Last Thursday I went to a Keith Jarrett Trio concert in Rotterdam. It was probably the best jazz concert experience I’ve ever had.
The very first “contemporary” jazz1 album I’ve listened to was “Standards, Vol. 1” (ECM 1983). My dad bought it when I was a teenager and played it to me, because I wanted to know other kinds of jazz than swing and bebop. I didn’t like it at first. It seemed chaotic and difficult to listen to. The melodies I knew were lost somewhere, and I didn’t understand how is this interpretation better than good old big bands. The more I listened to it, though, the more I understood, and the more I liked it. You could perhaps say that Keith Jarrett Trio’s standards taught me most things I know about jazz. I learned a lot about how a jazz trio works, how the bass underlines the chords of the piano, and how the drummer keeps things in control. But most importantly, Keith Jarrett Trio’s records opened my mind to a whole new kind of music: contemporary improvisation.
As I was growing up, I kept listening to all kinds of new jazz music. I bought some John Coltrane records and fell in love with hard-bop, only to discover Ornette Coleman some years later and enjoy the hell out of free jazz.2 I also kept reading about new artists, buying albums and even developed taste for some sorts of avant-garde music, but when it comes to classic jazz trio consisting of a grand piano, double bass and the drums, I kept coming back to Keith Jarrett’s band and always thought of it as the model trio. Sure, there are many great ones, Uri Caine’s and Marcin Wasilewski’s being among my favorites, but the level of mastery achieved by KJT seems unachievable by anyone else.
When the concert ended, I realized that writing its “review” won’t be an easy task. Reviewing KJT’s concert is like talking about Velázquez’s paintings. Of course you enjoy them, otherwise you’re an idiot, and of course they’re perfect — everyone knows it and there’s no point in restating the obvious. The only 2 things that can possibly go wrong when it comes to KJT:
The condition of their leader, who, be it for mood- or health-related reasons, can sometimes underperform.3
The sound engineers can potentially screw things up.
Last Thursday night it was definitely the latter, but I’ll get back to that in a minute. Let me first explain why would one want to “review” such an event.
While I was listening to the concert, I realized it is rather hard to put in words why this particular trio is so awesome, and not, for example, Brad Mehldau Trio. “How is it better?”, I asked myself and tried to come up with an answer in my head.
KJT is the very, very best jazz trio in existence primarily because of the novelty of interpretations. What I took for chaos and even noise as a teenager is indeed a number of sublime improvisations. Keith Jarrett, being a brilliant fucking pianist, wraps the themes and melodies we all know so well inside his twisted, complex and melodic improvisations like no one else. During Thursday’s performance it happened so many times that a known theme emerged out of nowhere, and the audience was left stunned: “Where did that come from? How the hell did he do that?” All jazz pianists improvise on melodies from The Great American Songbook, but neither gets even close to Jarrett’s creativity and sensitivity.
Secondly, KJT’s perfection comes from the level of connection between musicians that is hard to match. Some critics argue that Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette have been playing standards for too long4, and that is somewhat true, but then again by doing so they have reached an absolutely perfect connection. No other trio has this.
Thirdly, Keith Jarrett Trio is one of the few jazz bands (if not the only one) to be able to easily move between different types of jazz aesthetics in terms of improvisation style. They are equally good at traditional, straight-ahead and free jazz, and they are even able to mix these together during one concert.
And finally, as you might have expected, there is the way they complement each other. Keith Jarrett plays almost like a classical pianist, and in fact many of his solos resemble something of a classical piano concert. His inclinations towards classical music are the signature of his sound.5 Then there is Gary Peacock on the bass, who’s role here is to do much more than your usual bass player does. Peacock is highly melodious, and his solos are very lyrical, especially for a bass player. Both Jarrett and Peacock are very soft and that’s why they need the big guy on the drums — Jack DeJohnette — who’s definitely the most aggressive element of the trio. DeJohnette’s style is still rather withdrawn compared to other drummers, but he’s the one who adds that chili pepper to the sauce.
If I were to describe their style with one expression, I’d say they’re sound is that of subtle, gentle virtuosity. That’s what they are, and that is why they are so exceptionally good.
Back to the concert: it was much longer than I expected, it lasted for more than 2 hours, and there were 3 encores. Jarrett seemed to be in great shape (given his age and health problems), and even though the drums were much too loud during the first part of the concert, sound engineers fixed the issue after the break and the second part was blissful. It was, as I mentioned in the first line of this post, the best jazz concert I’ve been to (Ornette Coleman Quartet I heard in Warsaw in the summer of 2007 is the 2nd best now).
As a final note, I’d like to thank my girlfriend Karolina who got the tickets and invited me to the concert. A fantastic experience I will probably never forget. Thank you.
Sorry for the quotation marks, but does anyone really know what is contemporary jazz? ↩︎
Speaking of discovering artists, the funny thing is I got my hands on Miles Davis’ albums pretty late, and for whatever reason he never got the love he apparently deserves from me. I adore “Bitches Brew”, but not much more. (Weird). ↩︎
Calling Jarrett moody is actually an understatement. Go google him and you’ll see plenty of stories about his, hmm, erratic behavior. ↩︎
It is in fact their 30th anniversary tour! ↩︎