The king of piano improvisation captured live in ECM’s fatherland
Artist: Keith Jarrett
Album: Munich 2016
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Performing a solo concert anchored almost entirely by improvisation as Keith Jarrett does is an inherently brave act.
To trust in one’s own talent and instinct and have total confidence that your fingers, breath and imagination will lead to places satisfying to both yourself and an audience, bespeaks a level of courage, assurance and tenacity that can boggle minds.
The pianist, of course, isn’t known for lacking confidence or mistrusting his own skills. Plus he has decades of experience sitting in front of the piano in large concert halls and making it up as he goes, with a catalog full of classic albums (Sun Bear Concerts, Creation, A Multitude of Angels, and the immortal The Köln Concert) as a result.
Indeed, his solo improvisations are arguably where he’s at his best. While he’s never been shy about upending song structures and expecting whatever bandmates he’s accompanied by to follow him down whatever new route he chooses to take, being unfettered by other musicians or existing melodies seems to suit him better than any other creative situation in which he places himself. And because these shows revolve around spontaneous composition, you’re assured of not hearing the same performance twice.
Which brings us to Munich 2016, his latest release in his casual series. Whether or not this is an especially inspired performance compared to other albums is difficult to say – it’s not as if the mediocre shows will be released. Putting aside comparisons to his other work, however, keeps focus solely on what he does here, and to these ears, that’s magnificent in and of itself. Jarrett’s strength as a player isn’t so much his high degree of technique, but his devotion to melody above all else. No matter what flights of fancy in which he indulges, he always keeps relative tunefulness in mind, even if subconsciously. It’s the common denominator between the key-battering dissonance of “Part VII,” the bluesy cadences of “Part IV,” the classical atmosphere of “Part VI,” and the rags turned inside out of “Part III.” It’s also what allows “Part VIII” to revel in a shimmering langor and “Part X” to ramble seemingly carelessly without either bit sinking into self-indulgence. Jarrett’s ability to pull beauty out of unplanned performance is indeed a remarkable thing – even the seemingly unstructured “Part I” and Part XII” or the long, meandering “Part XI” hold attention, no matter what corner they turn. The audience’s obvious enthusiasm for each piece underscores Jarrett’s success.
Though he’s hardly put the German crowd through any special rigor, Jarrett still rewards them for their attention with a trio of standards. The audience seems particularly compelled by the luminous takes on the ballads “Answer Me, My Love,” a Gerhard Winkler/Fred Rauch composition first recorded by Nat “King” Cole with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, and the much-recorded “It’s a Lonesome Old Town,” written by Harry Tobias and Charles Kisco. The program ends with that most standard of standards, Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg’s immortal Judy Garland classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – a song done so often it shouldn’t have anything left to offer, but still manages to shine in Jarrett’s hands. Again, it’s that close attention to melody that works in the pianist’s favor – whether Jarrett is working with an old favorite or a new spontaneous creation, his love of a good old-fashioned tune keeps whatever he plays in the realm of beauty and wonder.
AUDIO: Keith Jarrett “Part III” (Live)