Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Keith Jarrett’

Keith Jarrett’s ‘After the Fall’

Keith Jarrett TrioIn the summer of 2000 I spent an hour across a table from Keith Jarrett in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Baie des Anges in Nice. Infuriatingly, he chose to conduct the conversation while wearing mirror shades. An interviewer tries to establish some kind of rapport with his/her subject, in which eye contact plays a part; the shades meant that I spent the hour staring at reflections of myself. I thought it was discourteous, and possibly a bit passive-aggressive. Somewhat wryly, I thought back to the morning 30 years earlier when he had wandered unannounced into the offices of the Melody Maker, a couple of days after his appearance with Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight, hoping to persuade someone to interview him.

Anyway, he talked interestingly. He was in Nice with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, his fellow members of what had become known as the Standards Trio. They were on their first tour since Jarrett’s recovery from a bout of chronic fatigue syndrome, which had left him unable to play for two years. His gradual recovery had been indicated by the release of a solo album titled The Melody At Night, With You. Its gentle, almost unadorned treatments of standards and folk tunes, recorded at his home, make it a special favourite of mine. “I learnt something about playing the piano,” he told me when I asked him about it. “The heart determines where the music comes from, and there was more heart in that recording than there was virtuosity, but what I had as a pianist I put into the heart place, and that can translate into other contexts.” (You can read the whole interview, published by the Guardianhere.)

Now we have a new release of a trio album made during that period (in November 1998, in fact) at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre in Newark, not far from Jarrett’s home. Called After the Fall, it’s a document — like The Melody at Night — of a man testing the state of his physical powers, on this occasion with the support of his two musical soulmates.

Wanting to keep things simple, they stuck to bebop and standards. “When I first came back to playing, I didn’t want to play as hard,” Jarrett told me in Nice. “I didn’t want to dig in to the piano as much. Bebop was the right thing to do, because there’s a lightness to it.” But isn’t bebop a notably athletic and competitive idiom, perhaps unsuited to convalescent therapy? “Yes, but it’s light-footed, if you think about it. Playing in large halls with the trio, and trying to project to the people, I ended up playing hard, and I didn’t want to do that. With bebop the phrasing is more like a voice phrasing, because most of the bebop players – except maybe Bud – were horn players. I wanted to have a chance to phrase like that.”

There’s no sense of frailty in evidence. Instead there’s a leanness and a clarity that make it exceptional. Jarrett is a great bebop player: a passage six minutes into Bud Powell’s “Bouncin’ with Bud” finds him unspooling a line that would make the tune’s composer stand and applaud, and there are moments of similar exhilaration on Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple” and John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”. He plays the blues elegantly on Pete La Roca’s “One for Majid”, produces characteristically lustrous ballad readings of “Late Lament” and “When I Fall in Love”, and exposes his sense of humour on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. A 15-minute version of “The Masquerade Is Over” devolves from its medium-up tempo through a beautiful collective transition into the coolest lope imaginable, while a 13-minute “Autumn Leaves” ends on a glorious Latin groove, rocking along to Peacock’s bass riff .

The fact that many of these tunes feature on the trio’s earlier albums shouldn’t deter anyone from investigating After the Fall. This is Jarrett with the shades off, the defences down, temporarily shorn of the extremes of his virtuosity but looking us straight in the eye. The music’s limitations, such as they may be, turn out to be the foundation of its strength.

* After the Fall is out now on the ECM label. The photograph of Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock is by Patrick Hinely.

Jarrett & Haden revisited

Keith Jarrett:Charlie HadenI like Keith Jarrett best when he’s forced to deal with vulnerability. Sometimes it’s his own, as in the exquisite solo album called The Melody at Night, With You, which he recorded at his home in 1998 when his store of energy was still depleted after two years of musical inactivity caused by a persistent condition called chronic fatigue syndrome (he talked about it to me the following year, and you can find the interview here). In the case of his new album, Last Dance, it’s that of Charlie Haden, his long-time friend and musical partner.

Jarrett’s virtuosity is undeniable. No doubt it was hard-won, and it has led him to some interesting places, but I prefer it when he has to think about music from another perspective. To me, that’s when his real musicality becomes apparent: when the essence, rather than the surface, is all there is.

Last Dance is the second release from sessions he and Haden conducted in 2007, when they played standard tunes together in the relaxed environment of Jarrett’s home studio in New Jersey. The first, titled Jasmine, was released four years ago and, like The Melody at Night, With You, found a large and appreciative audience (beguiled not least by a brief but glowing reading of Joe Sample’s “One Day I’ll Fly Away”). I think Last Dance is the better of the two.

