Jarrett Miniatures

Pianist Keith Jarrett’s quarter-century of trio recordings with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette sustains his reputation as one of music’s most inventive improvisers. But it’s his infrequent solo work, beginning with his 1971 release Facing You, that best displays his improvisational genius. Rio, recorded live in the Brazilian city in April of this year, reflects the 66-year-old keyboardist’s entire canon, a body of work that includes excursions into Bach and Mozart as well as jazz standards. Unlike his early solo recordings with their long, evolving variations on rhythmic and melodic themes, Rio is a collection of 16 miniatures that range across blues, impressionism, contemporary boogie-woogie and the avant-garde. The wide variety of material here, including tango-tinged dances and Middle-Eastern moods, spotlioght the pianist’s wide and ambitious vocabulary. It’s hard to believe that these are spontaneous improvisations, as Jarrett has explained in recent interviews. Even the most modern, formless excursions have a substance that lends shape to their off-beat harmonics and aggressive tempos. Best are the sensitive, emotionally-revealing pieces (Jarrett recently divorced after 30 years of marriage) that develop narratives a short story writer could envy. If he sometimes lacks a way to end his stories—more than a few seem to just tail off—it’s easy to excuse him by the wonderful path each piece has taken. —Cabbage Rabbit

Paul Motian: Time To Keep

I first saw Paul Motian in the early ’70s with the Keith Jarrett Quartet. The group came to our modest Midwestern university one cold Saturday night and set up on risers in the student union ballroom. Except for Motian, none of the group, which included bassist Charlie Haden and saxophonist Dewey Redman, seemed glad to be there. Jarrett, reportedly upset with the condition of the piano, spent most of the concert prowling around the make-shift stage shaking things and beating his fists on the piano box. Occasionally, he would reach inside and grab at the instrument’s strings as if trying to pluck something out of it. For a brief moment in the second set, he sat down on the bench and began to roll out his signature harmonic churn. But he soon grew bored of it and walked off the stage leaving Redman, as he had done all night, to solo at length.

The performance proved a showcase for the drummer. Motian, smiling and slapping sticks at his kit, played in an off-beat fashion that seemed odd to our young ears. When we thought the accent should come just there, he brought it a split second later. When we anticipated an extended press roll, he cut the rumble short. At the break, we foolishly described his playing as sloppy and carefree,  as if he’d had one too many beers (we didn’t know if he’d had any, and probably not). By the end of the show, especially after his sonically-rich solo that highlighted the second set even more than Jarrett’s brief stint at the keys, we better understood what he was doing, how it fit in and what all the color and shading he applied did for the quartet’s sound. Motian had made us believers in a different kind of timekeeping.

Today, with his passing  , I’ll lament not only his loss  –recent recordings showed he had much left to add — but also the loss of my vinyl copy of Conception Vessel (scroll far down), his 1972 date with Haden, Jarret, violinist Leroy Jenkins and others.. I’ll pull out I Have the Room Above Her to hear him with long-time mates guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, Monk In Motian to enjoy his comprehension and extension of the Monk sound and some of those wonderful JMT recordings of the ’90s (I’m listening to the cymbal-shimmered twang of Trio i sm  now) and to Reincarnation of A Love Bird  with its two guitars, two saxes and fine Steve Swallow bass work (truly a reincarnation of Monk, Miles, Mingus and Gillespie). And I’ll listen to what he’s done for younger emerging artists, like pianist Anat Fort whose music seemed the perfect canvas for Motian’s painterly ways (he’s on her first ECM recording Long Story, the opening and ending cuts of her latest are titled “Paul Motian”). Recordings make it too easy to miss our lost musicians.

Maybe Richard Cook and Brian Morton say it best in The Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings:

Time will tell how important Motian is ultimately considered to be in the development of jazz since the war; but if all revolutions in the music turn out to be upheavals in the rhythm section, then it seems likely that he will be seen as a quiet revolutionary.

Cabbage Rabbit

 

 

 

Motian Detector

Pianist Anat Fort’s work is known for its mood, sense of touch, use of space and a feel for the exotic. Her latest recording And If assumes these qualities in less obvious ways, giving the music a natural and holistic feel. In a sense, she’s brought new subtleties to her subtlety.

That’s not to say that she can’t show some personality when its called for. “Clouds” is a sky-full of gathering electricity. “Nu” snaps with sparks. Both are emphatic and  powerful even as they turn on Fort’s characteristic style. In short, she’s capable of wide-ranging tone and emotion.

Still, it’s the more considered pieces that standout. Fort’s 2007 ECM release A Long Story included drummer Paul Motian whose touch and painterly percussion was the perfect compliment to the pianist’s thoughtful, occasionally colorful ways. Her trio on the new recording has bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider. But Motian is still a presence; the disc’s opening/closing number, its most sensitive, bears the drummer’s name.

