Recording of March 2014: Concerts: Bregenz München

Keith Jarrett: Concerts: Bregenz München
Keith Jarrett, piano
ECM 1227–29 (3 CDs; also available as 24/96 files from HDTracks). 1982/2013. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Martin Wieland, eng. ADD. TT: 2:30:19
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Keith Jarrett's gift for brilliant invention is apparently inexhaustible throughout both of these concerts, recorded five days apart in spring 1981. The combinations of lyricism, literally foot-stomping gospel, chordings and voicings alternately sumptuously lush and astringently lean, and unexpected musical destinations reached in surprising ways, are here at least as rich as anything else he's done.

In trying to describe Jarrett's concert-length solo improvisations, the temptation to play the reviewer's game of "Sounds Like . . ." is irresistible. Bregenz, Part I, begins by modulating through two Sundays' worth of Protestant hymns, then continues through a Beethovenian scherzo diabolique to massive chords in a blocky structure all Jarrett's own, to a lonely Hebrew folksong, to Debussyan pastels, then a working-through of ostinato right-angled modulations that move into the piano's interior, where Jarrett directly plucks strings, alighting along the way on flamenco, Bart¢k, and a brief fling with fugato. What at first sound like repetitive vamps turn out to be mini-themes on which variations begin before the theme's first statement is completed.

But that describes (or doesn't) only about 20 minutes of this 2.5-hour set, and makes it sound like mere pastiche (it isn't). It's tempting to say that Jarrett's art, like Wagner's, is that of transition, but that's wrong too. It makes no more sense to say that Jarrett's improvisations are all journey than to say they are all destination. Like all great music, they are both, and neither.

Keith Jarrett plays many major chords in this set. He also plays many minor, augmented, and diminished chords, and atonal passages of chords with no name. When he arrives at a fully resolved major cadence after a churning calculus of modulation, one feels he has reached it only after considering every other possible progression in Western and some Eastern harmonic languages, tonal or modal or otherwise. He hasn't, of course. On the fly, he couldn't (could he?). That it nonetheless feels and sounds as if he has is what makes this music magical, and high art.

Jarrett stamps his feet here—a lot. With knuckles and hands he slaps and bangs the piano's case—Bregenz, and München more so, are his most percussive concerts on record. He groans and grunts and generally breathes heavily. He has said he does this less as self-expression than in frustration at being unable to force—first through his body, then through the clunky, recalcitrant contraption of a concert grand—all the music he's hearing. I hear no reason here to doubt him.

Parts III and IV of München—nearly 40 minutes of music—might have been titled "33 Variations on an Original Gospel Theme." Jarrett never deviates from the simple circular motif he begins with, over the thump of chocolatey-rich left-hand chords and his pounding left foot—he seems able to ride that theme anywhere he wants in these visits to old friends: Gershwin, Brahms, a jazz lullaby, a Spanish serenade, a nocturne, back to gospel for a pit stop, then Copland, Schoenberg, Cage. Everything—departure, travel, arrival—sounds inevitably right. It's one of the finest things he's ever done.

The original three-LP edition of Bregenz München, issued in 1982, sold out in the US within a year or so, never to reappear. The shortish Bregenz was released on a single CD in the late 1980s, but München, one of the longest Jarrett solo concerts on record, remained unissued on CD until now—odd, because it's one of his best. In a discography of 37 solo-keyboard discs that include Facing You, The Köln Concert, Bremen/Lausanne, Staircase, and the monumental Sun Bear Concerts, that is saying a great deal.

The concerts were simultaneously recorded in analog and digital. The original LPs were made from the digital masters, as was the single CD of Bregenz. This new ADD set, from the analog masters, sounds best of all: warmer, with none of the slightly chalky, harsh quality of the DDD Bregenz. Although Jarrett's piano is closer-miked than on, say, The Carnegie Hall Concert (2005), there are still wonderfully convincing senses here of space, occasion, and venue. His foot-stomps on wooden stages make these halls convincingly speak their volumes. Throughout, the combination of excellent recording quality, a fine instrument in perfect tune, and Jarrett's absolute precision of technique—no one else can so richly roll a chord—makes this sound like one of the finest classical recordings: something it may yet turn out to be.

It's a rare thing when, from the first few notes of a recording, one feels one has come home. It happened 50 years ago, the first time I heard the music of Bruckner; and 10 years later, when I heard Part 2 of Keith Jarrett's Bremen concert; and 10 years after that, when I first heard Concerts: Bregenz München. It still does, with every bit of this set, every time.— Richard Lehnert

Regadude's picture

Geez, Keith Jarrett music and no one shows any love?! True, he is "special". And by special, if you have had the "chance" of meeting him, he can be somewhat, moody...

I once saw him take a fit, get really mad at people taking his picture with flash at a concert. Wow! 

But, his music is awesome! Listen to the music, not the man.