Keith Jarrett @ 75: Ecstatic Spontaneity on ECM

“Jarrett’s true gift is cumulative exponential improvisation…”

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Image: Jarrett performs at Carnegie Hall in 2015. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty.

Keith Jarrett, who turned 75 on May 8, has been our greatest living jazz pianist for so long that we tend to take him for granted. But his body of work as a performer and recording artist, in its quality and scale, has few parallels in the history of jazz. Jarrett can do what he wants on piano. He plays more bop than the best full-time beboppers and deeper blues than blues specialists. He also plays heartbreaking ballads and erudite Bach. His truest gift is cumulative exponential improvisation.

He started as a sideman in seminal ensembles led by Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis. Then he landed at ECM, where he has stayed for half a century, and where his music has received the highest levels of production, engineering and packaging. Jarrett’s ECM discography, now at 75 titles including some classical recordings, looms like its own solar system within the jazz universe. His ECM catalog contains works by two important quartets: the American Quartet, which recorded most of its LPs for Impulse! and featured fellow countrymen Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and the European Quartet, with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen. There is also a sublime one-off release, Hamburg ’72, documenting a trio with Haden and Motian that recorded for Atlantic in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

But Jarrett’s achievement, his lasting place in the jazz firmament, is secure because of his work, over the enormity of his ECM catalog, in two formats: improvised solo concerts and interpretations of standards with a trio. The now-defunct ensemble with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette is known, logically, as the “Standards Trio.” This list of five essential recordings, all of them available on TIDAL in Master Quality Authenticated audio, includes three solo albums and two by the trio, spanning 41 years.

Concerts Bregenz/München (1981)

Bregenz/München contains two 1981 performances (recorded live, like most Jarrett albums), released on three CDs in 2013. It is not talked about much, but it is fully representative of the art form Jarrett revolutionized called the solo concert: vast improvised onslaughts, musical streams-of-consciousness that might last an hour, overwhelming the awed listener with floods of invention that sometimes hit a dead end but more often, in the raw moment, find beauty, heard only once. There is an extraordinary outbreak of ecstasy on “München, Part IV,” about which Jarrett has said, “I disappeared. I was gone.”

The Köln Concert (1975)

This is the solo concert that started a cult. A large cult. In 45 years, it has sold over 3.5 million copies. It is not as wild and sprawling as some solo concerts. In the Opera House in Köln, at age 29, on a problematic Bösendorfer, Jarrett opens thoughtfully and patiently. “Pt. I” keeps flowing into new lyricism, odes of grace, hymns of praise, songs within songs. Then “Pt. II” builds relentless energy, wave upon wave. In the final “Pt. II C,” Jarrett returns to the poignant melody where he began. When it is over the crowd seems stunned into silence, then erupts.

Tokyo ’96 (1996)

A case can be made for nearly every Standards Trio recording as essential. Tokyo ’96 is quintessential. There is an elevated realization and completeness, a sense of perfect balance, to this album. The fast tunes (“John’s Abbey”) set the Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo on fire. The ballads (“My Funny Valentine,” “Mona Lisa”) exist outside of time. It is possible that “Never Let Me Go” is Jarrett’s finest ballad moment. He does not so much play it as dream it, barely touching the single-note strand of melody. Then he entrusts the song to Peacock, who sings it, but darkly, on his bass.

Somewhere (2009)

Somewhere is an unusual Standards Trio album because it includes both poles of Jarrett’s art, the spontaneous composition of solo concerts and the lavish elaboration of standard repertoire. It is unexpected when alluring free fragments called “Deep Space,” played solo, coalesce into a trio version of Miles Davis’ “Solar.” It is also exciting when Jarrett reverses that process and starts with a rapt rendering of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” and then blows it up into “Everywhere.”

Munich 2016 (2016)

Here is the most recent Jarrett music currently available. In his early years, Jarrett’s solo performances were enormous spontaneous symphonies, feats of endurance as well as creativity. But with Radiance, in 2005, he began to break his solo concerts into shorter sections. Munich 2016, in 12 parts, does not take the risks or reach the heights of the greatest solo concerts. But Jarrett still has his revelatory nuanced touch. He can still light up a concert hall with motivic continuums, harmonic awakenings, polyrhythmic ceremonies and lyric epiphanies. He can still bend a piano to his will.

To hear a newly released solo performance from Keith Jarrett, recorded in Budapest in July of 2016, check out our Keith Jarrett Essentials or the Grown Jazz playlist.

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