Jarrett: American Quartet

Including Keith Jarrett on piano and various instruments, Dewey Redman on sax and sundries, Charlie Haden on bass, and Paul Motian on drums. When certain critics talk about how true jazz was on hiatus during the 1970s, Jarrett’s American quartet is the first thing that comes to my mind as contrary evidence. No, they weren’t playing “Yardbird Suite”, but they extended the tradition in a personalized way. A lot of Jarrett’s compositions for the team had a funky sort of soul/gospel flavor, and the quartet also carried the influence of Ornette Coleman in their freer improvisations. That’s no surprise considering that Redman and Haden were ex-Ornette employees and that Jarrett was rather free-minded at the piano anyway. (And on soprano sax, his second instrument at the time.) They also explored ethnic sounds and retained a “natural” jazz ethos rather than joining the electric fusion styles of their day.

The Mourning of a Star
El Juicio
July 1971 / Atlantic

These three titles have been re-released on different labels in recent years. (I found El Juicio on a Collectible Jazz Classics twofer, and Birth and Star are currently on Wounded Bird.) It seems the philosophy of the session that produced them was “anything goes,” as the range includes polished uptempo compositions, soft ballads, indulgent noise experiments, a pop song cover, solo piano, miniature theme statements (some tracks are just seconds long), etcetera. You might say this indicates a lack of focus, or you could say it befits a group coming to life, and a lot of the components of their later works are first explored here.

El Juicio is the most solid of the three. It’s got the archtypical groove piece “Gypsy Moth”, two of the better Ornette-ish dual-sax tunes (“Toll Road” and “Piece for Ornette”), and the free for all title track. At the piano, Jarrett is gregarious and hardly as profound as he would become. Over time, he’d learn to regulate how much erupted from the seemingly endless geyser inside. And if he’s not a great soprano sax player, he’s not a bad one either. It’s more about engaging the moment with available tools than saying “I play this instrument and I also play that one.”

Birth features the beautiful title track and the super groovy “Mortgage on My Soul”, driven by Haden’s wah-bass. (The one time anything gets plugged in at the session.) The rest of the album indulges the group’s radical noise making side, as witness the wailing winds, voices, percussives, and so on of “Spirit” and “Remorse”. Certain moments are nice, like the piano portion of “Spirit”, but this part of the quartet isn’t yet very rewarding.

Mourning of a Star collects all the tracks without Redman. Jarrett, Haden, and Motian had already worked as a trio in the preceding years, and they put forth a wild program here, actually the most disjointed record of the trilogy. On the one hand are the heartwarming pop grooves of “Standing Outside” and Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” (overlaid with recorders and congas), both capturing Jarrett’s youthful side. “Trust” is a wonderful theme whose mood is dissolved by random improvisation. Then there’s the desolation of “Everything That Lives Laments”, the long journey of the title track, noise jams (“Follow the Crooked Path”), and random miniatures - and a lot of steel drums too, which must have been sitting in the studio begging to be used.

If you were to assemble the best ten or twelve tracks from the sessions, you’d have a fantastic album and a lot of varying scraps left over. Anyway, think of these three titles as primers for what’s to follow.

Oct. 1971 / Columbia Legacy

This double album covers a lot of ground and stands apart from the other quartet records because the group is augmented on some tracks by Sam Brown (guitar) and Airto Moriera (percussion), along with brass and strings. The music fills Jarrett’s melting pot of Americana: there’s countrified gospel, light classical, Latin, free jazz, and more. Leave aside the words eclectic (which Jarrett actually argues against in the 2000 reissue liner essay) and fusion (which it really isn’t) and notice the purity of intent, however diverse the surface might be.

The first half includes the festive “Common Mama”, the soulful “Magician in You”, and the twang-rock of “Take Me Back”, all colored by Jarrett’s infectious piano. The roiling rhythms of “Roussillion” and “Circular Letter” could only come from Haden and Motian, while the saxes entwine in dark rhapsodies above them. The title track expands the romantic mood of the album-opening snippet “Visions”, where a gorgeous string chart cushions delicate piano.

The centerpiece of the second half is the 17-minute travelogue “Nomads”, with a brass-bolstered theme, eerie organ, and an exploratory piano solo. “Sundance”, in contrast, is a bright, rocking piece. Redman and Jarrett go outside on “Bring Back the Time When”, and “There Is a Road” closes the album with a sense of homecoming. The ensembles have a few ragged edges on both discs, and the solos can jar (Jarrett’s soprano on “Take Me Back” sounds like a lost duck, and Redman always has a foot outside the door), but it all fits the character of the music. As an artistic statement, Expectations rates high in KJ’s catalog. It’s like a grad thesis, or a manifesto. I loved it when a friend first gave me a copy years ago, and I still love it today.

