Keith Jarrett's masterful Testament

Keith Jarrett’s Paris/London: Testament (on the ECM label), a three-CD set consisting of two live solo concerts, is a stunning album, a career peak.

I’ve seen Jarrett play solo at Carnegie Hall twice in the past few years and my jaw dropped at both. (Both concerts were recorded; one was released as an album in 2006, which I listed as the second-best of that year, topped only by Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar.) But those New York dates were nothing compared to what Jarrett ekes from the keyboard here.

All of the music is totally improvised, not in the sense of typical jazz improvisations, which take off from a standard song or theme. No, Jarrett sits at the piano and invents something entirely from scratch, extends it for a while, stops, then invents something else entirely from scratch, then does it again, and again, and again.

A couple decades ago, Jarrett would spin rhapsodic with these improvisations, for an hour or more. Lately, he’s tightened up, treating them as pieces of a suite. Of the 20 tracks on these three discs, only five last longer (and, even then, they’re just a little bit longer) than 10 minutes. They’re so tight, you’d think they were well-wrought compositions.

It must be exhausting to do this.

Disc 1, recorded at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on Nov. 26 of last year, is riveting: dense tone clusters, stormy sheets of sound, like something out of late Debussy, but with a knife-sharp blues edge. The fever is so pitched that when he segues into an elegy toward the end of the concert, it feels like some barrier has been broken; the effect is heroic.

The concert on Discs 2 and 3, laid down just five days later at the Royal Festival Hall in London, is structured more like the other Jarrett solo concerts I’ve seen, alternating between abstract constructions and stirring ballads. But he’s digging deeper into his melodies, stretching wider in his harmonies, at once anchoring and altering the rhythms with more swing and soul than usual. The middle of the concert, from the start of Disc 3, weighs down a bit, but he bursts free of the repetition with a gospel cadence that’s rollicking in its intensity.

It brings down the house.

Martin Pearson’s engineering is, as always, superb, capturing the piano’s percussive glow; the bass notes grumble clearly, and the pedal action is palpable.

P.S. Yes, Keith hums and moans now and then, and it can be distracting. But if he really needs these eruptions to summon such depths of music, then I'd say the trade-off is worth it.

Dan Levy's picture

It is a great album.Audiophile fans of Keith Jarrett may be interested to learn that has licensed a high-resolution version of the album for download. The plain old redbook CDs sound great, but the 24/96 version is awesome.

bharath's picture

hi, fred.i am sorry but this a question not related to this entry, but it would be nice if you could still try and answer it.i am listening to charles mingus's album mingus aah um and i think the way i hear the players sitting and playing{that is where the saxaphone and trombone player are sitting in relation to each other} is opposite to the way the players are sitting in the photos in the booklet. can you tell something about this.

Ted's picture

You know, I have to disagree with you on this one. My issue with this new disc isn't that material itself, but instead with what it fails to offer, and with what it fails to elaborate on. It may be that my ear is off, but I hear in these two concerts the same cadences, the same vamps, even the same harmonies that seem to be a staple of the recent Jarrett solo shows - a combination of fragmented sketches, marked by their occasionally bluesy dissonance, and crowd ear-pleasers that, in my humble opinion, are so much more vapid than the extended harmonies Jarrett explored in the 70s (despite the occasional grandstanding involved). I would never discount Jarrett's genius, and still listen to his earlier work, especially his solo albums and his work with the American Quartet, obsessively, but this isn't quite for me. If it isn't that a part of his creative spirit has atrophied, it may instead be that it's moved in a direction my musical intellect can't appreciate.

Adam's picture

agree with Ted...there was a freedom and sense of complete vulnerability, discovery, and risk in the early solo concerts (and in earlier Jarrett and general) each concert seems carefully calculated, not just in terms of the types of pieces (abstract/atonal...pastoral ballad...eastern-sounding vamp...bluesy two-handed lines...gospel show-stopper...repeat) but in the general lack of suprise or musical surrender...i cry when i hear bremen/lausanne, koln, facing you, the survivor's suite, my song...not so much with the newer stuff.

Peter Michelsen's picture

I agree with Ted as well and for some reason I do so reluctantly. It is probably because I want the same experiences of virtual rapture--yes you read those words--that I have had countless times listneing to Koln, Vienna etc. IN spite of Jarrett's genious and prodigious creativity, I dont expect the same kind of soaring inspirational rhetoric that characterizes the younger Jarrett. As a composer matures, so, too, must his aesthetics and the intellect generating the new harmonic orientations. I wonder whether he misses his days and years of what I call soaring rhetoric.He may, but, is well aware of our demands and the fact that his standards are so high without precedent that he must move on even if that familiar beauty appears to be absent. That is to say I realize that my ears may not appreciate his new aesthetics.Can you imagine Obama using the same language that he used before the campaign? Okay that is a heck of a stretch of an analogy, but if you can tell me how the comparison doesnt work,