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Keith Jarrett: A Multitude of Angels

Geno Thackara By

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Music is fundamentally a spiritual experience, but it's still rare for Keith Jarrett to be as forthright about it as he is in the liner notes to A Multitude of Angels. Occasionally he's written oblique blurbs vaguely touching on the mysteries of inspiration—after all, the music always speaks best for itself. By contrast, here he's admirably candid about being helped through the trying circumstances under which he recorded these discs in October 1996: unexplainably weakened with what turned out to be chronic-fatigue syndrome, full of doubt and convinced these might very well have been his last performances at the piano.

The immediacy is palpable through this set of solo shows, recorded almost exactly twenty years after the run that made up the massive Sun Bear Concerts (ECM, 1978), the first release to feature his extensive improvisations in this two-act format. The four Italy recordings presented here certainly show some other similarities to that earlier milestone, notably the stylistic malleability and openness to whatever comes, while naturally displaying the growth and weight of the decades in between. More immediately, they show Jarrett's urge to express everything he needed to in spite of any physical obstacles. He takes the audiences through a colorful range of his genre touchstones, often testing their patience, rewarding their persistence and sometimes treating them to moments of extraordinary beauty.

Like a trip across a wide river, each epic-length exploration goes through changing tides and unpredictable shifts along the way. Jarrett channels whatever feels right at a given moment, whether it's pleasant melody or emotionally charged abstraction (along with, it must be said, a greater-than-usual measure of the stomping, stray vocalizing and groaning that longtime listeners know and tolerate). In Modena he's contemplative yet lively, letting a loose drift gradually coalesce into a bright groove that's almost unreservedly fun. The muse can't quite seem to decide whether to go major or minor here, so he keeps alternating the recurring noir feel with lovely flashes of sunlight. The evening ends in very different territory with a poignant "Danny Boy" for an encore, while the classical-rooted second set in between bridges those different poles without any too-abrupt turns.

As on the Sun Bear recordings, the shows' most tuneless stretches come at the start of the second half, though each ends up moving in its own direction afterward. After a first part that's mostly understated with little to immediately grab the ear, Ferrara's brush with Schoenbergian dissonance wanders into a sort of soul-tinged vamp in the middle of the back half. Jarrett gets significantly more melodic toward the very end, then interestingly trails off into the air without an obvious resolution. The off-the-cuff encore follows suit and gives the overall arc at least something of an emotional wrap-up if not a melodic one.

Torino's first section is based around slow drifting patterns more than grooves; the progressions are unpredictable yet always steady as they flow. It's in the second half when things suddenly get angular and jumpy, as if Jarrett decided to sneak an unusually strong espresso during the gap. It takes almost twenty minutes to shake those jitters and wind down a little, though once that happens, a lovely passage of calming Americana is the result. In Genova, however, part two remains a highly focused round of technical complexity throughout; the patterns stay harmonically jarring and rigid straight through to the end. It's the most difficult section of the whole box, exceeding the skewed rumbling bass vamps of the first half, which is probably the reason this show has the most accessibly ear-pleasing encores to follow—a fast jaunty blues shuffle followed by an almost painfully sweet "Over the Rainbow."

These would indeed be Keith Jarrett's last live performances for a few years more, though fortunately the run proved to be an interlude rather than an epilogue. In retrospect A Multitude of Angels fits perfectly into that slot in his overall career, expanding on his long-scale tapestries of the past while pointing towards the more obtuse Radiance (ECM, 2006) that marked his return to live solo performance in 2002. In the moment, though, no larger context is really necessary. It's simply the sound of an artist playing his heart out, with all the difficulty, messiness and unvarnished honesty that entails.

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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