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Keith Jarrett

After The Fall

by Robin Kidson

 

 

 

Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett - photograph by Henry Leutwyler for ECM

 

I saw Keith Jarrett play live once in the unlikely setting of a field on the Isle of Wight. It was 1970 and the Island was hosting a massive “pop” festival, the “English Woodstock”. Jarrett was playing keyboards in Miles Davis’ band. Miles was in his Bitches Brew period where it seemed to me that what he really wanted was to be a 'rock god' with all the accompanying adulation and money. After a career built on an economic, “less is more” minimalism, he had decided to try “more is more” so his band at the Isle of Wight had to include not one but two pianists, Jarrett and Chick Corea, both playing electric keyboards.

 

A film was made of Miles’ performance – it is introduced by a somewhat ambivalent Jarrett.

 

 

 

Keith Jarrett went on, of course, to forge a career as varied and as critically acclaimed as that of his old mentor, Miles. It’s a career as far away from the excesses of Bitches Brew as it is possible to go. Jarrett has, for example, largely eschewed electric instrumentation preferring to stick to acoustic piano. He has also preferred, in his jazz work at least, to play either completely solo or else in small groups where the idea of having two keyboard players would be unthinkable.

Jarrett’s solo piano work is a thing of wonder. His ability to improvise for whole concerts is legendary. His concert in Köln, Germany in 1975, where he wrestled a dodgy piano into submission producing over an hour of the most sublime improvised music, has become a landmark in jazz history. The recording of the concert – The Köln Concert – is the best-selling solo jazz album ever. It was released on Manfred Eicher’s German-based record label, ECM, which has continued to be Jarrett’s main outlet ever since.

 

For a taste of what Jarrett’s solo concerts feel like, here is a snatch from a concert in Tokyo in 1984.

 

 

 

 

Keith Jarrett Trio

 

Of the small groups which Jarrett has led in his long career, it is his trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums which was the most long lasting. It became known as the “Standards Trio” from a series of recordings and concerts in which it breathed new life into old standards. Jarrett’s glittering career came to a sudden halt in 1996 when he was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

 

“…I hit ground zero”, he recalls, “and was staring at my pianos, unable to play anything. As my doctor and I worked out what to do, I gradually (very gradually) improved, but if I played at all, I would relapse and hit bottom again”.

 

In 1998, he started playing tentatively again with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette in his studio. He decided to attempt a concert with his trio at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre at Newark, New Jersey, near his home “as a kind of scary experiment”.

 

 

The concert went ahead in November 1998 and a recording of the event has recently been released by ECM - click here. It is called After The Fall “sort of as a bookend to my ‘fall’ into sickness” and marked the beginning of a gradual process of recovery. Keith Jarrett After The FallThe pieces on the album are reworkings of old standards including a number of bebop tunes such as Charlie Parker’s Scrapple From The Apple and Bud Powell’s Bouncin’ With Bud.

One of the many admirable characteristics of Jarrett’s playing is that he never falls into the improviser’s trap of playing the same old phrases in the same old way and travelling along a comfortable rut. He is always trying something new and original. Many of the tracks on After The Fall tread a similar path – an efficient statement of the tune followed by improvised phrases which gradually move away from the melody, becoming more and more adventurous with occasional bombs of discordance, little snatches of some other, vaguely familiar tune, and Jarrett’s trademark vocalisations - little shouts, cries of almost ecstasy - before the original tune gradually re-emerges. This is particularly the case with some of the longer pieces on the album – the 15 minute The Masquerade Is Over, for example.

Jarrett’s improvisations usually follow on from each other in a fairly structured way. You can often hear how his mind is working, how one idea leads to another, then another and so on. And when he hits on a more fruitful idea, he will pursue that for a while, occasionally hitting an absorbing and exciting groove (cue another ecstatic vocalisation). His technique is so astounding that it seems that any idea can instantly be translated into music. It is almost as if there is no gap between the thought and the note, as if every fingertip has its own brain.

All three musicians are clearly so used to working with each other that there is a telepathic understanding between them and an idea thrown out by one will be taken up and developed by the others. There are some wonderful moments at the end of Autumn Leaves where the group hits on a groove with Peacock playing the same absorbing riff and Jarrett and DeJohnette gently playing on top of it. And somewhere, there is the sound of leaves falling.

 

Listen to Autumn Leaves

 

 

 

All the tracks on the album may be old standards – sometimes, rather hackneyed old standards – but they are all treated with respect by Jarrett. He is always able to find something new and worthy in them and always able to somehow capture their essence. Even a tune like Santa Claus Is Coming To Town emerges with honour from the trio’s hands. The final track is a straightforward rendering of When I Fall In Love. What emerges is just a beautiful and moving piece of music. It is a fitting end to an enjoyable album, one which may capture playing that is twenty years old but is still a worthy addition to the Jarrett canon.

 

There’s a live performance by the Standards Trio of When I Fall In Love in Tokyo in 1986.

 

 

 

Click here for more about CFS or ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) on the NHS website. A correspondent on the ME Association website describes what living with ME is actually like: "Not many people know what ME is. Those who have heard of it often explain it as ‘being really tired all the time' ... Cold, medical language does little to paint a picture of what it’s like to live with ME. I describe it as my body being like a dodgy phone battery. It drains a lot faster than everyone else’s, and even if I charge it multiple times a day it still ends up flat. No amount of sleep feels refreshing and on bad days I ache all over. I feel dizzy and light headed, and struggle to even focus on watching TV. As a bookworm and freelance writer one of the most devastating effects on my life has been my inability to concentrate. My short-term memory is worse than your Nan’s after a few brandies. It’s a battle to pick even a commonplace word out of the alphabet spaghetti soup inside my brain ...."

“I told the guys in the trio” says Jarrett, “that, for me, bebop might be the best idea, because although it required great technique, I didn’t think I needed to play as hard as I often did as my energy still seemed too low to ‘dig in’ too much”. It has to be said that the album is a joy from start to finish with absolutely no sign of low energy levels. All three musicians are at the top of their game and are clearly enjoying themselves as is the audience, judging from the warm applause.

 

Click here for details of the album, and there is an “unofficial website” devoted to Keith Jarrett here.

 

Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett

 

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