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Keith Jarrett - an Encomium

I got a text (“I got a text!!” seeming to be the rallying call of this summer) from my long-suffering wife Jackie a few days back, saying that she is enjoying the music of Keith Jarrett at her workplace, which has prompted me to remember how important the pianist was for me as a teenager beginning to explore the world of jazz and improvisation. He’s a controversial character, and has his fair share of detractors, who reckon he’s a chocolate box performer, improv-lite etc, but I am one of the many have loved much of his work throughout the years,

I came to Jarrett, as I’m sure many did, through Miles Davis’s band of the 1970-01 period, where he featured on electric organ, following his stint with Charles Lloyd’s celebrated quartet. Miles at Fillmore and Live-Evil were the albums (the latter of which hypertrophied into the 6-CD  Cellar Door Sessions many years later) that grabbed my attention, featuring as they did some of Miles’s most ferocious music. Following Jarrett’s trail, I discovered that he had released recent solo material, on a new-ish record label called ECM Records. Going to The Diskery, then in Hurst Street in central Birmingham, I found several ECMs, which were presented in attractive, fairly sparse covers, but which retailed at a predictably high price, well over two pounds each, which represented a lot of money for a schoolboy. You forget in these times of choice tyranny just how inaccessible albums like these were; you could handle the sleeves and maybe even get to hear some of the contents on the shop headphones, but a lot of material was just too expensive to get for your domestic consumption- Jarrett’s recordings were of this nature, but somehow I begged or borrowed enough to separately take both Ruta & Daitya (ECM 1021) and Facing You (ECM 1017) home with me. I still treasure these two landmark (for me) records, even though they are both flawed and far from Jarrett’s best,

Ruta & Daitya is an odd one, and represents a road not taken for Jarrett, who plays mostly organ, with bit of flute thrown in, in the company of Miles’s then -drummer, Jack de Johnette, on drums and hand-held percussion. I didn’t (and really still don’t) get this record, it’s minimal funk in parts but with an ongoing air of abstraction, and is like nothing else I’ve heard him do. Facing You is his first of countless solo acoustic piano pieces (still a fairly unusual format back then, although ECM had released Paul Bley’s classic solo Open To Love at about the same time), and sounds fairly ragged and tentative, compared with what was to come, but it was new ground for me, and I played them both to death.

Pay dirt came with the Bremen/Lausanne Concerts, released, I think, in 1975, originally an ECM triple vinyl set (and accordingly expensive once more, but at least I had a student grant to dip into by then). The first of Jarrett’s monster sets, I’ve always found this a more accomplished achievement than the more famous Koln Concert, which bankrolled ECM Records, and is the one which I’d recommend to the Jarrett newcomer, which now includes the missus. Jarrett, of course, went on to make a preposterous amount of recordings - the ‘American’ and ‘European’ quartets, brick-sized piano sets, Bach organ recitals, the long-lasting Standards Trio, ambitious written concerts such as Hymns/Spheres - you name it, Jarrett’s been there. An unfortunately lengthy bout of serious ill-health was the only thing that clipped his wings, but he is apparently back in business now. I tend to associate Keith Jarrett with an early stage of my development as a jazz fan, but it will be interesting to see whether my wife’s newfound love for his music will stimulate me to re-explore his material, old and new. I’m looking forward to it, actually.

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