Haden, who suffered from polio as a child, has encountered further health problems in recent years, including a couple of conditions, tinnitus and hyperacousis, related to his hearing. His playing is no longer as strong as it was when he strummed that famous solo on Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin'” in 1959 or plucked the beautiful melody of his “Song for Che” on the classic Liberation Music Orchestra album 10 years later. When I listened to Jasmine on its release, I thought the signs of debilitation were evident: if his lines beneath Jarrett’s improvisations, were clear, they seemed to lack vitality.

I have no such problem with Last Dance. Whether it’s me, or whether Jarrett and Haden (or the executive producer, Manfred Eicher) selected tracks for the first release that expressed a certain mood, I can’t say. But the programming of the new album — including lengthy explorations of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, Richard Rodgers’ “It Might As Well Be Spring” and Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, with a change of pace on Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels” — creates an ambiance that, while no less reflective, seems to possess a greater degree of intellectual vigour.

For evidence, compare the two versions of Gordon Jenkins’s “Goodbye”, one on each album. It’s probably my favourite song, as I wrote here last year, so I always listen to it with special interest. Whereas the reading on Jasmine didn’t move me greatly, and still doesn’t, this alternative take seems absolutely perfect, drawing out the finest eloquence from both men (and Haden in particular). Maybe it’s a matter of context: the choice and sequencing of tracks. Maybe it’s just a mystery. Whatever it is, Last Dance is a wonderful album. A small masterpiece, in fact.

* The photograph of Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden is from the sleeve of Jasmine and was taken by Rose Anne Jarrett. Jasmine and Last Dance are on ECM Records.

The long “Good-Bye”

Good-ByeAccording to Martha Tilton, a featured singer with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the late 1930s, Gordon Jenkins wrote “Good-Bye” — which became Goodman’s sign-off theme — after the death of his first wife in childbirth. No wonder Alec Wilder, in his magisterial survey American Popular Song, called it “as sad a song as I know”. It is also, Wilder noted, a thing of remarkable beauty. So beautiful, in fact, that I’ve taken to collecting versions of it, and there are many, since it is a song that appeals strongly to jazz musicians of a certain sensibility, not least for providing the illusion of being through-composed, rather than repeating its individual sections in the AABA manner of conventional standards.

Goodman recorded it for the Victor label in 1935; the label describes it as a Fox Trot, in this case a distinctly gentle and smoochy one (and here it is). Since there is no vocal refrain, nothing except its minor key alerts the listener to the heartbreak inherent in Jenkins’ composition. It’s just the thing for a nice slowish dance to finish a romantic evening at the Glen Island Casino or the Balboa Ballroom, the sort of places that incubated the Swing Era.

But I first heard it, as with many other great American popular songs, in a version recorded by Frank Sinatra, in this case on an LP called Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, recorded in Hollywood in 1958. Arranged by Nelson Riddle, the album is the singer’s torch-song masterpiece, and “Good-Bye” is its most exalted moment. Riddle slows the song down almost to a standstill, applying his most sensitive orchestral touch, employing juxtapositions and combinations of cor anglais, cello, bassoon, various kinds of clarinet, tightly muted trumpets, French horns and muted strings as well as great sweeping ensemble flourishes to inspire his singer. Sinatra responds with a performance of concentrated sobriety that puts to perfect use the lessons in bel canto phrasing that he learnt from listening to the trombone playing of Tommy Dorsey and the violin of Jascha Heifetz. All those underwater lengths he swam in order to master his breath-control find their reward here. And, of course, we get the lyric, an essay in elegant despair, fully comprehended by the arranger: as Sinatra sings “So you take the high road, and I’ll take the low / It’s time that we parted, it’s much better so” for the second time, Riddle’s bassoons parp out a jaunty little even eighth-note pattern that underlines the sense of physical parting, the tone of the chosen instrument somehow leaving us in no doubt that the jauntiness is assumed and false. The melody carrying those particular lines, by the way, is as  finely shaped as any I can think of, especially in terms of the relationship of each individual note to its chord — the sort of thing that seldom bothers the little heads of today’s songwriters.

So much, as far as I’m concerned, for vocal versions of “Good-Bye” (I use the hyphen and the second capital letter because that’s how it appeared on the label of Goodman’s original recording, although it’s mostly now rendered as “Goodbye”). After Sinatra, whose version is a certainty for my desert-island selection, I have no interest in listening to those by Ella Fitzergerald or Diane Krall, the latter recorded a couple of years ago with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. What Sinatra and Riddle did was definitive. Which nevertheless leaves the way open for instrumental treatments.

