Keith Jarrett's masterful Testament
I’ve seen Jarrett play solo at Carnegie Hall twice in the past few years and my jaw dropped at both. (Both concerts were recorded; one was released as an album in 2006, which I listed as the second-best of that year, topped only by Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar.) But those New York dates were nothing compared to what Jarrett ekes from the keyboard here.
All of the music is totally improvised, not in the sense of typical jazz improvisations, which take off from a standard song or theme. No, Jarrett sits at the piano and invents something entirely from scratch, extends it for a while, stops, then invents something else entirely from scratch, then does it again, and again, and again.
A couple decades ago, Jarrett would spin rhapsodic with these improvisations, for an hour or more. Lately, he’s tightened up, treating them as pieces of a suite. Of the 20 tracks on these three discs, only five last longer (and, even then, they’re just a little bit longer) than 10 minutes. They’re so tight, you’d think they were well-wrought compositions.
It must be exhausting to do this.
Disc 1, recorded at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on Nov. 26 of last year, is riveting: dense tone clusters, stormy sheets of sound, like something out of late Debussy, but with a knife-sharp blues edge. The fever is so pitched that when he segues into an elegy toward the end of the concert, it feels like some barrier has been broken; the effect is heroic.
The concert on Discs 2 and 3, laid down just five days later at the Royal Festival Hall in London, is structured more like the other Jarrett solo concerts I’ve seen, alternating between abstract constructions and stirring ballads. But he’s digging deeper into his melodies, stretching wider in his harmonies, at once anchoring and altering the rhythms with more swing and soul than usual. The middle of the concert, from the start of Disc 3, weighs down a bit, but he bursts free of the repetition with a gospel cadence that’s rollicking in its intensity.
It brings down the house.
Martin Pearson’s engineering is, as always, superb, capturing the piano’s percussive glow; the bass notes grumble clearly, and the pedal action is palpable.
P.S. Yes, Keith hums and moans now and then, and it can be distracting. But if he really needs these eruptions to summon such depths of music, then I'd say the trade-off is worth it.