Here is Jarrett, back on his feet, sliding down the chimney with gifts.
Keith Jarrett’s new/old double-disc ECM release— a recording of his trio in concert in 1998 after a year-long recovery from an illness—catches him stretching his limbs, but doing so carefully, after a long rest. Jarrett was a maverick at one time, a jazz pianist who was bringing a sense of adventure to a group that had seized a slice of the popular imagination during the trippy late 1960s—the Charles Lloyd Quartet. With chops that understood gospel music, Bud Powell bop piano and classical études equally well, Jarrett then joined forces with Miles Davis, powering some of his most radical bands through the use electric piano and organ, even though Jarrett generally eschewed plugging in. After that, on his own, Jarrett was a three-pronged jazz hero: playing daring music with his talent-rich American band (Dewey Redman on reeds, Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums); playing crystalline chamber jazz with a European band (featuring saxophonist Jan Garbarek); and crafting dazzling solo improvisations that used no composed themes of any kind.
In his most active years, Keith Jarrett was a bankable jazz star who didn’t compromise. And along the way, he wrote some symphonic music, recorded baroque music and even became famous for getting angry at audiences who coughed too often during his concerts. Over time, however, Jarrett has also become a standard-bearer, particularly when he settled into a prolific recording stretch with bandmates Gary Peacock (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums), playing jazz standards and also original tunes and free improvisations. But with this band, he was no longer a maverick. Still playing with rare lyricism and feeling, he stuck mostly to the classics.
After the Fall documents this trio, playing for the first time at a New Jersey concert space after chronic fatigue syndrome had laid the pianist low. The concert was seen as a tentative re-emergence where they stuck largely to bebop tunes and standards. Maybe they weren’t pushing that hard, giving the leader a chance to stretch out his legs without straining them. The result, however, is fairly magical. And maybe that was no coincidence. Maybe a bit of relaxation—even a lowering of grand standards—was just what this superstar jazz trio needed to make the music more flexible and transparent.
There is no better example of what goes right here than this version of the standard warhorse “Autumn Leaves.” The theme is stated with conversational ease with DeJohnette on brushes, but once the piano solo starts and the drummer picks up his sticks, the cookin’ really begins. The two go at each other, DeJohnette poking and provoking, jabbing and instigating more daring playing from Jarrett. Peacock holds down the swing, but the conversation between the two percussion instruments is the thing, sending Jarrett back to his creative core. About eight minutes in, a bass solo transforms into conversation among the trio mates that pulls away from the chords of “Autumn Leaves.” Jarrett plays a simple repeated figure on piano over a single chord as bass and drums move into a collective jam of hypnotic power. Though the melody returns briefly, the jam ends the performance in mesmerizing fashion, a rhythmic stew. The trio, four songs in, finds a place of brilliant originality.
From that point onward, the recording takes on great authority and pleasure. The bop tunes are not so much electric as pure and natural. “Bouncin’ with Bud” is light and flowing, a mid-tempo stroll over which Jarrett often plays stock phrases in a way that brings them alive because of context. At the start of his second chorus, for example, he slips in a quick allusion to the theme from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with such casual grace that you smile at never realizing how very bebop it was.
Jarrett has many pianistic influences, but Bill Evans is not evoked often, despite the obvious melodic drive both exhibit. “I’ll See You Again,” taken in swinging waltz time, demonstrates the gentle lyricism that Evans mastered, even if Jarrett brings a heavier, more solid time to his improvised lines. The trio plays “When I Fall in Love” with unusual transparency, again calling to mind Evans and his bands. Peacock and DeJohnette pull back so beautifully on the head that Jarrett can play parts of the melody in the upper register as an aching whisper, his left hand outlining the harmony with a slippery vagueness. On his solo, Jarrett plays at first with a lazy, luxurious ease, staying mostly behind the beat, leaning on the written melody often, unafraid to seem simple. You can sense the audience focusing, breathing with the musicians.
The other strength here is simply hearing this storied group play 12-bar blues. “One for Majid” offers up a bopping riff for blues playing, and the group tosses it off with casual pleasure. Folks annoyed by Jarrett’s habit of grunt-singing along with his improvisations will notice a bit of that here, but I love the sound of a man phrasing his piano lines with an honest, vocal quality. Everything about this performance is modest on the surface but golden at its core. Jarrett lets each chorus build slightly, easing the heat upward, going from a simmer to a light boil, but never overdoing a bit of it. Peacock takes a simple chorus before Jarrett enters again, pushing the heat higher with his left hand now jabbing and chording more heavily as DeJohnette responds with accents on his cymbals and snare. Will they give it a big finish?
Nope. And that’s why this is now a favorite Standards Trio album. At the moment when the group might have gone big on another night, a night when everyone was at full strength, they just pull things back, tighten up the swing, head back to the theme and snip it back to the core. This is jazz you can love without too much crushing heaviness. With the concert played during the late-in-the-year holiday season, the band slips in a gospel-driven “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” a thing you wouldn’t expect and don’t need to be a masterpiece. But it delights. There’s no carol like it, anywhere.
Here was Jarrett, back on his feet, sliding down the chimney with gifts. Not a big Cadillac with a bow on it, nah, but simple gifts: blues, swing, ballads, melody, joy. This is not the sometimes pretentious or occasionally overbearing Keith Jarrett. After the Fall is something close to sublime precisely because it’s holding back. This is the art of playing together.