers, but he was tackling some of the most difficult examples around. He followed up with a series of important recordings. His CD of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes & Fugues, opus 87 remains one of my most cherished disks, and his performances of works by Lou Harrison and Alan Hovhaness, are also among my personal favorites. But Jarrett also recorded Bach, Handel, Mozart— the full range of the keyboard tradition was now apparently at his fingertips. Jazz pianists had dabbled in this music before—George Shearing or Chick Corea might play Mozart on a lark, or Tatum might dish up some jazzed up version of a concert hall showpiece—but no jazz keyboardist had shown this degree of dedication or depth of understanding of this alien repertoire.
One would need to go outside the genre completely, perhaps to a classical pianist, such as Friedrich Gulda, an under-rated figure who had made the move from the concert hall to jazz, to come up with anything even close to what Jarrett was now accomplishing. And even Gulda, for all his impressive credentials, never accomplished half of what Jarrett was now doing routinely in various styles and settings. Who else? Do I hear you say André Previn? Previn is a fascinating case, but his jazz playing has often been tossed off, willy nilly, like he is slumming when he plays with bass and drums. And though I rank Previn as a top notch musical mind, and a solid conductor and composer, I don't put him Jarrett's class either as a classical or jazz pianist. In all frankness, Jarrett was inventing his own rules during this new stage of his career.
It is in this context that we need to understand Jarrett's return to popular standards in the early 1980s. Not that Jarrett didn't love the old songs, but even more significantly, he had reached a stage in his career where celebrating the music of other composers was now central to his personal vision quest. "Ever since my solo concerts I've been considered a sort of 'landed proprietor' of my own music," Jarrett explained in 1989, "a guy who goes on stage and finds something new every time, as if on command. Now I wanted to show them that music arises from music, from ideas, from material that doesn't belong to anyone."
Bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette—Jarrett's partners in this unlikely endeavor—were equally surprising participants in a return to the American popular song tradition. Despite the obvious financial and musical benefits of playing alongside Jarrett, Peacock needed to think it over a while before acquiescing. And both Peacock and especially DeJohnette are also skilled pianists in their own right. (Check out the little known The Jack DeJohnette Piano Album if you have any doubts about this.) So if anyone knew how hard it was to freshen up this old music, it was this particular trio of battle-hardened improvisers.
Yet what surprised me most about the Standards project was how little freshening up went into the project. Jarrett was exceptionally faithful to the original essence of these songs. Not too long ago, I heard a major jazz pianist play a number of standards, and before each one he mentioned how he had "re-harmonized" the song. It is almost a cardinal rule among jazz players that you need to make the old songs "up-to-date" in order to keep them appealing. But Jarrett showed stubborn insistence on following the original chord changes. And, to my ears, he even seemed intent on holding on to the meaning of the Tin Pan Alley lyrics to these songs. How unfashionable can you get?
When the Standards trio played "It Never Entered My Mind," the music stays emotionally true to Lorenz Hart's poetry, even though this is an instrumental version of the song. When Jarrett tackles "Never Let Me Go," I can't help hearing the melancholy lyrics as he plays the melody. This is ballad playing the way Lester Young defined it years ago, when he admonished players that they needed to know the words before they could do justice to the music.
I am surprised that other critics haven't talked in more detail about how traditional Jarrett's interpretations are on most of these performances. Take "All the Things You Are" from the first Standards LP. When Brad Mehldau records this composition, he spices it up with a 7/4 interpretation that is essentially a completely new composition. Years ago, I recorded a version of this same song, and changed virtually every chord in the form—as a result, many other musicians started asking me for my "secret changes" on this hoary old standard.
Heck, at Berklee they probably teach the students in the first week of classes that nobody except losers plays these songs straight. Well, maybe the geniuses can get away with it . . . . Certainly Jarrett and company are the odd men out in following harmonies here that are almost exactly the same as those Jerome Kern jotted down in 1939! And the same is true of their versions of "Love in Vain" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily," etc. Clever new arrangements play no role in the success of this celebrated group. But don't let this lead you to assume that Jarrett is not pushing this song to the limits. He doesn't need to to play "All the Things" in 13/8 or with a twelve tone row in mind (as pianist Alex von Schlippenbach has done) to create a musical masterpiece. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette do it the old fashioned way: by listening to each other, and paying attention to the flow of the music.
What comes across in listening again to the these old trio records, after a quarter of a century has elapsed, is how much they are about listening, instead of just playing. I have the distinct impression that these three players did not worry about working out an arrangement beforehand, and that their foremost concern was with playing spontaneously and intensely in the moment, relating to each other and to the song, without tricks or artifice.
This sounds like a simple enough formula. After all, what could be easier than not planning the session beforehand. But only the rarest of bands could achieve such notable results in this manner. This is why clever arrangements are so often brought to the session. Just playing the changes, and raising them to a transcendent level through sheer creativity and inspiration . . . well, that is not something you can schedule on demand.
Except for that rarest of bands, as I mentioned. And the Standards Trio is one of those. Twenty five years after they came together, this trio not only can look back at how they played the standards. They can rightfully claim that they set some standards too.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia