On Wednesday the Keith Jarrett trio, for my money the best working group in jazz, and probably the best band in the world (although regular readers know I'm pretty excited about the National these days), played one of their infrequent and feverishly anticipated concerts at Carnegie Hall. With Jack DeJohnette on drums and Gary Peacock on bass, it is an imposing trio. And while they are certainly not show-offs, their virtuosity is apparent in every note they play, in the casual grace with which they approach their instruments, in the palpable sense of nearly limitless possibility, that they could take the music anywhere at any moment.
At this particular performance they were in a notably concise mode, with few of the extended intros and outros they used to launch into so frequently, or of the strange and sinuous brand of free improvisation they have explored in recent years. It was largely an evening of standards played with uncommon grace and preternatural concentration, straightforward only insofar as music that elevates so consistently toward the sublime could ever be saddled with that word.
What moments of departure there were, though, were particularly special. A blisteringly fast, kinetically thrilling rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser" (the second of three encores) was interrupted by a tantalizing passage of free improvisation, limpid, free-associating and conversational. And there were two extended modal riffing sections, one an ecstatic ostinato introduction to "On Green Dolphin Street," the other a gentle and generous outro for "Last Night When We Were Young," with a utopian air reminiscent of the Charles Lloyd Quartet that Jarrett and DeJohnette played in together nearly 40 years ago. DeJohnette played a delicate, bubbling rhythm on just the high hat, the music melted lovingly into the air, and for a few minutes the whole hall was bathed in a beatific glow.
Unfortunately, as beautiful an acoustical space as it is for orchestral music, Carnegie Hall is a terrible place to hear the trio. In order to balance the piano and bass with the drums they have to be amplified, and the result, in that vast and echoey room, is something of a mess. Jarrett and co. were clearly aware of the problem, and they prudently loaded the set with ballads, leaving plenty of aural space for Jarrett's unmistakably concentrated, singing tone to ring across the hall. On up-tempo tunes, though, the piano and bass turned almost indecipherably muddy, and the upshot was, in effect, an extended drum solo -- and a pretty dazzling one at that (particularly when DeJohnette played an actual drum solo and those pesky bass and piano distractions dropped out).
Jarrett's most recent recording, "Radiance" (download it here, is not with the trio but solo, a continuation of the completely improvised concerts he's been playing for three decades now (most famously "The Köln Concert"). A continuation, but also a departure, in that the two-disc set, which was recorded in Osaka and Tokyo in 2002, consists of 17 discrete tracks running between one and a half and 14 minutes in length, rather than a single, lengthy improvisation.
Jarrett has been steadily excising all traces of the saccharine and sentimental from his playing over the last decade, as if in protest of the many new-age artists who have taken the style of his early solo concerts, sapped it of all life force and passion, and fed it to their aesthetically anesthetized audience. When Jarrett plays sweet now, and he does often on "Radiance," it's with a new austerity and clarity, unblurred by any soft-focus haze. It's by no means all sweet, though, as some pieces explore a far-reaching, devastatingly lonely harmonic world that's more new classical than jazz, and others return to the comfortable terrain of repetitive, minimalist, mantra-like improvisation. Taken as a whole it's a staggering record, one that I'm still only beginning to appreciate and grasp after a few months of frequent listening. An essential release.
For those of us Stateside who have despaired of seeing Jarrett play a solo concert, there's good news: A program insert on Wednesday announced that he will be performing solo at Carnegie Hall on Sept. 26, his first North American solo appearance in more than a decade.