Recording of January 2017: A Multitude of Angels

Keith Jarrett: A Multitude of Angels
Concerts: Modena, Ferrara, Torino, Genova

Keith Jarrett, piano
ECM 2500–2503 (4 CDs). 2016. Keith Jarrett, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 4:57:19
Performance *****
Sonics ***

In the best of Keith Jarrett's long-form Concert recordings—Bremen Lausanne, Köln, and most of all Bregenz München and the monumental Sun Bear—one hears the evolution, over unbroken spans of as long as 45 minutes, of a beginning musical germ. A mere rhythm or broken chord or simple cadence or single note, sometimes a full melody exquisitely arranged, opens what seems an infinite world of musical ideas, channeled or happened on or willed up out of the moment, then explored in depth and at length, all flowing into and out of each other—and into and out of jazz, blues, gospel, folk, Middle Eastern, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th-century styles (Ives, Bartók, Stravinsky). One gets the impression of a musician who has heard and played every kind of piano music there is and who, on a given evening, serially or simultaneously plays any and all of it. No one else has ever done anything like it.

Those long-form concerts and Jarrett's many other musical activities took their toll, as did chronic fatigue syndrome—and at 71, Jarrett, as he admits, no longer has a young man's stamina. For nearly two decades now, his solo-piano concerts have comprised short improvisations, few longer than ten minutes. Most of his solo concert recordings in that format—Radiance, Tokyo Solo, Carnegie Hall, Testament, Rio, Creation—have included passages of rare brilliance, beauty, or challenge, often all three at once. But none offers what is so uniquely attractive about his long-form sets, whose sheer duration, it now seems, was the only thing that made possible their encyclopedic depth and breadth. And despite the many hours of long-form concerts already released, I and many others have always had appetite for more.

Here is a lot more. These four concerts, recorded in four Italian cities in eight days of October 1996, were Jarrett's very last long-form improvisations. Acting as his own producer and engineer, he recorded them direct to two-track: He hung up a pair of B&K omni mikes before each show, set up a Sonosax DAT machine on a chair backstage, and pressed Record just before he stepped through the curtain. The sound, recorded about 10' in front of the piano, is direct, clear, clean, serviceable, if no more; it's not as spacious and wet as, say, Carnegie Hall, and the four venues sound pretty much the same.

But musically, these concerts are Jarrett's best. Never has his improvisation taken so many risks of exploration, this time mostly beyond jazz and gospel. Never has he so trusted so many long lines of single, isolated notes, each line a solitary voice of keening, austere lyricism. Never has there been a stronger sense of being in the presence of a master artist as he creates, waiting for the next note or chord or rhythm, not entirely convinced there will be one, rejecting the obvious, the glib, the merely clever, the sentimental. So often, these concerts seem to embody the very soul of cantabile in the unlikely ungainliness of a concert grand. And everywhere, Jarrett proves himself the master of the perfectly placed grace note, here as often as not a Lombard or Scotch snap.

Nor has Jarrett ever presented so many sounds so democratically dense in their wealth of musical information. The music is often less atonal than bi- or polytonal; a supporting line becomes a main melodic line, or both lines support, or both lead; or, in a rhythm of two against three, neither meter dominates. Again and again come long stretches in which all of these conflicts or cooperations happen at once; depending on the angle at which the listener's attention is focused, the music is in major or minor key or both, in duple or triple meter or both, is fugal or simply densely contrapuntal or both—or all of these at once, churning in exhilarating headlong stasis. The resulting creative tension, built up over three-quarters of an hour, is uniquely thrilling, as intellectually challenging as it is full of feeling.

Not all unfolds in perfect smoothness. None of Jarrett's other concert sets reveals him so clearly as someone who takes turns down dead ends, only to bring himself up short, let himself and us fully hear the "wrong" note or chord just played, then follow the unexpected detour it opens. Never has he so trusted himself—or his audience.

