Jarrett: Standards Trio

Keith Jarrett on piano, Gary Peacock on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums have been one of the longest running jazz groups ever. They first played together on Peacock’s 1977 album Tales of Another, and a few years later, Jarrett recruited the other two for a standards session, a surprising move given the propensity of all three for playing new music. Jarrett’s aim was to reconnect with the “tribal language” of jazz and to investigate the “non-possessive” side of music making. Apart from a couple of studio visits, the trio has mostly worked live, and significantly, they don’t use arrangements. Arrangements can be possessive of course - “This is how we play this tune, this is what we do with that one” - so they let each song begin, develop, and end as it may. Following on from that, the setlists are also constructed in real time. More and more free playing creeps into their albums over the years, sometimes in tune-related vamps, sometimes in stand-alone spontaneous creations. I still think of them as the “Standards” trio, though, as they’ve never abandoned the old songbooks.

A few years ago, I used to be so gung-ho about this group that every album seemed essential. However, as their catalog has continued to swell, I’ve grown more discerning about what’s a great title and what isn’t. They’ve never made a bad album, but some are more desirable and/or unique than others.

Standards, Vol.1
Standards, Vol.2
Jan. 1983 / ECM

These two volumes emerged from the same session, and it’s amazing that the trio could sound so advanced right off the bat. Their pent-up traditional feeling is so sophisticated that one could imagine them secretly having been playing standards together for five years. Jarrett is melodically effusive as always and he incorporates a lot of bop twists into his vocabulary. Gary Peacock updates the Scott LaFaro style of contrapuntal bass, and Jack DeJohnette drums exquisitely, especially when using brushes. Apart from some walking bass lines, pulse is mostly implied instead of explicitly marked, and the level of rhythmic trust is high.

Because it’s a studio session, it has a more insular feel than the many live albums to follow, basically an eloquent discussion amongst the players. Volume 1 boasts a moody “Meaning of the Blues” and a quiet look at “It Never Entered My Mind”. The extended “God Bless the Child” rides a slow backbeat that connects to Jarrett’s gospel-funk of the preceding decade. Volume 2 is an even stronger selection, including wonderful versions of “Moon and Sand” and “Never Let Me Go”. Jarrett’s long-lined solo in “In Love In Vain” betrays a need to play standards, not just a desire, and joy bursts out of the midtempo “If I Should Lose You” where even Gary lets out a whoop. Jarrett’s slick original “So Tender” matches the feel of the standards and the playing is again excellent.

Praise dispatched, I now must issue a warning: Jarrett’s nasally vocal accompaniment is on display. Maybe because of the studio miking setup, it’s more distracting than usual when it occurs. It doesn’t hamper every track or every moment of the afflicted tracks, but it requires fair warning. Otherwise, I would not hold back from saying these discs are must-owns for any fan of the piano-trio format.

Jan. 1983 / ECM

The chemistry of the first studio session also produced a couple of quarter-hour free improvisations, “Flying Part One” and “Flying Part Two”, presented here. Without song templates, the music is obviously more abstract yet the close conversational level remains. Every gesture made by the three players is out in the open and determines where the music goes. There are too many elements to describe, but in a nutshell, “Flying Part One” broods and “Flying Part Two” dances. Both are like large tapestries waving in the wind, and none of the trio’s future free improvs sound anything like these. Jarrett’s vocalizing, for whatever reason, is hardly as intrusive as on the above standards volumes, so that’s a plus.

Changes also contains a superb version of Jarrett’s “Prism”, a tune conceived for the European quartet that sounds just as good in the hands of the trio. Peacock and Jarrett slither around the mysterious melody and DeJohnette deploys a light, swishing pulse under the solos. All three tracks definitely make Changes worth acquiring.

Standards Live
July 1985 / ECM

In the live context, the swing becomes clearer, the solos stretch out, and the process is more direct. This six-song CD is a great introduction to the trio’s approach. Even though I prefer some of their later recordings, I still enjoy going back to this one and hearing how refined the group was from the start. They always raise the curtain well: the opening “Stella by Starlight” begins with a solo piano rumination and brews a head of romance as Gary and Jack lock in. The peak tracks are “Falling in Love with Love”, bright and swinging, and “Too Young To Go Steady”, driven by DeJohnette’s unbreakable cymbal pulse. DeJohnette also wows the crowd with his “Way You Look Tonight” solo. Jarrett plays inspired solos and it’s pretty clear already that the standards aren’t just a temporary diversion, they’re his new home.