It’s a song whose modulations clearly appeal to pianists. Among the most interesting versions known to me are those by McCoy Tyner (on Reaching Fourth, his 1962 trio album with Henry Grimes and Roy Haynes), Paul Bley (with Jay Anderson and Adam Nussbaum on If We May, 1994), Keith Jarrett (on his duo album with Haden, Jasmine, recorded in 2007), Bobo Stenson (from the 2005 album Goodbye, with Anders Jormin and Paul Motian), and Bill Carrothers (on the Dave King Trio’s I’ll Be Ringing You, recorded last year, which I wrote about on this blog a couple of months ago). Tyner’s is in some ways the most unusual — he brings to his reading what the English pianist Alex Hawkins, in an email to me the other day, described as “beautifully luminous post-Tatum harmony”. Bley starts off at an even slower pace than Riddle and Sinatra, then takes the risk of doubling the tempo and introducing familiar blues phrases into his variations, and brings it off. Jarrett is Jarrett, in an intimate conversation with an old friend. Stenson is the pick of the bunch, for my money: wonderfully eloquent, lucid and absolutely cliche-free, highly attentive to the song’s ambiance as well as its structure. Carrothers and his partners come up with the most intriguing group-improvisation approach.

The brilliant French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen loved the song so much that he recorded it at almost every opportunity. I have three of his versions: with a quintet on La Note Bleue (1987), in a duo with the pianist Alain Jean-Marie on Dream Time (1991) and on Double Action in another quintet with the guitarist Jimmy Gourlay (1999). They’re all good but the first has a special luminosity.

Another saxophonist who got something out of Jenkins’ tune was Cannonball Adderley, who recorded it in 1961 on an album called Know What I Mean? with Bill Evans, two years after they had been members of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue sextet. Not the most obvious of partners, they manage to find the common ground between the altoist’s ebullience and the pianist’s cerebrality. Actually, Evans is the more ebullient of the two here, laying strings of single-note lines at double and triple tempo over the imperturbable MJQ rhythm team of Percy Heath and Connie Kay. The closing chorus is especially lovely.

The interpretations that would have shocked Jenkins most profoundly are probably the two recorded by Jimmy Giuffre’s trio in 1961, the first on the LP Thesis and the second at a concert in Bremen, at a time when the clarinettist was making his own highly original investigation of free and free-ish improvisation in close partnership with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. The application of their evolving principles to a standard ballad makes for a stimulating experience on both occasions, with Swallow on particularly fine form on the double bass, making one regret for the umpteenth time his decision to abandon the acoustic instrument. Quite probably Giuffre, being a clarinet-player, had first heard the tune in Goodman’s version. He and Bley returned to it in 1975, on an album called Quiet Song, this time with the guitarist Bill Connors rounding out the trio and Bley making slightly strange noises on an electronic keyboard.

Following more directly in Goodman’s footsteps, there have also been further versions by larger ensembles. Chet Baker recorded it successfully in 1953 as part of a septet session arranged by Jack Montrose: the alto, tenor and baritone saxes of Herb Geller, Montrose himself and Bob Gordon provide an attractive chorale behind Baker, who enunciates the melody with evident respect before producing a pleasant and completely appropriate solo (the track is currently to be found on the CD titled Grey December). Maynard Ferguson, a trumpeter at the other end of the scale in terms of technique and taste, recorded Don Sebesky’s arrangement on his album Maynard ’61, at which time the Canadian-born bandleader was approaching the height of his fame. If it’s not particularly subtle, then it’s by no means grotesque, thanks not least to a gorgeous tenor solo from the always underrated Joe Farrell. Much better is the version recorded on an album called Live in Japan ’96 by Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, arranged by Willem Breuker and with a stirring solo by another often overlooked tenorist, Gerd Dudek.

To finish with, a recording suffused with as much sadness as Martha Tilton’s account of the song’s origin: the one made by the great Chicago tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, the son of the celebrated boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons, in March 1974. This was the final tune recorded on the last day of sessions held over three consecutive days for Prestige Records in New York, meaning it was the last piece of music the big-toned tenorist ever recorded (shortly afterwards his cancer was diagnosed and he died four months later, aged 49). Although he had no way of knowing it, this really was his goodbye, and he fills the track’s four and a half minutes with a brusque tenderness that brings another shade of emotion to a song which tends to draw the best out of those who approach it in the proper spirit.