In Part II of Modena, Jarrett sets himself—as he so often has in the second half of his long-form concerts—an apparently insoluble problem of rhythm and harmony. He works it through for 18 minutes until he arrives at sunny Caribbeanisms that alternate with meticulously worked fragments of full-steam gospel until all syncopation resolves into a straightforward folk hymn à la "Shenandoah." The encore is "Danny Boy." It's difficult to think of a likelier vehicle for the maudlin, Irish or otherwise, but Jarrett's loving vivisection of Frederic Weatherley's song is all fully earned feeling. Embellishments become substance as they expand the song's implicit harmonic possibilities, and you wait with Jarrett to hear which note comes next: this one? or . . . this one? or even—but no, it's this note, and how could it ever have been any other? Like all great composers and performers—and here he is both—Jarrett makes his own process of musical thought the listener's: the more carefully you listen, the more complicit you feel in its creation.

Nine minutes into Part I of Ferrara begins a primer of organic form in contrary motion in which each variation seems an original theme, each theme a summation of all the variations: Variations Without a Theme, if you will. As the music unfolds in linear time, as it must, it constantly refers backward and forward to all other variants of the ever-evolving germ, which is either always being stated or is never stated in full—as often as not, this music proceeds by paradox. Twenty minutes in begin chiming trilled chords that become a Chinese-flavored dance high in the right hand, then a single line descending into the middle register, with gaps of silence stuffed to overflowing with a beat so strongly implied by indirection that the downbeat is made of silence itself.

The first 15 minutes of Torino are a long, inward-staring exploration of harmonics and unexpected resolution. Jarrett's absolute control of dynamics and accent makes it impossible to tell if the rhythm is in two or in three, until you realize that both are equally present. The pulse then dissolves into pp high notes in the top octave that patter down like approaching rain. Never before on record has Jarrett opened such long caesuras of silence in his music, or played them so well. Those silences are made to bear enough musical weight that the listener's attention fairly creaks under the exquisite strain. Only after 42 minutes in minor key does Jarrett begin to toy with the major, slyly oscillating between modes until finally resolving—in minor: in this context, by far the keener pleasure.

Part II begins furioso, as if the Ives of the Concord Sonata had taken up the player-piano compositions of Conlon Nancarrow. That sounds glib; Jarrett is not. He reverses expectation—including, apparently, his own—in 20 minutes of rhythmic and harmonic fantasia that is some of the most dead-seriously witty music he has ever recorded or that I have heard. It's as hard to believe that this music was not first written down as it is hard to believe it ever could be. Then, after over an hour of minor-key thorniness, there breaks a bluesy Sunday dawn—a long, single-note call to worship before the thundering-in of a full-throated gospel cadence. It's perhaps the most satisfying turn to gospel vamp in all of Jarrett's many such segues.

Part I of Genova begins as a toccata of counterpoint and rhythm in which Gershwin meets Stravinsky with, nine minutes in, chords rolled faster than I've ever heard them in wonderfully narrow-waled aural corduroy. Suddenly we hear Bartókian boogie-woogie, then a tempest of polytonal chords and washes and cascading glissandi that gradually settles on a key, and through which at last emerge falling and rising fifths as transcendent as the finale of Sibelius's Symphony 5. Genova's encore is as delicately poised an exploration of the apparently infinite harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of "Over the Rainbow" as I have heard.

Et cetera. Critics learn to suspect their ecstatic first impressions, but by the time I'd finished my second listening to these five hours of music, my response was even more delighted and exhilarated than at the end of the first. There is more musical substance in A Multitude of Angels than in any other solo-piano recording Keith Jarrett has made. I've said it before, of other albums by Keith Jarrett, and each time it's been true: This music of astonishing generosity is the best thing he's done.—Richard Lehnert

Allen Fant's picture

Instant purchase! RL

the mid 1990's was an important time for Mr. Jarrett.
Good to see these concerts getting their proper due.

Happy Listening

Gnib's picture

Ravi Coltrane, In Movement also from ECM is really worth a listen.