Still Live
July 1986 / ECM

Things go to a new level on this two-disc Munich concert. The group maintains their excellence with individual tunes (“Come Rain or Come Shine”, “Autumn Leaves”, “Billie’s Bounce”) and they also introduce spontaneous vamps and extensions to the proceedings. For example, in the middle of the second disc, they’re blazing through “You and the Night and the Music”, then Peacock’s bass solo quiets down to nothing but pulse. Jarrett offers new chords, DeJohnette adjusts the momentum, and before long, the music is adrift in the unknown. This segment has the continuum feel of Jarrett’s solo concerts, but it’s not like he forces that identity onto the table. The improv continues until Jarrett shifts gears and finds his way to “Someday My Prince Will Come”, which takes off in a new direction. An interesting transition, to say the least.

Meanwhile, the four tunes on Disc 1 are about the finest sequence the trio ever recorded. The evocative piano chassis that carries “My Funny Valentine” disallows any of the usual surface prettiness given the song. Next is an energetic jaunt through “Autumn Leaves”, which spawns a tight vamp at the end. The atmosphere softens for “When I Fall in Love”, and then comes the seventeen-minute centerpiece “The Song is You”, the ultimate example of this group’s capabilities. Jarrett introduces it with a oscillating keyboard pattern and brings in the happy melody once the pulse is strongly established. Jarrett then launches an ecstatic solo, and Peacock and DeJohnette have wild exchanges afterward. On the final theme statement, the momentum is so titanic that it’s clear that the band is not going to stop and couldn’t if they wanted to. It’d be like entering your driveway at 65 miles an hour - the house had better get out of the way. And so the final melody phrase leads right into a grooving two-chord vamp. Major and minor harmonies create a pregnant feel with a hot rhythm underneath. The group rises and falls in the vamp’s grip, eventually landing on the piano figures that Jarrett used to start the piece, including flitting remnants of “The Song is You” melody. To be able to tap into something so powerful, and to have the awareness to frame it like that, is awe-inspiring.

What else? Um, Paul Desmond’s “Late Lament” is done well, too. A terrific album all the way around.

Oct. 1987 / ECM

No tunes here, just four lulling vamp-improvs, hence the title. Each comes from a different American concert. “Dancing” is the most active piece, while the other three are more subdued and trance-like. Hypnotic as the music is, it’s attentively played, not zoned out. For pure listening pleasure, the soft piano caresses of “Endless” are very beautiful. The mix hides the bass and drums in a reverbed space behind the piano, which would be unacceptable for “real” tunes, but for this ambient scenario, it sounds nice. That being said, these tracks will likely bore the socks off those who require standard melodies and changes. I’ve always liked the album, even though it’s a little too reserved. I’m curious what effect and place the individual pieces had in their original concerts.

Standards in Norway
Oct. 1989 / ECM

Not released until a few years later, this concert is undistinguished enough to make one wonder why it was pulled from the cupboard. It shares some of the same material as Tribute and The Cure but the Norway versions aren’t noticeably better, and neither is there any extended free improv to open things up. There is fun to be had in “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” (the main highlight) and a reverent “Old Folks”, but in no way does the disc steal the shine from the trio’s better recordings. And the cloudy concert hall sound is disappointing. When a jazz group is up and running, you don’t want to feel like they’re a hundred feet away.

Oct. 1989 / ECM

So named for each of the individual songs being dedicated (on the album cover, after the fact) to various jazz giants - “All of You” for Miles, “Just in Time” for Bird, “Solar” for Bill Evans, etc. A nice gesture, but it doesn’t hide the unevenness of the concert. Disc 1 takes a while to get going: “Lover Man” never ignites, and DeJohnette’s explosive drum breaks in “I Hear a Rhapsody” seem intended to wake the group up. The decent “Solar” leads into a vamp extension called “Sun Prayer”, although the trio sounds like they’re drowning in it, and not in a good way.

