For some reason or another there have never been many keyboard players who have captured my imagination. The only explanation that I can come up with is, having come of age in the seventies, I was subjected to so much over the top keyboard playing by the likes of Emerson Lake & Palmer that the only associations I had with the instrument was melodramatic histrionics. It's the kind of stuff that can scar you for life and it took me a while before I could even be persuaded to sit down and listen to anything played on piano.
The first pianist that broke through the walls was the late, great Glenn Gould. In all honesty, I have to say it was hearing about his eccentricities of character that attracted my attention before his actual playing. The piano stool so low that the keys were almost at eye level when he played and his habit of humming under his breath – out of key and off beat – made him sound so completely different from the ham fisted fellows of progressive rock; I was intrigued enough to seek out his recordings and give them a listen.
Once I realized that pianos, when played by a person with sensitivity and intelligence, could produce beautiful music, I was less resistant to offers of listening to piano music. Which is how I found Keith Jarrett. A friend had a recording of The Koln Concert, a solo performance Jarrett had given in the mid-seventies at the Opera House in Koln Germany. What sticks in my mind even today is how he was able to do so much with what seemed so little. Each note was played with such intensity of purpose that it almost felt like I was intruding upon someone's private meditation instead of listening to a recording of a live concert.
Needless to say this left an indelible impression on me, one that I have never really ever been able to shake. When I thought of Keith Jarrett, heard his name mentioned or saw it in print, the image that would come to mind was what I could remember of that record album's cover. A black grand piano is standing in stark contrast to a blinding white background and the figure of a man sitting with his fingers poised over the keyboard; forever frozen in time awaiting the perfect moment to strike just the right note.
But time doesn't freeze like the photos on album covers or memories, and artists of Keith Jarrett's caliber don't stand still or endlessly repeat the same moments. Eight years after that 1975 concert found Keith Jarrett performing as part of a trio composed of Gary Peacock on double-bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. They recorded a collection of what are, sometimes dismissively, known as "Standards". The strange thing about this term is that it can apply to so many different styles and types of songs. While ostensibly referring to popular music songs that pre-date the rock and roll era that are performed by Las Vegas style lounge acts, anything from Broadway tunes to songs by Stephen Foster have been included under this designation.
The idea that Keith Jarrett would release a collection of music that someone like Wayne Newton or Tom Jones might sing sounded as ridiculous as telling me the Clash had released a collection of Osmond Brothers covers or the collected works of Celine Dion. Yet, if John Coltrane was able to take one of the biggest pieces of schmaltz ever written, "My Favourite Things", and turn it into such a tour de force that it became almost his signature tune, why shouldn't musicians of Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette's caliber do the same?
In commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of these original recordings ECM Records has released the three disc box set Setting Standards: New York Sessions. It brings together all the material the trio recorded during those first sessions in 1983. While the ensuing years have seen them make other recordings of similar material, including a live recording in 2001, My Foolish Heart: Live At Montreux, and they still perform together to this day, it was these initial sessions that set the standard for what they were attempting to accomplish with their new renditions of classic pop tunes.
In the exhaustive essay written by Peter Ruedi for the booklet that accompanies the box set, he asks us to picture a Keith Jarrett who is worried that he is somehow becoming bigger then the music he performs, and feels the need to show people "that music arises from music, from ideas, from material that doesn't necessarily belong to anyone." In choosing to mine the popular standards songbook for material he has selected music that belongs to everybody because of collective familiarity with the tunes, or the associations that the songs might have for individuals.
For two discs, "Standards Volume one" and "Standards Volume two", Jarrett, Peacock, and Dejohnette take us on a journey through music that we might have thought we knew intimately, or at the least were familiar with, and show us the infinite possibilities inherent in any piece of music. Funny enough, it was here for the first time that I discovered a characteristic that Keith Jarrett shared with the late Glenn Gould – the habit of singing along with the music as it's being played in a manner that bears no relationship to the material.
In Gould's case it always sort of struck me as a humming under the breath as he worked, much like any person might tunelessly whistle while working. With Jarrett it seems to be an outlet for the emotions that he builds up while playing, and it becomes a means of underlining passages of music that are particularly rich or involved. If Jarrett is feeling a kind of emotional purging through his playing, as his listeners we can't help but be effected by his state of mind and the level of intensity that this suggests.
In these types of trios, where there is only one traditional lead instrument, the bass player and the drummer run the risk of being overlooked, especially when they are sharing space with someone as dynamic as Jarrett. Yet without them the piano player's performance would become just so much self indulgence. Aside from holding the center together in the face of the storm of notes that are occasionally unleashed by Jarret, Peacock's bass and DeJohnette's drums contribute their own layers of texture and nuance that make the pieces songs.
Together the three of them burn down the original structure of the piece of music that they are performing, and then they guide the phoenix like resurrection of the new song out of the original ashes. It takes an amazing amount of communication between three musicians to be able to accomplish this type of performance; of a type that goes beyond merely listening to what the other is playing but knowing instinctively what they will play almost before they do so themselves.
You never get the feeling that they are reacting to each other, or even responding, but that everything is in complete concert. It would be understandable if they were working from a score, and they each had assigned parts, but that they are able to do this while the music is being created is nothing short of astounding. This is especially true of third disc in this box set, "Changes", which consists of three pieces written by Jarrett; "Flying Parts 1 & 2" and "Prism".
Here in uncharted territory, where they don't have the luxury of having heard and played the pieces countless times before as was the case with the "Standards", their almost precognitive abilities can't be ignored. On "Flying Part 1" Jarrett opens the piece with a slow, sedate melody. After only a few bars you begin to hear a thrumming sound from Peacock's base, first very faint as if far off, but then gradually growing in volume and insistence. Until, what at first might have been the sound of wings in the distance, fills the air, and we are washed with the sound of flight.
The light tap, tap, tapping of the cymbals throughout the entire build up, whose own increases in volume are carefully measured against the pressure of the bass, helps to expand on the feeling of space that the piano has created. Without space there is nowhere for flight to take place and the sound of the bass would only be so much noise, but because of the context created by Jarrett and DeJohnette, the illusion is generated beautifully.
Fast-forward to the year 2001 and the double live disc My Foolish Heart, also just being re-released by ECM records, and hear the trio in full flight playing standards like "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Honeysuckle Rose", and "Only The Lonely" and you can hear the same elements captured in front of a live audience. That the same tension exists in the playing that made the studio performances so stimulating is obvious in the explosive responses of the audience to the conclusion of each song. It's as if they have been holding their collective breaths throughout each number and only release it once the song has reached its conclusion.
As for the trio, they seem to have been able to shed some of the seriousness that marked their first forays back in 1983 and there is a lightness of spirit about their playing that only comes from experience. Yet there is nothing stale about the performance either, these explorations are still new and exciting, and the interactions between the three men still are as laced with the strain of adventure as they were on their first collaboration eight years earlier. While according to the liner notes from the Setting Standards: New York Sessions box set they have been very deliberate in only working together for a few weeks every year as a means of preserving that freshness, I think that given the qualities of each of these three men they could probably do this day in and day out and still not lose that edge.
Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette joined forces in 1983 to make a record of familiar pop "Standards". While the material maybe referred to as a "Standard" there was nothing standard about the results of those recording sessions. Setting Standards: New York Sessions shows that these three men really did set the standard for how this music could and should be played, and what's even more amazing, they continue to match and even raise that bar each year. This is truly some of the most exceptional music you're liable to hear at any time, anywhere and no jazz collection would be complete without owning at least one recording by this trio.