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Keith Jarrett: A Multitude of Angels

John Kelman By

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The phrase "triumph of the human spirit" may be commonly used, but rarely in musical contexts. There have, however, been relatively recent examples of such achievements, like when Michael Brecker managed to not just make it into the studio, six months before he died from a fatal blood disorder in early 2007, but delivered one of the (if not the) best performances of his career, on the saxophonist's studio swan song, Pilgrimage (Heads Up, 2007).

But a little over a decade prior to that, another of jazz's greatest musicians of the past half century, pianist Keith Jarrett, was quietly and without yet letting on to the public, losing his ability to not just deliver the marathon solo concerts where he seemed directly channeled to the ether, pulling form with absolutely no preplanning or preconception; he was reaching the point where a then-little known condition called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (aka or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, these days going by the bigger mouthful of Systematic Exertion Intolerance Disease) was about to force the pianist to not just withdraw from public performance, but from playing altogether.

All of which makes A Multitude of Angels not just a reason for celebrating the release of four solo performances from before he went quiet for two years (though that would be reason enough); it is far more important than that. A Multitude of Angels is also a case where the pianist's spirit truly triumphed over physical limitations that would hobble most...and would ultimately interfere with a professional career on the cusp of entering its fourth decade.

Documenting what would become the final four uninterrupted, long-form solo performances that Jarrett would ever deliver—his last four concerts period, in fact, before his two-year hiatus—this four-disc box set provides at least some insight into Jarrett's struggle to overcome a worsening and, at the time, undiagnosed physical condition...though, based on the performances themselves, it would be hard to detect that his worsening condition was having any impact at all. Jarrett describes, in his personally written liner notes, ..."how sick and amazingly weak I 'seemed' to be" and the "constant nausea" that are amongst CFS' symptoms. Still, his performances across these four nights in October, 1996 are as filled with imagination and invention—energy, even—as any of his solo piano recordings from the time, including Vienna Concert (1992) and La Scala (1997).

At the time, few would have known just how difficult it was for Jarrett to make it onto the stage on those four nights; in truth, even now, few who have not suffered the ravages of CFS or a similarly crippling chronic fatigue condition can fully appreciate the sheer profundity of what Jarrett describes. Today, with CFS a more documented and discussed medical condition, too many not in-the-know still suggest that those suffering should "just get up and pull yourself up by your bootstraps," or that that "all you need to do is exercise." As well-intended as these uninformed suggestions may be, the simplest way to explain them away is to compare CFS sufferers to an automobile: say what you will, if there's no gas in the tank, that car isn't going anywhere.

Perhaps the statement that best articulates how crippling CFS can be comes from an earlier interview, where Jarrett indicated that it wasn't just about being unable to play; it was the idea that just looking at his piano was exhausting.

For two years, from 1996 to '98, the pianist went completely quiet, as he explored possible avenues for which, at least in Western medicine, there remains no definitive treatment to this day. But when he reemerged in 1998, releasing The Melody at Night, With You (1999)—a series of wonderfully intimate solo piano interpretations of jazz and Great American Songbook standards which, recorded at home and over the course of months, were atypical in their brevity, sparseness and relatively unembellished form—it was clear that things had changed.

Still, it was a welcome return for Jarrett's legion of fans. Jarrett may have been back but, with CFS being a generally chronic condition that, even today, is at best managed but rarely cured, gone was the pianist capable of delivering completely improvised solo sets that could last anywhere from 35-80 uninterrupted minutes, without breaks. When the pianist—who first came to greater international attention for his marathon solo concerts with 1975's Köln Concert—returned to unaccompanied live shows, rather than continuing with the lengthy, uninterrupted improvisations of years past, Jarrett chose, instead, to comprise his concert of a series of shorter spontaneously composed pieces, usually ranging from as little as three minutes to rarely more then ten. Still, documented concerts—including the particularly potent Carnegie Hall Concert (2006) and Testament: Paris/London (2009)—are clear evidence that Jarrett's stamina may have been reduced, but his creative juices and fount of ideas were flowing as well as they ever had.

In the ensuing years—and as undeniably wonderful as his solo performances have continued to be—Jarrett seems to have fallen prey to something that working in the context of shorter improvs appears to have rendered inevitable: while the actual improvisations are as individual as they've ever been, a typical Jarrett solo performance in the new millennium is likely to consist of a number of stylistic touchstones, including, amongst others: atonality; fugue-driven classicism; blues-tinged, gospel-informed joyful explorations; and standards-inspired referenced to the jazz language. These markers in no way diminish the quality of his solo performances, but they do add a certain air of predictability that was far less prevalent—if, indeed, to be found at all—in his earlier, long-form solo concerts.

The recently released (for the first time in its entirety on CD) Concerts—Bregenz/Munchen (1982; reissued 2013) is but one example of how, rather than thinking on a smaller scale that seems to intrinsically define certain stylistic markers, Jarrett's epic improvisations feel more well and truly drawn from the ether; pieces that evolve organically from a completely blank slate and may, indeed, possess a number of styles within; but, more often than not, possessing an overarching narrative driven by the various motifs that evolved naturally and seamlessly from what came before.