The second disc is better for refined ballads like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “It’s Easy to Remember”. The glittering piano intro to “All the Things You Are” is impressive and “Just in Time” burns so hard as to inspire a second solo from Jarrett at the end, but therein lies another problem - the whiny vocals are back. Every medium or fast tempo tune is laden with obnoxious humming, louder than on any of the other concert recordings. If Tribute was already precariously balanced, Jarrett’s habit tips the scale in the negative direction. For completists only. And by the way, the original “U-Dance” is a very trite ditty.

The Cure
Apr. 1990 / ECM

Recorded live at NYC’s Town Hall, this is the most satisfying program since Still Live. It’s not perfect - the 13-minute “Body and Soul” is too ponderous - yet a friendliness permeates most of the tracks. Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” is transformed via Jarrett’s soulful swirls and a floating pulse, “Old Folks” and “Blame It on My Youth” sound lush, and “Woody ‘n You” swings easily. The original title track is built on a minor pentatonic bassline, a chord riff, and a sly DeJohnette backbeat, all of which lights Jarrett’s flame for a few minutes. The show ends with a humble and somewhat tipsy “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” that gains much crowd approval. When Keith’s got the blues, everyone goes home happy. Solid album, except I’ve never quite cracked this “Body and Soul”.

Live at the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings
June 1994 / ECM

This six disc box presents one set each from three nights at the Blue Note in New York. It’s the trio’s Sun Bear and their masterwork, in my opinion, and it’s been near the top of my desert island list ever since I first heard it. Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette are each in top form on a wide range of material, and the recording brings us closer to the instruments (and thus the music) than ever before. Beyond the keystrokes, the string plucks, and every detailed touch of the drumkit, we can hear the communication between the players and also the attention of the audience. The concert hall formality of some of the other records is nice, but the Blue Note tapes seal the argument for visceral proximity.

Tunewise, the collection is like a mini Real Book. Pages like “Days of Wine and Roses”, “Alone Together”, and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” sit alongside familiar trio staples like “Autumn Leaves” and “When I Fall in Love”. “La Valse Bleue” is a rare waltz number. A few Jarrett originals pop up: “No Lonely Nights” is a pleasant ballad, and “Partners” sounds like Jarrett rearranging a few Charlie Parker lines into a new tune, hence the writing credit to both men. The catchy “Bop-Be” from the American quartet days also happens to find a welcome place here. “Partners” and “No Lonely Nights” are heard in two versions each, and the only other repeated title is Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”, which closes two of the evenings.

Performances range from straightahead swing (“If I Were a Bell”, “How About You”) to ballad stillness (“Imagination”, “For Heaven’s Sake”). Even better are the mountainous dynamics of things like “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “Time after Time”, which take their time building up and coming down. Each night begins with a marathon piece that turns into a vamp extension: “In Your Own Sweet Way”, “Autumn Leaves”, and “On Green Dolphin Street” all put the trio in the groove zone. “Green Dolphin Street” has a great riff introduction, too. A couple of the ballads (“I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is”) also turn into subdued vamps that go on for a while. Totally improvised, the final set’s “Desert Sun” is a long, exotic, minimalist groove in the style of Changeless and some of Keith’s solo concerts.

Jarrett develops the tunes with patience and creates magnificent solos. His mischievous side is heard in the set-ending blues tunes like “Now’s the Time” and “Straight No Chaser”. DeJohnette is terrific in both the uptempo swingers and the ballads. His soft-tom drumming in “You Don’t Know What Love Is” inspires the “Muezzin” vamp that follows it. And Gary Peacock really shines on this box. It’s not like he was ever a marginal element, but his bass is further to the front this time, and he takes excellent solos as well.

It is difficult to single out favorites, because so much of it is so good, but I think the opening “In Your Own Sweet Way” represents all the grit and effervescence of the engagement. Another charming moment appears in the very last track, “How About You”. After five minutes or so of swinging bliss, the trio falls out of sync in the final bars and the tune comes to an anticlimactic halt. The audience giggles in semi-shock, confronted by the trio’s sudden fallibility. Judging by the audience reaction, the band is probably all smiles, too. Keith re-starts the final cadence, Gary and Jack reboot, and the audience laughs/cheers again as they realize that the players are going to concentrate and get it right this time, which they do. And so ends the gig on a note of amusing humanity.