Fort gets similar sensitivity from Wang and Schneider, the kind of backing that’s at once austere and appropriate. There are tunes that except for a bit of rhythmic juice might be thought lyrically classical. “Minnesota” is an apt tribute to a state known for its waters. The tune shimmers and splashes inside its folk-like theme. “Nu” is pure punctuation with a flow of its own. By the time she revisits “Paul Motian” you expect her to deepen its brief reflection…and she does. This is an exemplary recording full of individuality and crafted sensitivity. Not your usual piano trio.–Cabbage Rabbit

Jarrett Unleashed

The Rabbit has long complained that Keith Jarrett’s standards trio, fine as it is, limited the pianist. Maybe that ‘s because the Rabbit was one of those “hippies,” as one reviewer described his audience, who found salvation in Jarrett’s early solo work, beginning in 1971 with Facing You and continuing through Solo Concerts and The Koln Concert, albums we played again and again to hear the sheer weight of Jarrett’s wide-ranging improvisational creativity. The size of the massive Sun Bear Concerts (six CDs) left us a bit cold, as if ego had replaced accomplishment, something suggested back in ’73’s three- LP Solo Concerts with the inclusion of endless European applause that seemed to eat up more vinyl than the music.  While the trio work seemed, after a few releases,  all of a sort, I always found something to like, if not love. His solo work was another matter, as if the connection he was able to make with his trio mates was turned inward to connect with himself.  When Radiance was released in 2002, Jarrett, having grappled successfully with health problems, again found a way to go beyond.

Released last fall, Testament may be Jarrett’s most expansive solo package, covering the full range of his styles and approaches without over-indulgence. The three-CD set,  holds two full concerts recorded within days of each other at the end of 2008, one at Paris’s Salle Pleyel,  the other at London’s Royal Festival Hall.  Jarrett explores free forms and dissonant counterpoints, grand harmonic themes and rollicking, gospel-influenced anthems. He swings and sails, even when creating Rachmaninovian lushness. Ranging across the entire keyboard for full effect, his play can be deep and dense one moment, light and ethereal the next. The pieces tend to be shorter than in his previous solo work and each seems to find context in the larger program. Numbered in Roman numerals, neither concert is so long or self-absorbed that you’ll be buried in its weight (as I was by Sun Bear).

The joys of solo Jarrett come of evolution. His ability to spontaneously create themes and then grace them with variation makes us focus on every note. Not only do lines evolve but rhythms as well. His phrases, especially in the more free form pieces, are never cut-and-dry but meander seamlessly, usually towards unexpected conclusions. This is something missing from his trio play and is a good part of what makes the pianist so unique. His ability to climb his way to some precarious perch and then lower himself out of it is truly amazing. He is a master of conflict and resolution.

It’s hard to find anything here to criticize. Only the last  cut from the London concert “Part XII,” fails to strike its rhythm, turning from a warm, major -key theme into a stomp and shout gospel-like close. If Jarrett’s conviction doesn’t exactly make believers of us, at least he won the audience. Their applause at the tune’s conclusion, probably the concert’s conclusion as well, goes on and on.–Cabbage Rabbit

Three/Four

The value of the “working band”–the worth of keeping the same group of musicians together over the years –is a commonly accepted positive. The benefits of shared experience are obvious: empathy (sometimes described as “telepathy”), a foreknowledge of what a band mate will do (or how they’ll react) in a certain situation; an evolved compatible, complementary sound and, apart from music, a kind of identity branding. Keith Jarrett’s longtime “Standards” trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette is the often cited example. That trio, after so many years, can also be cited for the negative side of the longstanding group: a certain predictability.

Pianist Marc Copland seems to get the best of both worlds when he records. Working with a revolving set of musicians, he develops familiarity with his sidemen while finding contrasting approaches to frame his (mostly) meditative and harmonically adventurous keyboard work. Including different musicians make some of the dates unique; think of trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s presence on That’s For Sure or the tunes with saxophonist Michael Brecker on And… .

Copland’s latest recordings, one a trio, one a quartet, find him working with familiar partners…but not exclusively familiar. Bassist Peacock has previously recorded with Copland (the duo date What It Says on Sketch) and his presence on Copland’s Voices makes for simpatico mood and method. Peacock contributes four of the disc’s eight tracks, Copland three (they do Miles’ “All Blues” as well). The pieces are so similar in mood that it’s hard to tell who wrote which though repeated listenings reveals Peacock’s tunes to be slightly more up front and assertive. Peacock’s playing is equally important to the date’s quality; his sound is stout, rhythmic and complementary to the piano. He adds harmonic counterpoints to Copland’s phrases or thickens the mix with richly toned double stops. The most Copland-like of Peacock’s tunes is the thoughtful “Vignette,” the least is the brief “That’s It?” with the pianist’s firm and deep intro leading into a slow-motion game of tag. Paul Motian’s brushes sweep the loose ends into a neat, orderly pile. Indeed, Motian—that most sensitive and responsive of drummers—makes this date outstanding. He keeps everything crisp and propelled in tasteful fashion.

