Keith Jarrett: Setting a New Standard for Standards

Victor L. Schermer By

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All in all, the trio gave the audience more than it could have asked for.
Keith Jarrett, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums
Mellon Jazz Festival
Verizon Hall | Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Philadelphia, PA
April 7, 2004, 8PM

There is little new that anyone can say about Keith Jarrett- and his remarkable, multi-faceted output of music- but some observations are perhaps worth repeating and/or seeing in a new light. And having greatly appreciated his trio recordings with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear them in person. So here is a report from the grandstand.

The upshot is that Jarrett. Peacock, and DeJohnette gave an awe-inspiring and electrifying performance. They were in top form. They chose their tunes- nearly all jazz standards- to form a coherent whole meant to lure a diverse audience into the music. And they showed a level of musical accomplishment and professionalism that would be difficult to exceed.

We know that Jarrett- as person, composer, improviser, and performer- is a complex figure. I will doubtless irritate some of his multitudinous fans when I say that, in my view he is not a true “original” as a jazz pianist. (When I think of originality on the piano, I think of W.C.Handy, Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and others who created unique styles which others have imitated and elaborated but never equaled.) There is no Jarrett “signature” that I can identify; he does not represent a milestone in the development of jazz, but rather he pushes the limits of what is already there. His virtues, in my opinion, include his remarkable mastery of the piano and of music, along with his extraordinary ability to invent new lines, uncannily avoiding lapses and clichés. He has taken the art of improvisation to a level unkown before him. And he is an excellent group leader. With Peacock and DeJohnette, he has fashioned a trio that is in itself an art form, an expression of the highest aspiration possible within the mainstream of contemporary small group jazz. Unquestionably, Jarrett is one of the greats, a truly remarkable musician. In terms of “unstructured” solo improvisation, as in the Koln Concert album, he is indeed a groundbreaker who derived inspiration from a lesser known pianist, John Coates, who played often at the Deerhead Inn, a favorite haunt of Jarrett. As a jazz pianist, he is a master, but- again- not truly novel. And there’s no reason he ought to be.

I suspect that the secret to Jarrett’s astonishing improvisational capacity, in addition to his consummate musical skill and erudition, is the sheer force of concentration. His playing is totally “mindful” and present in the Zen sense. On stage, Jarrett appears almost delusionally convinced that jazz is an art form rather than light entertainment. He treats the music with utmost respect and (properly, I think) expects the audience to do so. (At one point in the Kimmel event, he admonished the audience to turn off their cellphones and put down their flash cameras, something they ought to have known to do themselves. Jarrett is known to make off-the-cuff comments that appear outright alienating to some audience members. Here, he made some political remarks with which I happened to agree but felt were out of place. Jazz should unite mankind in a spiritual sense; not fragment audiences politically.) The wonder of his playing is that he throws himself entirely into the music, bringing to bear his body, mind, and spirit as a creative force. His physical gyrations and vocal utterances would be disturbing in other performers, but it is obvious- to me at least- that he is using them to generate intensity within himself, and his passion comes through in the music, for which he is able to make himself a purified vessel.

The tunes chosen for this concert derive from the “standards” repertoire which the trio has honored and articulated in several discs, my favorite being Standards in Norway. The concert began with an upbeat version of “I Love All of You,” which started as a simple statement but emerged into all sorts of musical complexities that set the stage for the evening. Each piece incorporated various musical forms: counterpoint, chordal interchanges and modulations, fugues, sonata forms, and various virtuosic pianisms that might have come from the likes of the romantics Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Soon came “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a tune which cannot be performed without evoking echoes of Miles Davis’ remarkable version of the same. An adagio version of “I Thought About You” was hauntingly beautiful. On Monk’s “Straight No Chaser,” Jack De Johnette, very understated through most of the evening, did an outstanding solo of great subtly and with complex rhythmic variations that were broadly reminiscent of Joe Morello during the early Brubeck days. Following cascades of cheers and applause, and a standing ovation, the band came back to do an encore, “When I Fall in Love.” Peackock’s soloing here reminded me of the great Scott LaFaro of Bill Evans’ seminal trio. And Jarrett’s cadenza-like ending on the higher octaves was haunting and entrancing. At times, a delicacy and softness entered Jarrett’s playing that perhaps reflected another side of his personality- the part that has endured and emerged from physical and emotional crises he suffered in the last decade.

All in all, the trio gave the audience more than it could have asked for. They performed for over two hours with consistent discipline and energy from beginning to end. There were moments indeed of transcendent beauty. The musical inventiveness was incredible. The comparison that came to my mind was a performance of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” at the Met. Hypnotized (which, no pun intended, is a theme of the opera), I came out of the trance and realized that I was listening to two hours of perfectly composed and richly complex music. How that could emerge from one human mind was difficult to comprehend. It is no small compliment to Jarrett that, in this concert, he achieved the same result. Jazz, unlike classical music, does not strive for perfection as much as expression, but Jarrett’s playing, like Mozart’s composing, was consistently brilliant, beautiful, and inviting from start to finish.

I find Verizon Hall quite conducive to jazz performances (though frankly some of the musicians have complained about the on-stage acoustics.) For folks in the Delaware Valley (or within traveling distance), it’s great news that the Kimmel Center appears to be taking jazz very seriously. Beginning in September, upcoming artists for the Mellon Jazz Festival at the Kimmel include Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Marian McPartland, Dave Brubeck and many, many others. Visit the Kimmel Center website for a list of performers, dates, and how to order tickets, including subscriptions. If you live in the Philadelphia area, I suggest that you keep an eye out for upcoming concerts. And Center City Philly is saturated with great restaurants and taverns for dinner, after-the-concert fare, and conversation. So, enjoy, and I hope to see you there.

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