Keith Jarrett famously declared he was leaving behind contemporary electric music not long after leaving Miles Davis’ touring band in 1972 but that self-imposed restriction didn’t stop him from making some of the most unique, creative, and yes, even modern records by a jazz musician during the 70s. His so-called European Quartet melded together streams of thought about jazz from both side of the Atlantic into songs with real openness and rich harmonics amidst the advanced underpinnings. His “American” combo with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian was adventurous, treading from soul-jazz to the outer fringes of avant-garde. He composed music for a string orchestra fronted by Jan Garbarek’s saxophone and composed neo-classical concertos for his piano and a string orchestra.
Such “special events” continued into the 80’s; witness the solo clavichord epic Book of Ways (1987). And let’s not forget that Jarrett actually made solo piano improvisation cool right in the middle of a time when jazz was going in the opposite direction with dense, electric fusion. Sometimes he went down a path that won him much praise, other times people were left scratching their heads. But it became clear that Jarrett meant what he said in jettisoning any contemporary trends in forming his own conceptions about the music he chooses to play on any album. That’s why his classic 70s records aren’t seen in relation to anything else being recorded at that time.
Which brings us to another one of his anomalies from the mid-70s, Hymns, Spheres. When Jarrett walked into the Ottobeauren Abbey in Germany on a September day in 1976, he sat down at the massive 18th century Karl Joseph Riepp organ with about as much forethought as he once brought to another German town called Koln in the prior year. As Jarrett wrote in the album sleeve, “No overdubs, technical ornamentations or additions were utilized, only the pure sound of the organ in the abbey is heard.”
Lonely single notes, cascading chords, brash blasts, scurrying runs and layers of interlocking harmonic ideas grace the sprawling two CD set. There might be a connection between the improvisations Jarrett concocts in front of a piano and the ones that bubble up at a baroque organ, but even if melodic ideas flow out in the same manner, he doesn’t play it in the same way. Perfectly cognizant of the awe-inspiring instrument at his fingertips, he’s able to create unique textures with it, and consistently does.
In fact, subtly but surely, there are some strains here and there that seemingly come from a choir, a string orchestra or even ambient electronica. But Jarrett went on to note that the foreign sounds, or “unique effects,” came about by manipulating the stops on the organ, and that the organ was always capable of producing these sounds. Rejecting the notion of creating something new out of something new, Jarrett had once again created something new out of something old instead. And Hymns, Spheres is no head scratcher, except to make one wonder why technology was needed to make these advanced synthesizers and other electronic doodads that creates soothing, ambient music. Jarrett with an ancient church organ accomplishes the same, with some resonant spirituality that a guy like Brian Eno can’t quite match.
At the beginning of the CD era, the album was issued in truncated form under the title Spheres. Hymns, Spheres was reissued in full by ECM Records just this past January 22.
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