On Another Place, guitarist John Abercrombie gives additional depth to Copland’s layered harmonics. These two also have shared history. Both played together in the Chico Hamilton combo, Abercrombie was on Copland’s first recorded date as a leader as well as Second Look from 1996 and 2000’s That’s For Sure. The bassist is another Copland collaborator, Drew Gress. As is Copland’s way, he allows both men to contribute numbers to the date. Here, the personalities seem more pronounced, Abercrombie contributing tunes with airy introductions that proceed on definitive, slightly offbeat themes. Copland’s compositions get right to the point. If anything, the pianist’s playing is literally in another place from the trio date. He’s less harmonically ambitious, no doubt in deference to the guitar. Gress’ “Dark Horse” is the kind of tune you expect from a bassist, with a theme that allows him to explore the range of his instrument even has his pins the tune’s melody for the soloists. Drummer Billy Hart, like Motian, shows himself to be a master of shade and color. Listen to his brush and cymbal work on Abercrombie’s “Ballad In Two Keys” and marvel. He can take a sensitive tune that most drummers would tackle with brushes and bring it out with touch and feel from his sticks. Why rate one of these two excellent recordings over the other? Both feature Copland’s mix of urban and pastoral moods with unexpected phrasing and progression. Still, the trio disc better highlights its leader’s harmonic strength. Another Place, released June, 2008; recommended. Voices, released September, 2007; highly recommended.—Cabbage Rabbit

The Flowering of Charles Lloyd

Charles Lloyd’s latest release, recorded live in 2007 at the Theater Basel in Switzerland, recalls his early live recording, Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey. That LP introduced those of a certain generation to the saxophonist-flutist and jazz in general. The similarities between the two recordings, though separated by some 40 years, are remarkable. Both feature its astute leader backed by strong, youthful sidemen destined for great things. Both feature Lloyd’s wise, inquiring sound, painting him as a something of a musical monk and seeker of truth whose explorations come from a background in the blues. Both are satisfying in their wordly wisdom and cosmic insight. All this isn’t to suggest that Lloyd’s sound hasn’t evolved (see “seeker” above) but does point out that Lloyd has consistently pushed ahead from a base of experience, a base that has deepened and been enriched as the years pass. When Lloyd appeared at Monterey in 1966 he was a relative unknown in the larger musical world with a waiting audience. Today he’s a major presence, a musician whose next statement is anticipated, someone who stands aside from the mainstream even as he respects certain traditions. In this sense, Rabo de Nube doesn’t disappoint. Indeed, it’s as solid as any of Lloyd’s work of the last several years while proving that age—he turns 70 this year–has nothing on him. As Lloyd makes more musical revelation, his pursuit of truth and beauty accelerates (reviewer notes an intense desire to use “aging fine wine” image). There are some familiar Lloyd themes here that seem to travel under new names, vehicles in which he travels to territory just beyond places he has gone before. His work on flute and tarogato is especially ambitious, often carrying rhythmic overtones that make something of the times. His sense of spirit and reverence remain, as well as the blues roots he developed back in Memphis with Phineas Newborn and others. It remains to be seen if pianist Jason Moran, bassist Ruben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland ascend to the heights of Forest Flower’s Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette. As did that earlier rhythm section, Moran, Rogers and Harland, as distinguished and unique as they are, work in Lloyd’s shadow. I occasionally found myself wishing for past Lloyd associates Bobo Stenson or Brad Mehldau to provide a more lush and languid contribution that would mesh with Lloyd’s spirituality. But this is a small quibble and Moran’s contrasting style has its advantages, mostly rhythmic. Rabo de Nube marks Lloyd as a consistently satisfying seeker of higher callings, one who himself seems seldom satisfied. Released March, 2008. Highly Recommended.—Cabbage Rabbit

He’s No Keith Jarrett

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth”

BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO LIVE, Nonesuch Records

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth” and compare it to Jarrett’s. Mehldau, of course, didn’t like the insinuation that he had mined Jarrett’s work—he claimed to have never heard Keith play “Blame It On My Youth”—and wrote a pointed letter to the editor saying as much, taking the time to belittle some of the other things I’d said in the Jarrett piece, including the fact that for me listening to the pianist and his trio over the years had become a near-religious experience.

