It’s hard to read the title chosen for the second Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden collaboration and not feel a bit of melancholy for the second guy. Haden, a legend at the double-bass years before Jarrett first emerged as a force on piano, is battling a recurrence of his childhood polio very late in life, and has performed barely at all over the last two or three years. We might very well have heard the last of his richly lyrical, wooden bass tones.
Last Dance — to be released June 17 by ECM Records — was recorded when Haden was still in fine form, culled from leftover tracks of the 2007 sessions that produced the highly regarded Jasmine (rel. 2010). The man who first made impact as a member of Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking quartet has had several other notable phases: his Liberation Music Orchestra, Quartet West and as part of Jarrett’s so-called “American Quartet” of the 70s, with Paul Motian and Dewey Redman.
These 2007 duets have no direct precedence, but the two old friends reconnect from those American Quartet days and rediscover that old musical symmetry; both have had more than their share of moments where they tested the limits of jazz, but are traditionalists at their core beings, exhibited through their love of the old standards, a love that shines through in their caress of them.
Much has been written about Jarrett and his spiritual piano, but Haden actually teaches that spirituality is a key component in learning how to play the bass. His is a bass that’s not merely heard, but felt, and the grace and accuracy invested along with that makes him the consummate musician.
Take the ten-minute dispensation of “My Old Flame,” for instance. Haden carries the swing cadence with such precision, there’s not much of a hole left where the drums usually go. When he takes his solo turn, you can barely hear his fingers strike the strings, only notes that sing instead of pulsate.
Jarrett, naturally, is no mere bystander, and he puts in an accomplished take on “‘Round Midnight” that bounces along at a tempo a little bit snappier than the usual one for this song. However, Haden’s elegant aside remains the apex of the performance. Bebop is the name of the game for Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels,” where Jarrett follows Haden’s easygoing jaunt with a quick, blazing run or two.
A couple of cuts here are alternate takes of songs that were selected for Jasmine: the reflective “Where Can I Go Without You” and the sullen “Goodbye.” What these tracks impart to us in their spotless execution is that even their second-best is better than most others’ lifetime bests.
Whether this is truly the “last dance” for one of these musicians is ultimately irrelevant when considering his vast, beautiful body of work. The importance of Last Dance, like its companion release Jasmine, is that we have a souvenir of a meeting between two old, masterly friends at a point in time when both are still running at peak capacity.