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The Keith Jarrett Trio: Ten Essential Recordings

The Keith Jarrett Trio: Ten Essential Recordings

Courtesy Daniela Yohannes


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The Keith Jarrett Trio, or The Standards Trio, as it later became known, with Gary Peacock on double bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, is one of the most celebrated and influential jazz trios of all time. The group was formed in 1983 but Jarrett and DeJohnette had been collaborating since the late 1960s when they performed together in Miles Davis' band. The early version of the Jarrett trio featured Charlie Haden on bass, with Peacock coming in at the suggestion of ECM founder, Manfred Eicher. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette were already well-established, top-tier artists, and the trio quickly established itself as one of the time's most innovative and creative jazz groups. Their unique approach to improvisation and musical interplay was widely acclaimed, and they went on to record several critically praised albums. The Standards Trio did not confine its repertoire to interpretations; they typically added one or two original compositions to their recordings.

Life Between the Exit Signs (Vortex, 1968), (Jarrett's first leader recording), Somewhere Before (Vortex, 1969), and The Mourning of a Star (Atlantic Recordings, 1971) all featured an earlier Jarrett trio with Haden and Paul Motian. A late discovery with that lineup, Live At Gran Studio 104 In Paris, June 9th 1972 (Storytime, 2017) went unreleased for twenty-five years despite being an excellent and well-recorded concert.

There are two anomalies under the Jarrett trio umbrella. Tales of Another (1977) preceded the Jarrett-led "standards" group. With Peacock billed as the leader, the studio album was the Standard Trio lineup and the genesis of the group that would formalize under Jarrett, six years later. The overall sound is just slightly different as Peacock composed the six pieces and the bass is more prolific. At the Deer Head Inn (1992) was a unique project for two reasons. Paul Motian, who also played with Dewey Redman and Haden, in Jarrett's American quartet, filled in for DeJohnette. The venue, a small club in the Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, was a change from the larger settings Jarrett and the trio had become accustomed to playing. Motian's drumming style was a marked contrast to DeJohnette, creating a sound that was buoyant and flowing.

From their inception in 1983 until their final performance in 2014, the trio produced a body of work that has had a profound impact on jazz and on music as a whole. The Zen-like focus that drives Jarrett's creative flow as a solo artist, influences his like-minded colleagues. The trio's approach to playing standards was unique beyond taking improvisation to another level, moving in unexpected directions, and breathing new life into classic tunes. The albums are listed in order of preference rather than chronologically. Except where noted, all albums in this article are ECM-issued.

At the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings 1995

Sometimes, audience energy can be a detriment, such as on Jarrett's solo The Carnegie Hall Concert (ECM, 2006) where it takes up more oxygen than advisable. The opposite effect is heard on At the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings where the crowd and musicians mutually feed on the positive vibes. The pricey six-CD collection is worth every penny.

The group had proven everything there was to prove long before this week-long engagement was compiled. More than fifteen years beyond their first recording, the trio's telepathic communication and interplay made them the gold standard for piano trios. Though the trio revisits a number of overly-familiar pieces, they work up more unique variations of standards than John Coltrane's readings of "My Favorite Things."

At the Blue Note showcases a diverse range of moods and atmospheres. "Bop-Be" displays an affinity for up-tempo, bop-inflected improvisation, while pieces like "I Fall in Love Too Easily" demonstrate sensitivity and capacity for introspection without losing energy. This variety keeps the album engaging from start to finish.

Tribute (1990)

This two-CD live set from a single 1989 concert in Köln has been criticized for its flaws but they are few and insignificant in the scheme of things. Yes, the familiar Jarrett grunting is nothing short of painful on two or three tracks and there is a bit of his directionless drifting early on. Nevertheless, there is much great music here, each selection dedicated to an artist who performed the piece. Peacock and DeJohnette take a supportive role in the many ballads such as "Lover Man," "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "All of You." However, the gloves come off on the extended and knotty improvisations such as "All the Things You Are" and "I Hear a Rhapsody." The latter opens with Jarrett's thoughtful, flowing solo before DeJohnette ruptures the calm in what becomes a twelve-minute thriller. Peacock offers a finely nuanced performance on "Little Girl Blue" where he grounds the music even while exploring its limits. "U Dance," the final track on the superior second disc, is lighthearted with a Latin flavor. It is one of two Jarrett originals on Tribute and the trio has an infectiously good time in its performance.

After The Fall (2018)

In the year between ECM releases Tokyo '96 (1997) and Whisper Not (1999), Jarrett's iconic trio returned to live performances following a two-year break. Jarrett's bout with chronic fatigue syndrome left him physically and emotionally drained, but with the condition in check, his expressive passion and physical enthusiasm returned in full force. If it appears that picking familiar selections from the Great American Songbook provided a comfortable re-entry for Jarrett, the fiery improvisations in this session indicate that the trio was ready for a convincing and hard-driving outing. Disc 1 opens with "The Masquerade Is Over"; a tranquil introduction is ignited when DeJohnette's accelerated pacing urges Jarrett into a more animated space. The trio doesn't come up for air until near the end of a fifteen-plus minute marathon. The general tone is set for a number of cookers, including John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice," Sonny Rollins' "Doxy" and Bud Powell's "Bouncin' With Bud." The trio offers a white-knuckled version of Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From The Apple" featuring an astounding interchange between DeJohnette and Jarrett. Gary Peacock shines on Pete La Roca's buoyant "One For Majid" and with his extended solo on "Autumn Leaves." The trio includes two ballads with one of their staples, "When I Fall In Love," closing the collection.