A Multitude of Angels' four concerts—recorded in the Italian towns of Modena, Ferrara, Torino and Genova—are no different, with individual sets lasting anywhere, not including encores, from 30 to 45 minutes (with two sets per night). Musically, they range from strong classical roots—looking as far back as the 18th century (specifically Jarrett's channeling of Bach's counterpoint-driven fugues into his own spontaneously composed music), through to late-19th to mid-20th century masters like Debussy, Satie and Ives—to blues and gospel-infused passages with rhythms so propulsive that Jarrett's foot can be heard stomping hard, as an ostinato slowly emerges, for example, in the midst of "Modena, Pt. I," which opens in more abstract lyricism.

All the markers that have come to define Jarrett's post-CFS solo performances can be heard at various points throughout A Multitude of Angels, but rather than being self-contained entities defined by a specific touchstone, they come in the context of ever-evolving pieces where there's absolutely no way to predict when and where they will suddenly appear. And it's that very unpredictability that makes A Multitude of Angels Jarrett's most richly rewarding solo release in many years...and a strong contender to unseat 1978's six-CD Sun Bear Concerts (documenting five stellar nights in Japan, 1976) as the very pinnacle of the pianist's career as an improvising solo pianist.

But where A Multitude of Angels differs from what came before is this: Jarrett may have been suffering from a crippling fatigue infinitely more severe than "just being tired"—along with nausea that would cause many artists to cancel their performance—but the vibrancy, energy and power that imbues these four performances is all the more remarkable for it, a true triumph of the spirit—or, perhaps, the result of one or more of the various angels referenced in the title of the box.

Jarrett suggests, in his liners, that there were, indeed, angels aplenty, which "include[d] everyone around me; the audiences, the pianos, the sickness (angel of death?), the Sonosax DAT Recorder (which had no glitches the whole time), the choice of transformer-less mikes, my manager and my wife (certainly not exactly in that order)...there is no other reason I can give for the unbelievable experience I reentered. They took their places aside of me and urged me, gently, to go on."

And go on he does, across four discs that add up to nearly five hours of extraordinary, spiritually healing—even if it did no more than heal the pianist while he was actually playing, but as any CFS sufferer will tell you, any respite is worth having—and, at many times, transcendent music, all composed in the moment and with no prior preconception. Dissecting individual performances feels somehow pointless; every one of them is a reminder (as if any were needed) of the veritable force of nature Jarrett was, pre-CFS. Of a time when a simple (or not so simple, as in the opening of "Modena, Pt. II") premise could become the catalyst for an effortless flow of ideas, of melodies, of pulses, of abstractions...of anything that the pianist seemed capable of linking together with Promethean yet somehow inevitable connectivity. Of building pieces that were a constant surprise while, at the same time, being somehow anticipated, because the only thing that could be predicted was Jarrett's unerring unpredictability.

Even the shorter encores are stellar, including a particularly soft and melancholic "Danny Boy" in Modena; a brief, untitled "Ferrara Encore" that seems to touch, spiritually—and in its spacious depth of tone and touch (two constants throughout all four performances)—on the pianist's studies of Gurdjieff Work and Sufism; the exuberant blues of "Genova Encore 1"; and a particularly evocative version of the Great American Songbook chestnut "Over the Rainbow," where Jarrett's ability to reshape even the most familiar source material into his very own proves that he may have been running on fumes by this point in the performance, but he was still capable of the improvisational élan that has distinguished him since he first began exploring solo piano improvisations on Facing You (1972).

Whether or not there are any other unreleased solo performances in the archives—Jarrett recorded these and other shows on his own, using a couple of microphones and a reliable recorder, and is consequently credited as both engineer and producer, with ECM label head/producer Manfred Eicher taking the nod for mastering the set alongside engineer Christoph Stickel—is uncertain. There is certainly some reason to hope.

But if A Multitude of Angels represents the last, 20 years later, of Jarrett's epic improvisational forays to be released, it's as strong a swan song of that period in his life as any. More, truthfully, because in its revelatory nature, surprising energy and persistent invention, this collection of four outstanding concerts that few could manage in good health, let alone Jarrett's declining physical condition—where the pianist writes that he "was busy playing as though it was the last time"—stands amongst the very best of the pianist's long-form solo piano releases. It's a set whose importance cannot be underestimated and should not be undervalued.

"I swear: the angels were there," Jarrett also writes in his liners. After hearing A Multitude of Angels, it's very possible that, while you may not see them, you might very well hear them, too.

Track Listing: Disc 1 (Modena) Part I, Part II, Danny Boy; Disc 2 (Ferrara) Part I, Part II, Encore; Disc 3 (Torino) Part I, Part II; Disc 4 (Genova) Part I, Part II, Encore, Over The Rainbow.

Personnel: Keith Jarrett: piano.

Title: A Multitude of Angels | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: ECM Records


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