Mehldau was playing the following week at LA’s Café Largo and the appearance gave me the opportunity to respond while making him the subject of my jazz pick column. I stuck to my contention that there were a lot of similarities even if they were accidental in Jarrett and Meldau’s takes on “Blame It on My Youth” (maybe the pointed melancholy of Oscar Levant’s lament made for a collusion of mood and approach). And, I argued, it wasn’t such a bad or unusual thing, especially for us godless sorts, to find inspiration, meaning and yes, reason to live in music as wonderful as Jarrett and Mehldau’s.

All (apparently) was forgiven—the keyboardist certainly had larger considerations in his life than what some alternative rag journalist had said about him—and we had a nice chat between sets one Sunday afternoon at a downtown concert sponsored by the Da Camera Society. Mehldau even granted me an interview a year or so later in which he espoused intelligently on his direction. The pianist is known to pontificate about art and his music. Some of his liner notes go to great academic lengths while dropping the names like Goethe, Foucault and Thomas Mann. While they may seem a little overblown at times, these insights are revealing. His notes to House on the Hill are one of the best explanations of the jazz form’s theme-and-variation concept we’ve read (you can find it here [http://www.bradmehldau.com/writing/index.html#]) and Mehldau continues to practice what he preaches. That he has a good intellectual understanding of what he does is a refreshing and educational change from what passes as exposition and criticism of art of any sort (this screed included).

I bring up the Jarrett story to make a similar, hopefully less foolish, Keith-and-Brad comparison. It strikes us that Mehldau is his generation’s Jarrett. The comparison is not so much musical–despite “Blame It on My Youth”–as situational. Both have a long-standing trio (drummer Jeff Ballard replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005) making the evolution of interplay between the three men as interesting as any other component. Both have impeccable musical tastes and an ability to do almost anything they like on the keyboard (which may be truer in Mehldau’s case, Jarrett’s forays into classical music aside). Both attracted young audiences, Jarrett in the ‘70s with his extended solo excursions, Mehldau with his renditions of alt-rock music and a certain rumpled hipster cachet which comes to him without him really trying. This is just the kind of fan recruitment that the so-called jazz world needs to maintain its audience, especially now. That Mehldau seems to do this without compromise—and what he makes of “pop” tunes isn’t a compromise—is all the more to his credit.

Brad Mehldau Trio Live makes Mehldau’s familiar case for opening up the jazz canon to worthy contemporary music even as it establishes a new level of greatness for the trio. (No, those cover photos aren’t of The Village Vanguard where the discs were recorded in October of 2006.) Who else could follow a Soundgarden tune with one by 1930s-era swing band leader Ray Noble and get away with it? Mehldau’s trio is able to pull this kind of thing off by finding a rhythmic core to the music and relating it directly to its mood. They get straight to the heart of a melody and then mess mightily with it (unlike the bits-and-pieces technique Jarrett uses). That they develop all this during the variation part of their theme-and-variation approach makes listening to the trio something akin to reading a good novel. This is one of improvisational music’s great pleasures: it’s as if you can follow what’s going on in their minds as you listen to what’s coming from their hands.

Trio Live gets right into this modus with Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” a rhythmically accessible way to enter the recording. Mehldau’s harmonically kinky assertions stretched across Larry Grenadier’s pin-point bass groove. Mehldau compiles lines on a descending left-hand line and his improv strengthens as it goes along, winding tighter and tighter on Ballard’s irresistible groove. Mehldau’s a master of resolution, able to find his way out of a tight spot as coolly as some action character in a spy thriller. Here it happens so seamlessly that you don’t see the bridge coming until he’s crossing it.

The rest of this two-disc set mixes jazz standards—“More Than You Know”, the John Coltrane vehicle “Countdown”—with Mehldau originals. Unlike Jarrett’s often droning originals, Mehldau pushes his own compositions all over the room, taking them to unexpected corners, stirring up dust and diamonds. Moods vary. There’s the quick and insistent “Ruby’s Rub,” the swing and grace of “B-Flat Waltz,” the romance and intimacy of “Secret Beach.” Mehldau’s sharp reading of Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” cuts new meat from its bop-bones. If Mehldau’s solos seem to go on too long (see liner notes above), one must remember that the same thing was said of John Coltrane, especially in live performance. Like Coltrane, Mehldau has things to get off his chest.

The other comparison Mehldau has garnered, especially early in his career, was to Bill Evans. This came from his audible sensitivity, a quality lacking in the work of many emerging pianists, rather than any stylistic comparisons to Evans. That Mehldau is sensitive, thoughtful and melodically inventive is old news. Here, he finds beauty in a soft touch, melodic sense in even the roughest handling. His approach to “The Very Thought Of You” convinces one, true or not, that this guy knows the depths of love. No you wouldn’t and shouldn’t confuse Brad Meldau’s work with Jarrett’s (guilty) or anyone else’s. We wouldn’t be the first to say there’s no one like him. Highly recommended. –Cabbage Rabbit