Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden duets

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.

That is to say, it’s one of the best piano-bass duet albums since the ones that Haden made in the ‘90s with Kenny Barron (Night and the City) and Hank Jones (Steal Away)—which begs the question: What is it about Charlie Haden’s bass playing that takes pianists to a different level?

Not a higher level, necessarily—all of these pianists have done just fine on their own or with others—but their playing seems more relaxed when they’re with Haden: not more casual or lackadaisical, but more serene, more confident, maybe because they know that he’ll take up whatever slack they leave, so they can wander off, follow some whim or instinct, without scurrying to keep up the rhythm and the chord-changes.

Haden made his mark as the bassist in Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet of 1959-61, but it’s misleading to identify him as a “free jazz” musician. At heart, he’s a romantic, an explorer of beauty in songs. He fit so well with Coleman, whose music abandons conventional harmony, because he’d found that simply keeping time or plucking the chord’s root doesn’t tap into the emotion of the music; sometimes it’s enough, but sometimes he feels he has to play along with the melody, or pick out a countermelody or some other pattern—or just a cluster of notes—that enriches the mood.

Yet there’s nothing flamboyant about Haden’s playing. He is a model of economy, knowing just which note or two from a chord will convey the feeling he’s after; and he treats each note preciously, usually as a half-note, except when he plucks them as a dotted-quarter and eighth-note to stagger the rhythm, in unexpected places.

The duet may be the hardest, and purest, form of jazz: two musicians have to improvise, and keep improvising, after laying out the theme; there’s no place to hide, no one else who can step forward and solo while they fall back and coast.

Every few years, Haden plays a week of duets at the Blue Note jazz club in New York, with a different pianist each night, and the best nights are with those who share his temperament, who listen as intensely as they play, and who can trade parts, move in and out of melody, harmony and rhythm, until there’s no distinction.

Keith Jarrett, of course, may be the most romantic (and analytical) jazz pianist out there, and so with Haden—who was the bassist in his great quartet of the ‘70s but with whom he hasn’t played at all in the decades since—he slows down, chills out, seems to feel at home in a way that’s different from the way he plays these sorts of songs with his “standards trio” (Gary Peacock on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums), though still in a style that’s distinctively his.

The album was recorded over a four-day period in Jarrett’s home studio. The sound is dry but in a good way: very close, all the nuances very clear.

COD's picture

Agree with Phil above about "When the Heart Dances" by Laurence Hobgood & Hayden ~ though I think Phil may be overlooking Laurence's participation in the music... I also agree with Scott Atkinson, Jarrett leaves me wondering what all the "fuss & fame" is about. Sure he's a technical master, but like Scott, I never find myself engaged with the music when listening to a Jarrett disc. Laurence is immensely more engaging then (and I'd say technically in the same league as) Jarrett to my ears. I do look forward to hearing "Jasmine" and sincerely hope I will finally "get" the Jarrett hypeHappy listeningChris