The Impulse Years 1973-1974
Feb 1973-Oct 1974 / Impulse

The American quartet was very productive, although the quality of their output ranges drastically. This five disc box covers both mediocre and definitive moments that went into the albums Fort Yawuh, Treasure Island, Death and the Flower, and Backhand, along with a few previously unreleased extras.

The first two discs document a February 1973 gig at the Village Vanguard (with percussionist Danny Johnson sitting in), selections of which were culled for the live album Fort Yawuh. Hearing the whole show is a hit and miss experience. The quartet’s freewheeling, no holds barred approach to improv can reach great heights, while at other times they can sound totally indulgent or at cross-purposes. Of the good stuff, “Misfits” (heard in two takes) represents their aggressive free jazz style, while “Fort Yawuh” and “Still Life” hint at the beauty that Keith was learning to summon in this era. The lengthy “Roads Traveled, Roads Veiled” suite includes a fine soprano solo from Jarrett, while “De Drums” stays close to groovy home. Meanwhile, “Angles” features a nice piano vamp that Redman’s ensuing solo tears to pieces. The group can be irresponsible with its energies, and that includes Jarrett, whose piano lines sometimes sound like they’re falling off a cliff. Extra bits like “Whistle Tune” and a stern audience address from Keith (“there’s no need to clap”) don’t add much to the already diffuse atmosphere. And watch out for the whiny Chinese musette that Redman sometimes substitutes for his tenor sax.

Recorded almost exactly one year later, the studio effort Treasure Island comes across like Expectations Lite. Sam Brown adds guitar to a couple of rock-inflected tracks, and the group rolls out dusty grooves (“The Rich and the Poor”, “Le Mistral”) alongside a few extreme moments. It’s not a complaint to say that the tunes are more memorable than the solos; that just tells you what you need to know about Jarrett’s writing (solid and original) and the band’s improvising (mostly fleeting). That being said, Treasure Island is a fine record and worth getting on its own. I could listen to the Haden-Jarrett vamp of “Le Mistral” endlessly, and the title track is great.

The final session produced enough material for two albums, Death and the Flower and Backhand, perhaps the quartet’s most mature music to date. The large-scale piece “Death and the Flower” explores heavyweight impressionism and a spontaneous release over the course of 22 minutes. The ethnic jam “Kuum” (small percussion, musette, rubbery bass) is the best effort yet in that style, and “Great Bird” shares the same exotic feel. “Inflight” captures an infectious sense of forward motion, and “Vapallia” fills the ballad slot. For a good balance of writing and improv, hear Keith’s solo in the superb “Backhand”.

In total, this is a valuable collection for the undeniable highlights within.

Mysteries - The Impulse Years 1975-1976
Dec 1975-Oct 1976 / Impulse

Four discs, four original albums, several bonus takes. The recording dates straddle the great divide of the ECM titles listed below; consequently or not, a contrast exists between the first two discs and the last. The quartet starts off flying high and then undergoes artistic disintegration down the road.

The Shades album on Disc 1 ranks with the quartet’s best work. “Shades of Jazz” stands close to tradition yet still gives the players freedom to roam, as does the oblique ballad “Rose Petals”, three takes of which demonstrate Jarrett’s care of craft. The outstanding groove piece “Southern Smiles” is rootsy yet sophisticated, and like most of the other rock-soul-gospel (or whatever you want to call it) tunes by Jarrett, it provides a warm feeling. “Diatribe” is more volatile but nonetheless has a friendly theme of its own. The bonus takes contain some good moments, like Dewey ripping through an alternate of “Shades of Jazz”.

Disc two features the album Mysteries, good but not as focused as Shades. “Rotation” spins around abstract solos, “Flame” returns to primitive exotica, and the melodic meditations of “Mysteries” give way to an active piano solo. The best track is “Everything That Lives Laments”, specifically the longer alternate take. Once a somber etude on an earlier album, the tune now spreads its wings under Jarrett’s piano solo, maybe his best ever with the quartet. Flowing single lines summon a charging vamp, then Haden and Motian break into straight swing and Jarrett really takes off. The master take is good too, but the alternate goes the extra mile. The snippet “Playaround” from the session shows the band having a laugh at some ragtime riffs.

Forward to October 1976. The quartet has reached its end, and Jarrett’s solution for the final albums is to feature the compositions of the other members. Byablue (Disc 3) centers on Motian’s works, which are as elusive as his drumming. The title track trips over its own sweetness; “Trieste” is more evocative; “Yahllah” goes for a tribal folk vibe. Motian has an interesting creative side, worldly in a way, but fairly lightweight. A mood piece by Jarrett (“Konya”) and a forgettable ballad by Jarrett’s then wife (“Rainbow”) fill out the program.

