Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Gold Standard

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette – Setting Standards: New York Sessions (ECM)

Manfred Eicher’s ECM label is celebrating the 25th anniversary of these pivotal recordings by reissuing them as a boxed set (they were originally released across two years as three separate albums – Standards vol. 1, Standards vol. 2 and Changes). The group had convened before, for Gary Peacock’s 1977 album ‘Tales of Another’ (one of the greatest and least recognised albums of the 1970s), but this was the first occasion they ventured into the great American songbook. Along with Bill Evans, and some would now argue Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett’s long-lasting group have helped define the art of trio playing, and continue to draw new lifeblood from the standard repertoire to this day. There is so much colour and texture in Jarrett's playing that the Piano becomes its own orchestra. Given Jarrett’s current musical outlook, this reissue makes a lot of sense. He now performs a mixture of solo concerts and performances with this trio – and has not made a studio recording since The Melody At Night, With You (a work not intended for release, but rather as a gift to his wife, who had supported him throughout a long battle with chronic fatigue). He has completely abandoned formal composition, now claiming that there is no greater art than simply to play. This is a matter for some debate given his standing rests as much on his composing as his improvising, particularly the work for his European quartet in the 1970s. Yet this set re-emphasises the extent to which Jarrett and his colleagues are radical re-inventors of a particularly journeyed wheel.

The first disc is especially strong, and illustrates many of the stylistic hallmarks of this remarkable group. Both Jarrett and Peacock manage to make their instruments sing, Peacock’s bass richly resonating and with even Jarrett’s more complicated lines rooted in melody and feeling. The rewarding version of ‘All The Things You Are’, with the trio locked tight in an intricate but scintillating groove, suggests how this group find form and content liberating rather than restrictive, with a musical chemistry that manages to break expectations and conventions. The lively take on ‘The Masquerade Is Over’ suggests that DeJohnette can swing as well as he can provide muscular, swashbuckling cymbal work. Even better is ‘God Bless The Child’, one of the most fascinating and exciting recorded versions of this well-known composition, which is tinged with gospel fervour and rhythmic invention, whilst somehow still anchored in a powerfully simple idea. Jarrett is at his most percussive in his approach to the piano here. It sustains a subtlety and intrigue, with a carefully controlled dynamic range, for over fifteen minutes. It’s a piece of music I could listen to hundreds of times and from which I can always intimate new lessons and value.

All three musicians make powerful and compelling individual contributions but they always serve the greater purpose of the group dynamic. Particularly captivating in this regard is Jack De Johnette’s varying accompaniment to the contrasting solos of Jarrett and Peacock on the wide-ranging ‘So Tender’. His underpinning of Jarrett’s solo is insistent and fiery, drawing attacking sounds and emphasising the toms, but he immediately moves to something more delicate and playful to support Peacock’s lyrical bass solo. It helps the performance to capture a multiplicity of moods with all the tenderness the title demands. Similarly, there’s an appropriate degree of mystery and intrigue in his brush strokes on ‘Moon and Sand’.

What is particularly remarkable about these recordings is that, amidst the peerless collective extrapolation and improvisation, the original beating heart of these tunes remains very much intact. Jarrett frequently elaborates and extends the themes, or amends the harmony, but he never veers too far from the memorable templates. These pieces of music form a standard repertoire precisely because of the emotion and feeling contained within them, and because they contain simple, clearly stated ideas that both musicians and non-musicians alike can appreciate. Perhaps it’s ‘Never Let Me Go’, with its curious contrast of dark melancholy and lingering romanticism, the real highlight of the second disc, which most clearly demonstrates how this group can take the essence of a theme and use it as the starting point for the most exploratory of journeys. Although it is wordless, it paints a vivid picture of the complex combination of commitment and possessiveness in human relationships.

The third disc, originally released as ‘Changes’ demonstrates the group’s other side, that of collective free improvisation. Jarrett has talked of attempting to start his solo concerts with a completely blank slate, and although the two parts of ‘Flying’ are credited to him as a composer, it’s clear that it is really a thirty minute improvised performance. The first part is lyrical and broad, based around a simple pedal and featuring subtle and calm exposition. The second is tighter and groovier, with a dexterous and passionate drum solo. Given that these were recorded at the same sessions, it’s clear that they still belong in this set – as the standard material evidently provided the springboard for the spontaneity and creativity of these recordings. There's still plenty of order and logic to this material, clearly influenced by the relationship between form and inspiration the group found in the standard repertoire. It's a far cry from the fiery abandoning of all convention favoured by Evan Parker or Ornette Coleman (with whom De Johnette has also played), but it is every bit as charismatic and innovative.

It’s also worth recognising that all this material came as the result of recordings taking place over a couple of days. As good as Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ is – one has to wonder whether it’s worth slaving over a brief collection of songs for four years when something as profound and magical as this can be crafted so quickly given the right conditions. Even in the jazz world, which values antique methods of live studio recording and the principles of spontaneity and one-off achievements, it’s hard to think of a younger contemporary musician working at Jarrett’s Herculean pace.

Jarrett is clearly a very difficult human being – extremely self-righteous, occasionally pompous, unrepentantly single-minded and completely driven towards original creativity. Yet he has crucial qualities too – an open mind towards broad ideas and contexts for his work. He has argued that, for him, ‘music is the end result of a process that has nothing to do with music’ – a process that has as much to do with life experience, philosophy, literature and personal outlook as it does with musical influences. With nearly 70 recordings to his name, Jarrett’s contribution to the development of the jazz language has been immense. It’s fascinating now to see how his playing has changed over time, and to observe just how pivotal these recordings were in his career. In the Mike Dibbs/Ian Carr documentary film ‘The Art of Improvisation’, Jarrett states that ‘the more experience a person has, the more simplicity is profound…but timing is the complex part of simplicity’. This set contains simplicity and complexity in equal measure, and timing may well be both its vitality and charm – the connection between these three musicians is instinctive and completely priceless. All three seem to know exactly what to play and exactly when to play it. Most importantly, they seem to still be learning something new whenever they convene.

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