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Music Review: Keith Jarrett – Testament

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The genius of Keith Jarrett is his ability to improvise fully-formed compositions for solo piano in a live setting. While this is practically unheard of, Jarrett has been doing it for decades. One of the highest selling albums in jazz history is his Köln Concert from 1975. On Köln, Jarrett is simply amazing, with one piece clocking in at 41 minutes, all of it improvised on the spot.

In the 34 years since Köln, Jarrett has tried a number of things. He recorded as a trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette in the 1980’s. And he has pursued his abiding interest in classical music over time as well. But something of a personal tragedy turned him back to the approach his audience loves so dearly.

When Keith’s wife of 30 years left him, he was devastated. The liner notes he wrote for Testament are some of the most personal I have ever read. In them he describes getting back onstage in this environment as: “A scramble to stay alive, as music has been my life.”

The two concerts that make up Testament were held in Paris and London. The first disc of this three CD set was recorded in Paris on November 26, 2008. It speaks volumes about his inner turmoil.

Opening the disc is “Part I” (everything is referred to numerically), and it is somewhat tentative as he seems to be casting about as to where this musical journey will go. By “II” though, his muse has returned. This is the Keith Jarrett of old. Confident, and playing as if this is a song he has known forever. From here the pace never slackens. There are some notably dissonant moments to add suspense, and some incredibly soothing selections as well.

My personal favorite of the eight tracks is “VII.” Jarrett seems to reference his old boss Miles Davis here. Actually it is the late Bill Evans, who played piano on Kind Of Blue that this track reminds me of the most. Evans’ solo on Blue’s final cut, “Flamenco Sketches” is one of the most indelible ever. Jarrett seems to use a taste of it as a jumping off point for an exquisite turn of his own.

Discs two and three hail from the London show, December 1, 2008. This was to be Keith Jarrett’s first appearance there in 18 years. The notes convey his state of mind better than anything else could, “ On the way into London, I had as close a brush with a nervous breakdown as I’ve had.”

The London set opens with echoes of Paris, with Jarrett seemingly searching through various motifs, to find what feels right. Fortunately, London proved to be one of his finest nights behind the keys ever.

This is an extremely varied set. In “III” I hear some Ray Charles nods, “IV” is as intimate as a piano can sound, and “V” goes down some dissonant dark alleys. The mood gets playfully sinister on “Part VII,” and “VIII” brings to mind John Coltrane’s “After The Rain.”

The final 17 minutes are impeccable. “XI” is as gorgeous as a solo piano can sound. And with “XII” Jarrett sums up the night, and his return to this type of music with an almost religiously glorious piece.

The master has clearly lost none of his fire. Playing through a deep hurt, and never flinching,Testament becomes a literal testament. It is a recording that not only extolls the joys of music, but it’s healing powers as well.

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