Here's where it all started…
Pianist Keith Jarrett, double-bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Jack DeJohnette make up the threesome that today is the gold standard of trio jazz. You've might have even seen me effuse about them in the past a time or two. And this month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first recordings by Jarrett's "Standards" Trio. (Note: this lineup previously recorded Tales of Another in 1977, but it was collection of Peacock originals, not standards).
To mark the event, ECM Records has re-issued the entire contents of the January, 1983 sessions at New York's famed Power Station studio. These sessions spun off not only the single standards album that was originally intended (Standards, Vol. 1), but also another one (Standards, Vol. 2) and a third containing two Jarrett originals (Changes). For the first time, these three albums are combined into a single box set attractively packaged with informative liner notes and vintage photos from the recording sessions. ECM appropriately titled this collection Setting Standards.
How Jarrett got the idea to do this in an era where everyone was writing and playing their own material is easier to understand when you look at his history of being a bit of a rebel. He rebelled against acoustic bop in the early seventies when he joined Miles Davis' electric fusion band and toured with it for about eighteen months. Not long afterwards, he rebelled against electric jazz itself and played unplugged exclusively from that point on. He rebelled against structured jazz and ensemble jazz by holding solo concerts where he made up extended pieces on the spot. And in early 1983, he decided to rebel against the growing notion that in order to be creative, you must play melodies that no one has heard before.
It's on these recordings that Jarrett reintroduced and reinforced the idea that standards are vehicles for limitless invention. Moreover, it can be done without emptying out the heart of the tune. If you know these songs, you can locate the themes of them in any interpretation made by this group. At the same time, you'll also find that these guys play them in such a way that transcends these standards.
In each of the covers, Keith & Co. do something a little bit out of the ordinary that set their presentation of these well-worn classics apart from everyone else's. On "Meaning Of The Blues" it's the way Peacock makes his bass sing like a bird. On "All The Things You Are" it's Jarrett and DeJohnette sync-locked into a groove in the lively middle section. On "God Bless The Child" it's the extended insistent, mid-tempo rock shuffle that makes one wonder what is all the fuss about The Bad Plus.
While there was probably nothing intended to distinguish Vol. 1 from Vol. 2, the first volume's strong suit is the imaginative arrangements of the songs, while the second volume showcases Jarrett's considerable piano playing prowess better. It might be because the material on the second volume presents more challenges to him.
The lyrical samba "So Tender" is actually an old, obscure Jarrett piece that he introduced on Airto's 1972 debut album. He and Peacock alternate turns locking down the main melodic line and squeezing all the possibilities out of it. "Moon and Sand" showcases Jarrett's single-line supremacy followed by Peacock's beautifully melancholy performance on his solo turn. Jarrett is having so much fun cutting loose on "If I Should Lose You" his familiar vocalizing turns into outright joyful shouts in the middle of the improvising.
Since the two song collection Changes contains just Jarrett compositions, it can be considered the "bonus disc" of the box set even though it was released as a standalone album. But its inclusion still makes sense as it was recorded in the same sessions as Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and provides contrast to the standards while at the same time showing continuity. Here, we get to listen to the same crew tackle more abstract compositions that take longer to reveal itself.
The first part of "Flying" is almost a free-flowing stream of modal consciousness, while the second part is a funky shuffle that dissolves into a terrific DeJohnette drum solo. It's almost as if Jarrett made up the tune on the spot and maybe he did, just as he's done so without accompaniment for audiences around the globe in the prior decade to much acclaim. But to add Peacock and DeJohnette to the mix and to hear them being able to follow and even anticipate Jarrett's next moves is something far out of the ordinary for a combo. It's magical.
All told, Changes is not much unlike the music the Jarrett was playing with his European quartet of the seventies. Indeed, "Prism" is a remake of a Jarrett song from that quartet. Thus, Changes provides a vital link back to his accompanied works of the seventies using his trio of the eighties and beyond.
When comparing these first standards recordings to, say, last year's release My Foolish Heart, you can sense a great deal of growth in the chemistry among these three over the years. This despite them only getting together for a couple of weeks each year, but each time they do, it's a special event (and often results in a special live album). However, that chemistry was strong even at the beginning.
Most importantly, Jarrett and his uber-talented cohorts proved that you can play overly familiar tunes with only a piano trio and still create something fresh and exciting at a very high level. A quarter of a century later, they are still wowing audiences from Montreaux to Montreal using this same idea.
And here, on Setting Standards, is where it all started.