Sunday, September 27, 2009


I’ve never spent much time listening to Keith Jarrett. I reviewed one of his solo discs for Jazziz back in ’06, and obviously I’ve heard his electric work with Miles Davis. I tried listening to some of the “Standards Trio” recordings, but the humming, buzzing vocal thing he does became so distracting I couldn’t even hear the piano anymore – it was like trying to listen to music with a dragonfly zooming around my head. But this past week, I read this excellent interview that Ethan Iverson conducted with Jarrett, and it made me want to check out the ’70s quartet, a group I'd never gotten around to before now. So I picked up the two boxes Impulse! devoted to that group’s output (the first one covers 1973 and 1974, the second one covers 1975-77, and both include a bunch of bonus tracks), and will be writing about my impressions of one of the albums for each of the next eight days or so. The group also made three albums for Atlantic (one without Dewey Redman), one for Columbia and two for ECM; I don’t know yet if I’ll seek those out. This may be enough.

Fort Yawuh is a double live album recorded at the Village Vanguard. It starts with “(If the) Misfits (Wear It),” a long and winding keyboard excursion that eventually gives way to a full-on rampage by the other three bandmembers. Redman’s tenor sax solo is full of honks and farts at the bottom of the instrument’s range, and at one point he even begins shouting through the reed, a fairly convincing display of abandon. Jarrett picks up a musette late in Redman’s solo spot and begins duetting with him. Meanwhile, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian are going berserk in the back – Haden’s bass playing is as powerful as it was on Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction, and Motian is positively assaulting the kit, sounding almost like Max Roach at times the way he crushes the toms. The piece ends with Jarrett and Redman duetting on sax and musette, tackling that long, intricate melody with total precision. It’s a pretty ballistic first number, and it sets everything else up very nicely.

The title track is next, a ballad on which Jarrett’s piano is initially challenged by what sounds like a cuatro, a four-stringed guitar heard in salsa and other Latin music (it’s actually Jarrett himself, plucking the piano’s strings), plus percussion – in addition to the four members cited above, percussionist Danny Johnson is also present on this date. Then there’s a brief passage of nothing but “little instruments” (shakers and tiny cymbals) before the piece gets rolling with a churning, surprisingly powerful piano solo. I’ve always thought of Jarrett as a somewhat fussy player, more concerned with baroque classical melodies than really gettin’ it pumpin’, but apparently back in the ’70s he could kick ass when he wanted to. He starts singing along with himself a little bit here, but not enough so that it becomes bothersome. And when Redman comes in, playing a ballad melody atop Jarrett’s lushly rippling piano and Haden’s throbbing bass, with Motian offering a series of small eruptions rather than attempting to impose a rhythm on the slowly expanding music, this piece really turns into something beautiful. Redman takes a sharp, piercing reed solo around 11 minutes in, as the rhythm section gets all North African behind him – initially at least, this blending of desert music with post-bop built around Jarrett’s weird, almost prog-rock melodic concept is what’s most interesting about this band. There are times when they almost reconcile the two sides, but then they seem to consciously decide to let them just coexist, as when Redman’s solo ends and Jarrett comes in with some almost Wyndham Hill piano. This piece seems to end about four times, though – one of the perils of live albums. Shaving off the last three or four minutes, even if it meant losing some Philip Glass-esque stuff in the last two, would have done the piece as a whole a service.

“De Drums” is the most overtly ’70s track on Fort Yawuh, to my ear. The piano line Jarrett’s playing as it begins reminds me of Linda Ronstadt and Carole King songs I used to hear as a child, on the radio stations my mom liked. As it develops, though, the melody becomes much more like a Steely Dan thing, with Redman’s bluesy/gospelish solo only adding to that impression. Now, I know Walter Becker and Donald Fagen heisted part of the song “Gaucho” from a Jarrett tune called “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours,” which I’ve never heard. But that was in 1980, and this track, which is from 1973, would seem to point to Jarrett’s work being a long-time influence on Steely Dan, which is interesting. I’m intrigued to see if this shows up on the quartet’s studio albums.

“Still Life, Still Life” is a very deliberate, careful piano ballad with a solo from Redman that doesn’t even sound like him – it sounds like John Coltrane from Crescent. Motian concentrates on his cymbals, and Haden pulls on the bass strings like they owe him money. The sound of the rhythm section is one of the things that really anchors this music in the ’70s, by the way; Haden’s bass seems artificially thickened, and Motian’s drums are all reverby and resonant, like those of a rock drummer. This piece was cut off by an editor, and rather clumsily – the last note of music heard is one from Haden, and it’s not a resolving note, it sounds like there should be something coming next. Plus, there’s no applause afterward. But hey, it was 1973, and vinyl had much greater limitations than CDs, so eight minutes and change was all there was room for. I wonder, though, why it wasn’t restored to its full length on CD. Perhaps the tapes were lost?

The album’s final track is the side-long, nearly 21-minute “Roads Traveled, Roads Veiled.” It’s a weird one, with the baroque, free and exotic aspects of the band all coming into play at once. Trancey, mantra-like bass, extra percussion, ripples-on-a-pond piano, and Redman soloing in a free yet somehow restrained, even when shrieking, manner that reminds me of Pharoah Sanders’ late ’60s/early ’70s work (Live at the East, Black Unity, Summun Bukmun Umyun, etc.), especially when Jarrett joins him on soprano sax.

On the boxed set, this album is expanded to a two-CD set, with alternate takes of “(If the) Misfits (Wear It)” and “De Drums” plus three other tunes – “Whistle Tune,” “Angles (Without Edges)” and “Melting the Ice.” I’m gonna limit myself to discussing what was on the original albums, though.

Tomorrow, Treasure Island, a studio disc with extra percussionists plus guest guitar.

1 comment:

Monsieur Blaireau said...

The "one for Columbia" that you don't yet know whether you'll seek out is Expectations, and has to be the freshest, most adventuresome work by the American Quartet. Do yourself a favor and do not miss it.