Tokyo ’96
Mar. 1996 / ECM

The most delicate of the bunch gives the impression that the slightest breeze would scatter the likes of “Mona Lisa” and “My Funny Valentine” to the wind. Ditto the hushed revisiting of “Never Let Me Go”. Strength arrives in Powell’s “John’s Abbey”, and “Autumn Leaves” once again proves a trusty standby for Jarrett. The jam that concludes a joyous “I’ll Remember April” is a bit ditzy, though. After the full monty of the Blue Note dates, the Tokyo concert is another experience altogether, and the band plays more preciously than ever. Jarrett registers well in the mix, while Peacock sounds like he’s still backstage. Not a front line entry.

Whisper Not
July 1999 / ECM

Bebop lives! This two-disc Paris concert features mostly bop-oriented material like “Bouncing with Bud”, “Groovin’ High”, “Sandu”, “Conception”, and “Hallucinations”. Jarrett seamlessly works vintage licks into his own style, while Peacock and DeJohnette plow straight ahead. Both “Round Midnight” and Ahmad Jamal’s classic “Poinciana” make belated appearances in the repertoire, and Benny Golson’s title track is taken on a relaxed, masterful ride. “Chelsea Bridge”, “Prelude to a Kiss”, and “All My Tomorrows” provide soothing ballad relief, and the perennial “When I Fall in Love” closes the concert. Jarrett might deny it, but I’m sure he’s got Bill Evans’ Portrait in Jazz somewhere in his closet. Along with all the Bud Powell records he says he’s never heard.

The centerpiece “What Is This Thing Called Love” is founded on a groovy vamp, delivered with the same funky exhilaration Jarrett displayed in the 1970s, and it then goes into a long, careening piano solo. After the bass solo, the trio moves into an angular diversion, but Jarrett cuts it short and returns to the song. Another highlight is “Groovin’ High”, which exists between the bookends of an infectious piano riff. All in all, a vibrant album.

Inside Out
July 2000 / ECM

In which the group rediscovers free improvisation - four of the five tracks (all recorded live in London) are totally off the cuff. The first two tracks together run about 40 minutes, and both tread a lot of vague ground before reaching their payoffs. “From the Body” uncovers a distilled melodicism in its final stretch, while “Inside Out” morphs into a heady blues crawl and mires itself deep in jazz’s most primal emotional state. The grandeur of these two tracks is a little strange; I don’t think either improv could have occurred in a small room. The next two tracks are more immediate. With lockstep comping and clipped lines, Jarrett builds on Peacock’s bass syncopations on “341 Free Fade”, an intriguing 18-minute abstraction. Then the abstruse “Riot” fades in with Jarrett accenting the whole range of the piano over a staggering DeJohnette rhythm. Tense and fun. Perversely or not, the disc ends with the trio’s fourth recorded version of “When I Fall in Love”, and the best compliment I can pay is that I don’t care if it’s the fourth or twentieth version, because it sounds lovely. Heck, it’s the best yet. Overall, Inside Out is a bit patchy, but it’s interesting to hear the trio in free territory, and the good parts win out.

Always Let Me Go
Apr. 2001 / ECM

The booklet to Inside Out promised more free improv in the future and here it is, two discs of improvisations recorded live in Tokyo. Having been excited by portions of Inside Out, I don’t think I ever anticipated any of the trio albums as much as this one - and neither was I so disappointed.

Problem #1: both discs open with half-hour pieces that are almost complete wastes of time. “Hearts in Space” (Disc 1) flounders about with no real communication, no motifs or points of interest, and no direction whatsoever. Two-thirds of the way through, Jarrett introduces a ballad idea that dissipates quickly, then the trio ends up in a pointless time-no-changes swing. Disc 2’s “Waves” has a few pleasant moments but the vast majority of it is equally aimless, and at times, Jarrett drops out to let the other two carry on with no musical premises having been established. Towards the very end, one can clearly hear the disconnection: Jarrett cheesily winds up an inane melody he had been playing for the previous few minutes, yet Peacock and DeJohnette keep chugging along as if they weren’t even listening to it in the first place. It’s kind of a disgrace, and I have no idea why the artist and producer thought this stuff needed to see release.

