Tuesday, January 29, 2008

25 Years of Jarrett Standards

My Foolish Heart: Live at Montreux 2-CD
Setting Standards: New York Sessions 3-CD
Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette
ECM Records

As celebrated as Keith Jarrett’s solo work (like the bestselling Köln Concert) has been, the so-called Standards Trio is probably his admirers’ preferred format to hear his piano artistry. It was twenty-five years ago roughly that Jarrett went into a Manhattan studio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette for ECM’s Manfred Eicher. It worked out well for all involved. Recently, My Foolish Heart, a live set documenting the trio at the 2001 Montreux Jazz Festival was issued, and this month sees the release of Setting Standards, a special anniversary collection of the three albums worth of music recorded at that fateful 1983 session. Together these five disks make quite an impact, artistically and as indication of Jarrett’s esteem as a recording artist, so it seems fitting to address them together in one big value-sized review.

The Montreux disks kick off with a brisk take on the Miles Davis standard “Four.” Jarrett’s playing is particularly fluid and his trademark vocalizations are audible throughout. The title standard starts with an appropriately sensitive interpretation by Jarrett, until he briefly kicks up the tempo about halfway through, with Peacock and DeJohnette following totally in-synch. Peacock solos tastefully and DeJohnette’s drumming is supportive and complimentary.

“What’s New” is a nice example of the democratic nature of the trio, with Peacock getting ample room to solo, as Jarrett comps underneath him. From there they take “The Song is You” as a bebop burner propelled along by DeJohnette’s roiling percussion.

Heart’s first disk ends with one of three tunes Jarrett describes as “ragtime” numbers, designed to stun an under-appreciative Montreux audience. Actually, they are well within in the jazz idiom, but the tunes have a stride-like feel, and are indeed surprisingly jaunty. Jarrett has stirred controversy for laying beat-downs on inattentive audiences and distracting photographers (for which I refuse to fault him). However, his “ragtime” gambit completely won over any wavering listeners judging by the roar of applause ending disk one.

“Honeysuckle Rose” and “You Took Advantage of Me” kick off the second disk in the same spirit. “Advantage” is a particularly infectious swinger. Jarrett’s playing is marked by uncommon wit and verve here, aided by DeJohnette’s sly percussive accents. Again, Jarrett and company cover a wide range of standards, including Gerry Mulligan’s “Five Brothers,” which Jarrett opens up beautifully.

The trio can really lock-in on ballads, so not surprisingly that is what the two longest tracks of Heart are—namely the title song, and “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.” In-the-moment inspiration is what drives their live performances, and they truly conjure up a fragile and melancholy mood in “Tears.” They fittingly conclude with another ballad, “Only the Lonely,” a truly fine example of the trio’s interplay. DeJohnette’s shimmering cymbals combine with Jarrett’s piano for a delicate conclusion that takes one’s breath away, before the familiar voice of Claude Nobs signals the end of the set. It wouldn’t be a live Montreux recording without him.

Setting Standards collects Standards Vol. 1 and II with Changes. Together it is a great bundle of music. More than the Montreux set, it shows their predilection for recasting standards in different spirits. “God Bless the Child” for instance, on Volume I, is taken at a faster tempo than usual, but is extremely soulful, and surprisingly groovy. It would be a good blindfold tune if not for Jarrett’s vocal accompaniment. Jarrett sounds like he is singing along with joy on “The Masquerade is Over,” that has none of the bittersweet quality commonly associated with the standard. “Meaning of the Blues” begins as blue as the blues get, but evolves into something else entirely, richly completing a disk that started something that would hold up well.

Standards Volume II begins with an elegantly swinging “So Tender,” Jarrett’s own slightly Latin standard from collaborations with Airto Moreira, and a bit of a ringer in the session. Again, the Standards Trio sets unconventional moods, as in “If I Should Lose You” which has little of the maudlin sentimentality usually associated with the song. Instead, there is an audible sense of joy—even an exultation of “whee” from Jarrett. Clearly, sensitive ballads continued to inspire, as on the closer, “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” but they still manage to take it in unexpected directions.

The final disk serves as the exception to the rule. Though recorded during the same period, Changes consists of three long original composition/improvisations, which gives a complete picture of the trio’s collective power. All three tracks are in fact quite melodic—elastic in form, but far from unstructured. “Flying Part 1” is fascinating look at their developing cohesion, as the intensity rises and falls. Peacock gives “Part 2” a greater sense of pulse, providing a launching pad for Jarrett’s explorations. The concluding “Prism” is more contemplative fare which Jarrett built his reputation.

Separately the 1983 releases have turned on a lot of Jarrett fans. Having them packaged together in Setting Standards represents a great value. Along with Heart, they account for five disks of Jarrett’s Standards Trio hitting the shelves in recent months, making a heavy statement about Jarrett’s prestige with his label and in the marketplace. It called for some extreme reviewing. It’s intense, but recommended—go ahead kids, try this at home.

(Note: Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette will perform at NJPAC Fe. 2nd. They will return to NY for a Carnegie Hall concert Oct. 18th.)