Keith Jarrett's first solo piano album, Facing You
(ECM, 1972), came out nearly forty years ago; since then he's become the high priest of piano improvisation, famed for his ability to walk onstage and, as a bemused Vladimir Ashkenazy put it, "play all the right notes" on the spot. Koln Concert
(ECM, 1975) has sold almost 4 million copies, attracting listeners from far beyond the loyal enclaves of Soho and Greenwich Village. If jazz has any superstars, he's one of them.
But can he keep this up? Jarrett thinks Rio
, from an April, 2011 concert in Rio de Janeiro, is one of his best, saying "There is no way that I could have gotten to this particular musical place a second time." That might sound a little portentous, but Rio
is indeed a special album. A sense of contentment and pure enjoyment permeates the playing. Something has changed since Jarrett's last solo release, which emerged after "a close brush with a nervous breakdown." Testament
(ECM, 2009) is magnificent, but its darkness and intensity can be overwhelming.
Which is not to suggest there's a hint of complacency in the sheer range of Rio
. The concert kicks off with a forceful, atonal improvisation, punctuated by violent chromatic flourishesmore The Rite of Spring
than "Summertime." "Part II" and "Part IX" quell the flames, but are equally indebted to 20th century classical repertoire. Simmering and shimmering like Debussy's Preludes
, they're a worthwhile reminder that jazz didn't appear out of nowhere in the 1920s.
Jarrett's early sound is also strong, with "Part VII" echoing the beautifully lyrical ballads of Facing You
, while "Part XI" is a rollicking blues played with utter conviction. "Part XIV" offers a characteristic blend of gospel and Americana, at once sprightly and insouciant. These pieces make use of well-trodden idioms, but Jarrett's touchboth exquisitely sure and infinitely sensitivesets them apart. He brings light and shade to even the shortest phrases; no note, it seems, is held too long or played too loud.
What distinguishes Rio
, though, is the way Jarrett's old self tries new things out. A highlight, the agitated staccato bass line of "Part V" harks back to "Part II" of Koln
, but the sudden bursts of calypso come as a wonderful surprise. "Part VIII" is similar in this respect, and explains Jarrett's feeling that the concert "connected with Brazilian culture in a unique way." The opening chords, conjuring up scenes of the American Midwest, evolve into an elegant Latin American waltz worthy of Heitor Villa-Lobos.
The final piece, its rippling ostinatos reminiscent of Philip Glass
, sounds decidedly New Jarrett at first. ('Contemporary classical' is the phrase many critics seem to favor.) As it develops, though, a connecting thread emerges between the 66 year-old Jarrett in South America and the 26 year-old heard in Facing You
. That thread is a deep instinct for melodysimple, arresting, memorable; what rises above and beyond the whirling background notes of "Part XV" could be easily sung.
After forty years of spontaneous composition, Jarrett remains a great original, and on Rio
, his voice is as clear as ever.