Problem #2: both discs end with questionable tracks, though they don’t go on as long. “Paradox” and “Relay” both start with Jarrett laying out brisk melodies that imply a specific tempo, so bass and drums duly fall in line and it’s like the trio is kind of playing songs but not really playing songs. In other words, actual free improv is ruled out by melody and tempo, yet there are no chords to guide anything so the solos and basslines just wind along aimlessly. And the “Relay” melody would have been too insipid for Jarrett at age 10, let alone when he’s a tribal elder leading one of the world’s greatest jazz groups. DeJohnette erupts with a powerful solo in the midst of “Relay” - because there’s nothing else to do - after which Jarrett returns with that singsong theme. Awful.

Having written off the majority of the album, what’s left? Four tracks that would make a fine single disc. Keith’s brief piano solo “The River” is one of the most beautiful things he’s ever played, no exaggeration, three minutes long yet deeper than above four tracks put together. The meditative groove “Tributaries” would have fit on Changeless, and “Facing East”, after a drum explosion, marches brightly toward its own paradise. The best track is “Tsunami”, a long rough-house in which DeJohnette again rises to the fore and plays a thunderous drum episode, crushing “Hearts in Space” and “Waves” in one blow.

Sorry, I have to call it like I hear it (after many chances), and the longest tracks here fall the shortest. Always Let Me Go makes Inside Out sound that much better, yet the real antidote lies in 1983’s Changes, when the free playing had much more intrigue.

April 2001 / ECM

Released in 2009, this disc is the fourth 2001 recording of Jarrett’s trio to make the catalog. It’s taken from a concert at Tokyo’s Metropolitan Festival Hall on April 30 of that year (three months or so before the concerts that bore My Foolish Heart and The Out of Towners, both released before Yesterdays), except for the final track “Stella By Starlight”, which comes from an April 24 soundcheck at Tokyo’s Orchard Hall, apparently one of the dates that went into Always Let Me Go. Confused yet? Even more confusing is trying to evaluate this record. On its own, it satisfies, but compared to the previously released 2001 recordings, it seems redundant, even taking into account anticipated variations in performance. I hate to get distracted by dates, but I don’t hear why this concert is so special as to be belatedly released, especially after My Foolish Heart had been held back so long.

Anyway, this is a fine yet average outing typified by easy-swingers like “Strollin”, “Scrapple from the Apple”, and “A Sleepin’ Bee” and gentle ballads “You’ve Changed” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (both done better on other albums, in my opinion). Bear in mind though that an ‘average’ outing from this trio stands tall in the larger scheme of things, and Jack DeJohnette, for one, does a lot of great drumming, even unleashing firepower near the end of “You Took Advantage of Me”. The group gets most wired on the bebop hoedown “Shaw’nuff”, and the best ballad is “Yesterdays”, Jarrett’s touch just sensitive enough to make fancy runs fit nicely. My favorite selection might be the soundcheck “Stella by Starlight”, which becomes as finely crafted as any of their real concert performances. At the end, if you crank up the volume, you can hear Jarrett say that it might make a good bonus track someday...

I would tout this album more, but it’s down a few pegs from My Foolish Heart (if we’re talking about post-millennium Jarrett) and breaks no barriers. Jarrett’s hums and moans are a bit more intrusive on this one, too. Disregarding the redundancy, it’s solid enough.

My Foolish Heart
July 2001 / ECM

This double disc set recorded live at Montreux was released in 2007 to commemorate the trio’s 25-year anniversary. According to the liners, Jarrett thought this particular show captured the group at its best. A lot of the evidence backs him up. In fact, listening to the first cut on the way home from the record store, I couldn’t help laughing in appreciation of how engaged these players can be within tunes we thought we’d heard the final word on. Any thoughts of “here comes another Standards Trio album, same old same old” were quickly obliterated.