Changeless (1989)

Already established as a virtuosic soloist, Jarrett held some of his improvisational prowess in reserve in the trio setting. With Changeless he further pushed a merger of formats on this collection of four extended pieces. Unusual for the trio, no standards were included here. The exuberant maneuverings of "Dancing" open this 1987 live set with lingering grooves accented with jumps into spontaneity. The unhurried "Endless" is no less a brilliant expressive creation; Peacock's resounding bass and DeJohnette's subtle stick work produce a lengthy, mesmerizing transition to the spellbinding "Lifeline." Changeless closes with the stunning thirteen-minute "Ecstasy."

Bye Bye Blackbird (1991)

Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette recorded Bye Bye Blackbird as a tribute to Miles Davis, just after the trumpeter's passing. In that respect, there is more focus than Jarrett's typical "let the tape roll" approach. Not to say that improvisational prowess is not prominently showcased throughout the album. A track such as "Butch and Butch" exemplifies the trio's ability to collectively explore diverse musical landscapes. Beginning with a loose framework, each player introduces their ideas progressively and the music builds and collapses as it develops.

The renditions of ballads like "You Won't Forget Me," and "Summer Night," showcase sensitivity and emotional depth in stark contrast to the freewheeling entries. Jarrett's nuanced touch shines through, as he delivers heartfelt performances that balance delicacy with introspection. Peacock's basslines provide a warm and empathetic underpinning, while DeJohnette's brushwork adds a layer of subtlety to the rhythmic texture.

Still Live (1988)

Still Live is characterized by solid interplay, empathy, and risk-taking. Jarrett's performance is filled with intricate melodic lines, harmonically rich progressions, and rhythmic complexities. His ability to seamlessly weave together lyrical ballads and intense rhythmic explorations is the stuff of legends. The double album was recorded during a performance at the Philharmonic Hall in Munich, Germany, in July 1986.

The trio performs familiar show tunes from Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, and Harold Arlen, interspersed with pieces from Fats Waller, Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker and Benny Golson. Peacock's melodic solos and dynamic accompaniment greatly influence the texture of the music while DeJohnette is a driving force behind the trio's energy. Among the many highlights of Still, Live is "Autumn Leaves" featuring a dynamic performance with shifting tempos and moods.

Hamburg '72 (2014)

In retrospect, it's almost unimaginable that a better triad could have existed in comparison to that of Hamburg '72. Jarrett—adding flute, soprano sax, and a bit of percussion to his piano performance—with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian were the quintessential combo, pulling together their collective experiences with saxophonists Charles Lloyd, Ornette Coleman and pianist Bill Evans respectively.

Leading up to the Hamburg recording, three previous albums had each garnered critical acclaim for the trio but by comparison, the overall content of the earlier trio releases was less engrossing, not quite as consistent as Hamburg '72, an album that raised the post-Evans bar. Powerful improvisations, expressive solos, and flawless group dynamics persist throughout the compositions that Jarrett tailored to the strengths of the trio.

Remixed from a live NDR Jazz radio performance, Hamburg '72 manifests a combination of flawless synergy and matchlessly original playing. The opening solo notes of "Rainbow" are reminiscent of Jarrett's later European solo performances. About two minutes in, Haden and Motian audaciously kick in with a counter-strategy; Haden's later solo plays to the heart of the music, improvising without embellishments. More than any other modern drummer, Motian displays a penchant for deftly constructing pieces of unrelated rhythms, appending them to Haden and Jarrett solos. His presence is at times elusive, always articulate, and indispensable to the group dynamic.

Always Let Me Go -Live In Tokyo (2001)

Jarrett emphasized that Always Let Me Go -Live In Tokyo would move away from standards in favor of more free improvisation. That point is exaggerated when the double-disc set opens with the half-hour plus "Hearts in Space." The over-indulgent piece starts and stops, taking forever to get nowhere in particular. But patience is soon rewarded on "The River," an intimate solo piano number. When the trio comes back for the extended "Tributaries," Jarrett's vision is more satisfyingly fulfilled. By the time the set concludes with the rousing "Relay," the trio's "new" direction is completely justified. Always Let Me Go proved to be a temporary divestiture from the standards formula. The succeeding and final four trio albums were solidly packed with tried-and-true tunes. The experiment however, may have been the impetus for a freer treatment of standards than what Jarrett had applied earlier.

Standards in Norway (1989)

In 1989, Jarrett embarked on an exhausting series of solo and trio concerts in North and South America, Asia, and eight European countries. The trio, at the peak of its powers, recorded Standards in Norway during the European leg of the tour. The album is often overlooked and was not universally praised by critics. As the title suggests, the material here is well-worn and often rooted in musical theater. What makes the album inspiring is the way Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette infuse energy into some admittedly tired pieces such as "Little Girl Blue" and "I Hear a Rhapsody." Equally notable are "All of You," and "How About You?" In the face of some routine material choices, the trio's unique lyricism, technique, and ability to convey deep emotions make this album worth revisiting.

Somewhere (2013)

Jarrett's introduction sets the tone, leading into Somewhere's adept rendition of Miles Davis' "Solar." The album, recorded in Switzerland in the summer of 2009, marks the 30th anniversary of Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette's first New York session. One notable performance is the trio's rendition of "Stars Fell on Alabama" where Peacock's discerning taste and tone were prominently displayed. Another distinctive interpretation is offered for "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," leveraging the trio's adept ability to imply swing without obvious implementation. Despite the song's precarious structure, it remains steadfast, even during DeJohnette's solo. The set concluded with a quixotic touch, featuring "I Thought About You," underscoring the trio's egalitarian dynamics.


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