Recording of August 2010: Jasmine

Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden: Jasmine
Keith Jarrett, piano; Charlie Haden, double bass
ECM 2165 (CD). 2010. Manfred Eicher, exec. prod.; Keith Jarrett, prod.; Martin Pearson, eng. DDD. TT: 62:54
Performance *****
Sonics *****

While critics routinely lavish endless praise on the writers of standards, it's the rare instrumentalist who can, with only his hands, his audible humming, and his fertile mind, transform an iconic song like "Body and Soul" into a work of art that can almost be labeled an "original." The great Keith Jarrett's ballad playing, perhaps the most overlooked part of his prodigious genius, shows an uncommon sensitivity that the man lacks in his relationship with his audience.

810rotm.jpgThe fact that Jarrett's petulance in concert has even become a part of his story is so unnecessary and beside the point. Yet it makes the informed listener wonder how a guy who can behave so badly in public can make such gorgeous music. The mercurial pianist may be the only person whose Wikipedia entry includes an "Idiosyncrasies" section, yet on Jasmine his playing at times has a beauty that's beyond mere words. Do angry, unhappy people make better artists? How can the sensitive artist who here sublimely traverses Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye" with such depth of feeling and lightness of touch be the same guy who stops concerts to shout at audience members—ie, his own paying customers? A few recent examples will serve. In 2007 he threw a tantrum onstage at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy in which his targets included the festival organizers. In March 2010, at Symphony Hall in San Francisco he stopped another show, ostensibly because someone coughed, but then proceeded to denigrate the audience for their lack of concentration. Had the man stopped performing years ago and just stuck with recording, all that anyone would ever talk about would be his music—not his enfant-terrible indulgences.

Still, in the life of every Keith Jarrett fan comes that telling moment when you decide to shut out, or at least ignore, the man's diva act, and just listen. There's no better way to do that than with this, his first studio recording in more than a decade: a gorgeous, tranquil duo album with his longtime friend and sometime collaborator, double-bassist Charlie Haden, with whom he last played in trios in the mid '70s. When you narrow your focus to just Jarrett's fingers and the kind of exquisite miniatures he creates here, he's literally without equal: an achievement made all the more amazing because this album's material consists almost entirely of standards, whose possibilities of new meanings would seem to have been exhausted long ago.

Listen to the way this master of playing too many notes makes every one count in the opener, "For All We Know," and the tasteful, assured way he ends the tune with a hushed chord, and you know you're again in the presence of an indestructible truth: What separates Jarrett from almost any other jazz pianist you can name is his geyser of ideas—a gift that shows no signs of running dry.

Most critically on Jasmine—as on his last studio record, The Melody at Night, With You (1999), which contains one of the most touching and innovative interpretations of "Shenandoah" ever recorded—Jarrett exercises great restraint; playing within himself, and avoiding his tendency to lapse into endless digressions that often never find resolution. With Haden's deliberative bass lines pushing and ornamenting in equal measure, Jarrett steps up the tempos just a notch from The Melody†.†.†., to a moody ballad range, and digs deep. In a tune like "One Day I'll Fly Away," which achieved a measure of fame as Nicole Kidman's song in Baz Luhrmann's film Moulin Rouge!, the peerless refinement in Jarrett's playing, his attention to detail and his infallible sense of time, display an elegance that is breathtaking. This is music that rewards repeated listening, as more and more detail rises from each hearing.

In listening to this reflective record, it's also striking how influential ECM records have become in the larger world of music. By any other name, Jasmine is a chill record, a now-thriving subgenre that ECM producer-founder Manfred Eicher's approaches to music and recording quality had a very large hand in creating. For going on two generations now, audiophiles and other devotees of headphone listening and attitudinal adjustments have sunk into plush furniture and gotten mellow to ECM records like Jasmine.

As always for this label, the sound is rich, immediate, and natural. ECM continues to be a beacon to those ears worn thin by the ongoing loudness wars that have engulfed rock music, thanks in part to compression, downloading and the ubiquitous iPod.

You can never entirely divorce the art from the artisan. Yet, if there were ever a case when both are impressive and imposing, it is the case of Keith Jarrett, who, at 65, continues to give voice, both instrumental and otherwise, to his often contradictory artistic vision.—Robert Baird

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