The show begins with “Four”, and I think you’d have to go back to Sonny Rollins’ RCA Victor years to find another version so adventurous yet so on top of the swinging beat. This tune happens to be perfect for Jarrett’s ability to stretch phrases in any direction and to carry momentum from one chorus to the next. Towards the end, Jack DeJohnette takes exciting drum breaks, as he does on many tunes throughout the set. “Four” is followed by the title track, once rendered so delicately by Bill Evans, here expanded into a more linear journey. Certainly Evans is a touchstone for Jarrett, but the difference between the former’s heady harmonies and the latter’s elastic single-note lines is clear. Next up are a charging “Oleo” and a cool “What’s New” that I enjoy quite a bit. “The Song Is You” burns along and segues into the same vamp that the trio had explored to such great effect on Still Live. In this case, though, the vamp tapers into silence relatively quickly. Closing out the first disc, Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is tackled in stride style, but as Jarrett mentions in his notes, the performance doesn’t sound “old” at all. Perhaps it’s the subtle swing accents that lay across the ragtime beat, or maybe it’s just the enthusiasm with which the group revitalizes this ancient tune. Gary Peacock almost steals the show with a particular lick in his bass solo.

Disc 2 resumes with two more numbers in rag/stride style, including another highlight in “Honeysuckle Rose”, the piano solo of which is fantastic. Playing all three of these ‘retrofitted’ pieces together might make them sound a little too similar, but if you listen to any of them individually, it’s amazing how the trio can dig deep into jazz history yet sound so fresh in the process. Regardless, the next tune “Straight No Chaser” takes a sharp left turn into abstraction, countered by a polite take on Gerry Mulligan’s “Five Brothers”. “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry”, though pleasant, is not among the most mysterious ballads, while “On Green Dolphin Street” provides an energetic climax to the set. “Only the Lonely” serves as a light encore.

Minus the wavering directions of the second disc, I think My Foolish Heart as at least as good as any release since the 1994 Blue Note recordings, and tracks like “Four”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, and even the oddball “Straight No Chaser” are definitely unique. The recording is great, too. So don’t write this one off until you give it a fair listen.

The Out-of-Towners
July 2001 / ECM

As with some of the other titles, this concert wasn’t released until a few years after it was recorded, and after Up For It had already seen release. What’s with the leapfrog? Whatever the case, the trio puts forth yet another fresh selection of standards. Specialties include a lovely solo piano reading of “It’s All in the Game” and the 20-minute improvised blues of the title track. Unfortunately, that blues goes through ten minutes of cheekiness before it reaches the right-on moments. The rest of the set features some fine Jarrett solos (“I Love You”), and the quiet “You’ve Changed” is nice. Speaking of, the whole disc is kind of quiet; the bass and drums are lowered in the pristine but hardly equal mix. Yes, I appreciate the recreation of room ambience, but (I’ve already said this) why make the bass and drums sound off in the distance?

Up For It
July 2002 / ECM

Live in Juan-les-Pins. Admittedly, there are no surprises and no extensions to the general process, yet the art of this trio remains a delight. Their organic flow renews the appeal of moratorium-begging songs like “My Funny Valentine” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”, both of which contain outstanding piano solos. (They’ve never done “Valentine” the same way twice; this one builds up to a graceful swing.) Jarrett still finds much reward in standard chord changes, like “Scrapple from the Apple” and “If I Were a Bell”, and in “Butch and Butch”, he makes a rare detour into quartal tension a la Tyner or Corea. (DeJohnette, meanwhile, creates metric tension early in “Scrapple”.) A head of steam builds throughout the concert, culminating in the funky vamp that emerges from yet another “Autumn Leaves”.

The idiomatic genetics of bop and blues are embedded deep in the workings of all three players, while their collective sound is still innocent after all the years of experience. In other words, these guys know better to be clever; all they offer is improvisational honesty, and when it works like this, best to lend an ear.

Punter's Synopsis

Fine Introductions: Up For It, Standards Live, My Foolish Heart

Pinnacles: Live at the Blue Note box, Still Live, Changes

Excellent second tier: Whisper Not, The Cure, Inside Out

After those: Depends on how much you love Jarrett, really.

What about Bye Bye Blackbird (1991)? I just never liked it as much as most other people seem to.

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