I once heard a well-known pianist refer to Keith Jarrett as "the Elton John of jazz," and it wasn’t a slam. I think James Taylor is more like it. Taylor’s music has a certain country-blues Americanism; it lives in a galaxy nearer to Jarrett’s gospel- and folk-tinged songs and improvisations. It’s true, Jarrett has always been unafraid of simple, pop-like harmony and melody. To everything there is a season: a time to sound like Bud Powell, a time to sound like Richard Wagner, and yes, a time to sound like James Taylor. For decades Jarrett has woven it all into one breathtaking story after another.
Now battling chronic fatigue syndrome, Jarrett is subdued but strong. On this new solo piano album he eschews extended improvisation, instead offering up disarmingly simple versions of ten classic songs. There’s almost no vocalizing or grunting or technical display. What there’s plenty of, as the title suggests, is melody.
"I Loves You Porgy" is sublime, especially the bridge. "I Got It Bad," the only track on which the virtuoso takes over, provides a window on how Jarrett uses a melody to guide his improvising. Off-the-cuff codas on this and "Someone To Watch Over Me" illustrate Jarrett’s ability to make any tune under the sun his very own. Two traditional songs, "Shenandoah" and the waltz "My Wild Irish Rose," are the strongest evocations of Jarrett’s James Taylor side. In contrast, he gives the Dietz/Schwartz tune "Something To Remember You By" the most harmonically complex treatment on the album. The sad and beautiful "Blame It On My Youth" segues into a thematically linked improvisation titled "Meditation," but the two sections are listed as a single track.
This spare, elegant recording contains valuable lessons for beginning jazz musicians who are eager to dive headlong into highly advanced theory. Lesson one: master basic harmony. When you think you’ve mastered it, master it some more. Listen to the magic Jarrett can create with a simple turnaround or resolution. Lesson two: never forget about melody. Melodies move people. Melodies move Keith Jarrett. And being moved is what music is for. Thank goodness we’ve got Jarrett to remind us.