Let’s put the main point up front. The new duet album by Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden, Jasmine (on ECM), is a gorgeous piece of work: all standards, mainly ballads, nothing fancy (not overtly anyway), but such poignance and quiet passion; it’s a glimpse into the intimacy of the act of making art.
If Keith Jarrett weren’t such a magnificent pianist, it would be intolerable to watch him in concert. His screechy humming and moaning, his lizard leering and preening—in three decades of seeing him play, I’ve never managed, despite some effort, to find the charm in his theatrics. And yet, he usually has me from his first chord—so warm, rich, and intriguingly edgy—especially the past few years, as he’s tightened his rhapsodic tendencies while enriching his lyrical core.
I went to see Keith Jarrett play solo at Carnegie Hall last night. This may puzzle careful readers of this blog, who no doubt recall my boycott of Jarrett in August 2007 after his disgraceful behavior at the Umbria Jazz Festival, on top of a career of disgraceful behavior. Well, I decided to call an end my own pique. First, I’m told that Jarrett apologized to the people of Umbria. Second, now that Barack Obama is president, the tantrums of a piano player are more likely to be seen as a mere random annoyance than “yet another example” of American brutishness. Finally, I figured, it’s a new era, I’ll give the guy another chance. He’s too good an artist—too great, really—to ignore just because he’s a jerk. (Jackson Pollock was much more unpleasant, yet that doesn’t stop me from gazing at Number One (1950) every time I visit the Museum of Modern Art.)
I am hereby boycotting Keith Jarrett. It’s a shame. He’s one of the great jazz pianists, but he’s just become too big a jerk—and, at a time when America has an ugly image in the world, a dreadful ambassador. Here’s
footage of him cursing Italian jazz fans for taking his picture as he approached the stage, before he even started playing, at the Umbria Jazz Festival. These are people who paid over $100 for what he called the “privilege” of hearing him play. There are polite ways to ask people not to take pictures. You don’t have to treat them like scum.
Friday night, I went to the 55 Bar—one of several small, inviting, low-to-no-cover jazz clubs in New York City’s West Village—to hear Kendra Shank sing in celebration of her (improbably) 50th birthday. Audiophiles will recall Shank’s mid’90s album, Afterglow (on the Mapleshade label), one of the best-sounding jazz-vocal records in recent times as well as a balladeer’s strong debut. In the years since, her voice has grown suppler, deeper, more versatile, dynamic, controlled, and adventurous. Her first mentor was the late Shirley Horn, and her biggest strength remains the ballad (she opened Friday’s set with a heartfelt and swinging “Like Someone in Love”). But she has also come under the sway of Abbey Lincoln (her most recent CD, A Spirit Free, is a Lincoln tribute, and a wonder), and so she staggers rhythms, syncopates lines unexpectedly, stretches a phrase, then snaps it back, with a fine feel for the building and release of tension—and she does it all with a purity of pitch and tone that eluded both her teachers (or that they both evaded in any case). Her rhythm section included the wondrous pianist Frank Kimbrough (whose new solo CD, Air, is, as I’ve written here already, one of the year’s best), Dean Johnson on bass, and Tony Mereno on drums. The band is mind-melding tight. Shank sings at the 55 Bar the last Friday of every month.
Something rare and wonderful is going on at New York's Jazz Standard this weekend: John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble is playing the music of Kenny Wheeler, and Wheeler himself is sitting in with the band.
Three things about this are rare: Wheeler, a Canadian and longtime UK resident, almost never plays in the States; his big-band music is almost never played, period (and was recorded all too infrequently); and Hollenbeck's 18-piece Large Ensemble, remarkably inventive and often wittily dissonant, almost never plays other people's music, least of all lush, cushion-of-air arrangements like Wheeler's (though, it should be added, Wheeler's melodies ripple with elusive romance and mystery).
Friday night's 9pm set, though, was wonderful. The ensemble, tight as ever, took to that creamy, wall-to-wall big-band sound as if they'd been covering Basie standards for years, without giving up any of its sharp-edged verve. Wheeler, now 80, was a bit short on breath, but his sinuous lines and those high-note grasps were as captivating as ever.
Adam Kolker’s Flag Day (on the Sunnyside label) is a knotty pleasure. It may leave your head in a coil (take two tracks of hard bop to unwind), but ride with the twists while they’re winding; it’s a soft-toned heady trip. Adam Kolker, who plays tenor sax, soprano sax, and clarinet, is known mainly as a sideman, and he doesn’t try to get out in front of his bandmates on this session—John Abercrombie on guitar, John Hebert on drums, and the irrepressible Paul Motian on drums. I promised when I started writing this blog that I wouldn’t dwell excessively on any individual musician, but Motian is such a giant, I could write about him every day and not be rightly charged with excess.
Around the turn of the century, a review of the latest hair-raisingly expensive turntable would often begin with a soothing chant that, yes, the RotorGazmoTron XT-35000 is a tad pricey, but it will be the last piece of analog gear you ever buyso go ahead, take the plunge. A dozen years later, pressing plants are stamping out LPs 'round the clock, and new high-end turntables are rolling off production lines at a respectable clip. So who knows whether today's Cassandras might be equally premature in bewailing the death of the Compact Disc? Which is to say that I can't in good conscience urge you to pay $12,000 for a CD player on the grounds that the medium's about to die, so splurge now while there's still something to splurge on. But if you have the scratch, and the itch for such a product, step right up and let me tell you about the Krell Cipher.