The highlight of Bop-Be (Disc 4) is Jarrett’s catchy title track, a boppish piano trio performance that looks not only to the past but to the future. Haden offers the pensive “Silence” and the self-descriptive “Pocketful of Cherry”. (Don, that is.) Redman’s vibrant “Mushi Mushi” could pass for a Jarrett tune, while “Gotta Get Some Sleep” glances yet again at Ornette Coleman, and it’s got a hellaciously good tenor solo. “Pyramids Moving” sounds the death knell for the whole “small percussion and wailing foreign instruments” bag. A few minor sparks notwithstanding, the group sounds like they’re fulfilling a studio commitment. The lack of direction is obvious, and so dissipates an iconoclastic quartet.

The Survivors' Suite
Apr. 1976 / ECM

The masterwork. Two side-long tracks unify the players’ energies, something that happened in smaller blocks of time on previous works, but Survivors’ Suite remains integrated for nearly fifty minutes. That’s remarkable for such a rambunctious group. The spacious, pristine recording is another improvement. Redman leaves behind the musette and concentrates on tenor sax, while Jarrett plays soprano sax, osi drums, celeste, and bass recorder (like a low flute sound) along with piano.

“Beginning”: Rattling shakers, a bass figure, and haunting lines from bass recorder invoke a nature scene of sorts. At 4:18, a new bassline and percussion pulse emerges, eventually topped by a wary theme for soprano and tenor sax. Motian brings in the drums. A chord change is introduced into the backdrop, then Jarrett and Redman take solos as Haden and Motian rumble down low - my favorite part of the album. At 12:45, the tenor winds down and the piano is left playing a rolling chord sequence, somewhat classical and very beautiful. Bass and overdubbed celeste join in. Three minutes later, Redman adds a top line and then solos. The chord cycle evokes a mood of attaining but always returns to its starting point. Haden takes a bass solo over celeste at 18:44, followed by a re-entry of the tenor and the semi-tragic theme. A reflective piano solo begins at 22:20, and Haden finishes the side with another short solo, to which the band adds a final question mark, or “to be continued.”

“Conclusion”: The choppy, Coltrane-ish “Great Bird” theme from the Death and the Flower album is borrowed as the main motif for this half, the first few minutes of which involve free jazz flurries led by Redman’s honk-skronk sax and a powerful drum solo. Bass and piano return at 4:30 to downshift into a light Latin groove and Jarrett solo. At 7:11 he veers into a new chord progression over the same rhythm and improvises further. Redman solos a few minutes later in his skittering style. His phrases are well connected to what Jarrett had just improvised, and it’s times like this when the two individuals seem to be on the same emotional page. Haden gets a spot at the thirteen-minute mark. At 14:35, soprano sax signals a return to “Great Bird” theme, with the recorder ghostly in the background. (A reminder of where we started.) The rhythm drops out and the soprano plays a crying soliloquy. At 17:30 comes a full band return of “Great Bird” that alternates with a grander secondary theme. These wave back and forth until a sustained conclusion.

Couldn’t resist a straight out description there, though Survivors’ Suite ultimately relies on indescribable passion. The group is strongly committed throughout this powerful work, which should appeal to adventurous listeners of all kinds.

Eyes of the Heart
May 1976 / ECM

An anticlimactic finale recorded in concert in Austria with the band at loggerheads. Redman hangs offstage for the first 20-odd minutes of the set, leaving Jarrett to muse on percussion, soprano sax, then piano, with Haden and Motian in reserved support. There is palpable tension in the piano vamps, as Jarrett tries to draw his saxophonist from the wings. The music thus becomes somewhat minimalist by default; it’s beautiful by itself, but there’s a nagging sense that something or someone is missing. It makes Redman’s sudden entrance all the more effective when he joins the band to build up a bonfire of intensity.

The first of the three untitled encores is quite joyous in comparison, with Jarrett’s carefree piano suggesting that all is forgiven. Motian’s pent-up enthusiasm breaks loose as well. The second encore entwines tenor and soprano on one of group’s post-Ornette variations, while Jarrett takes the final encore alone (can it get more symbolic?), playing a pensive piano benediction. Eyes of the Heart’s overall intrigue comes from the emotion that runs through the whole performance, even if for the first twenty minutes it is an emotion of uncertainty. I think of this album as tension and release on a grand scale, and the giddy eruptions of the first encore only resonate if you’ve heard the sparse waiting game Jarrett was playing earlier. The quartet would come to an official end after the Impulse studio sessions in October, but here is the real swan song, imperfect and compelling.

Back to Keith Jarrett