One Track Mind: Keith Jarrett Trio, “Autumn Leaves” (1994)

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by S. Victor Aaron

That Keith Jarrett, he’s one amazing individual. Consider:

· In the middle of the domination of jazz by wanking electric guitarists and keyboardists in 1975, KJ sits down in front of an audience in West Germany armed with only a piano, starts playing whatever came out of his head for about an hour and the recording becomes a best seller, single-handedly putting the fledgling ECM label on the map.
· Survives a disastrous turn as a folk-pop singer/songwriter.
· Was one of Miles Davis’ most enthusiastic electric pianists…which you wouldn’t know given how much he later disparaged what Miles was doing with his music at the time.
· Continues to play at a very high level despite recently suffering from chronic stress syndrome.

But perhaps his most amazing feat is that his main gig for the last twenty years has been to play standards plus a handful of originals with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack deJohnette exclusively and still come up with new ideas within those confines. ECM dutifully releases one or two live recordings a year of Keith and the boys doing just this and these records never disappoint. In fact, it seems they get better because they’ve developed such a unique chemistry, one that’s on par with Evans/LaFaro/Motion in 1960-1. To this crew, the song is just a vehicle; the thrill is where they drive that thing. About the only requirement is that the car they’re driving is malleable enough to bend with the changes.

This week’s OTM highlights one selection out of that huge stack of live recordings of well worn covers. In June 1994, the KJT set up shop in NYC for an extended engagement at The Blue Note. All sets were released as part a six CD box set, and in the set contained in CD #3 is a magnificent version of Johnny Mercer’s Autumn Leaves. You got about half an hour to lend your ears? Good, let’s get rolling…

The proceedings start with Jarrett alone on piano stating theme repetitively with block chords, almost in a stumbling fashion and with slight variations. Peacock and deJohnette softly enter at around the 4:20 mark, gradually picking up the pace until the piece evolves into a nice, tight light bop workout. Gary’s bass plods are on the money and he does a fine job regulating the pace as Keith starts laying down some thoughtful single lines, followed by a Peacock solo. After more Jarrett soloing, the song suddenly changes into a two chord vamp around the 13:00 mark. Soon, deJohnette is laying down a nasty calypso pulse as all three are gettin’ down. Jarrett and Peacock play ever decreasing notes until it’s pretty much just deJohnette at the twenty minute mark.

Now I’d hate to have to try and pick out what is Jack deJohnette’s finest moment on record, but if someone was pointing a Luger at me, I might volunteer this snapshot. The way he works the cymbal, tom tom and bass drum together makes it sound like he’s got three arms, and it’s the highlight of the whole extended piece. Jarrett makes his way back into focus with a single note played over and over while Peacock plays chunky notes all around it. Finally, the extended vamp sequence is broken as the leader subtly reintroduces the theme with only three minutes left and the song winds down until it finally ends as unassuming as it began.

That’s a lot of song to describe but the thing that can never be sufficiently described is the telepathy that goes on among these musicians. They are so in tune with each other and whenever one throws out the slightest cue, the other two are right on top of it to take the song into another phase. It’s the kind of rapport you can only get if all players are very highly skilled and have played together for a long time. And that’s why Keith Jarrett’s standards trio will reward close listening, no matter how much you listen to them.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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