Is the Jazz Piano Trio the ideal art form of the 21st century? – Keith Jarrett’s Standards Vol. 2

Let me answer my rhetorical question immediately: obviously not, there are so many art forms out there today that trying to single out one of them is clearly ridiculous.

So let me rephrase: Is the Jazz Piano Trio my ideal art form? And the answer is, pretty close. There is something special about the intimacy of 3 musicians together, interacting and generating something amazing. It is in a way the modern equivalent of the String Quartet, which many consider the summit of classical chamber music.

I’d like to start by one album which I consider somehow the birth of the contemporary (meaning the last 30 years, I’m starting to get older….): Keith Jarrett’s Standards vol. 2 (footnote: vol. 1 is great as well, I just have a very slight preference for the 2nd volume).

Oh no, you’re going to say, not Jarrett again. Well first of all, you’ve been warned, it is in my subtitle of the blog, and second, I promise I’ll be talking about other musicians as well in the future.

Back to my old friend Keith (not that I’ve ever met him beyond being about 25 meters away last Friday): Why is this album so important?

The lost decade

Well, put yourself in the early 1980s (assuming you were already alive then, I was, but not for long). Jazz just came out of an entire decade of trying to break the “limits” of traditional jazz by first going “Free”, and later by going to Jazzrock and Fusion. Well, I’m sure to offend some here, but to me this was a complete dead-end, and both genres bore me to death (slightly exaggerating to make a point here).

As important as the 70s were for genres like Rock, for Jazz it is my personal lost decade. Most of my collection goes from 1956/7 – 1966, and then starts again in the 80s. So in the early 1980s, we have Keith Jarrett, who already did the amazing solo concerts in the 1970s including the famous Köln concert, apparently the best-selling solo piano album of all times, and had been playing some quartet work both in the US and in Europe (I’ll talk about some of my favorite albums from that period later, so it wasn’t 100% a lost decade, just maybe 90%….).

So then, early 1980s, the bass player Gary Peacock, the drummer Jack de Johnette, and Keith, get together to record first Standards vol. 1, in 1983, and then vol. 2, in 1985. Both are obviously inspired from the key representatives of the traditional piano trio, e.g. Bill Evans first trio, Art Tatum, or Oscar Peterson, but represent something new. And obviously, luckily, don’t contain any element of fusion any more.

Standards vol. 2

I’m not going to review Standards vol. 2 in detail, many smarter people than me have done that. It is an album I keep going back to again and again. I’ve actually just purchased it again very recently. ECM just released some weeks ago a new remaster, now in high-res format of up to 24/192 (bit/khz respectively). Whether high-res files are better than the regular CD format (called 16/44 or “red book”) is a debate I’m certainly not going to start here, you’ll have enough sites to get that discussion going. What is really better is the remastering. ECM; Jarrett’s Munich based record label is known for the excellent recordings, and this new remaster really sounds way better than the CD version. I actually still have the original vinyl in my basement, maybe I should actually get a record player again at some point.

(Footnote again: Do I advocate everybody to get the high res version? It is quite pricey, ECM has always been a premium label. So only get it if you have a decent playback chain and care enough about that album).

So to me, Standards vol. 2 is the “standard” (sorry for the cheap pun) to which I compare all my piano trio recordings.

Since then, the standards trio has recorded many live albums, most of which are outstanding and absolutely worth having. Examples include At the Blue Note, Whisper Not, Standards Live, and even again at the KKL in 2009, Somewhere. (a pity I missed that concert, but at least I have the recording, released in 2014)

Luckily, today we’re living in the Golden Age of the piano trio, we have so many fantastic artists out there that we’re not limited to Keith Jarrett any more. But we really have to thank him for revitalizing this genre (EST then took it to the next level in the 90s, but more about that later).

My rating: 5 stars

UPDATE (Oct 2016): I’ve since reviewed many more Jazz piano trio albums, you can check them all out by clicking on this link.

And please let me know if you have any recommendations for me in the comments section below!

Keith Jarrett live in Lucerne May 22, 2015

So, first entry. I had created this blog some time ago, thinking I’ll probably never write anything. The subtitle, from Jarrett to Brahms, I created with the site some time ago. Now I attended yesterday my first ever Keith Jarrett solo concert, so do I really have an excuse not to write about it? Why would you want to read this? No idea, I’m basically writing this for myself. I do love music, and I care about it very much and like sharing it, so if you share my passion, and maybe at least partially my taste, it maybe worth reading anyhow.

So back to the officially named “Kunst- und Kulturzentrum Luzern”, better known by its acronym, KKL. It is a beautiful building in on the shore of lake Lucerne, created by the French architect Jean Nouvel. In spite of heaving a leaky roof (google it if you want to find out more), it is a beautiful space, with loads of glass and steel. Inside you have a museum, some restaurants and cafés, a nice open roof top terrace with an amazing view over the old town and the lake, and most importantly, the main concert hall. It is a beautiful affair, and has excellent acoustics. It is mainly known for hosting the famous Lucerne Festival, but beyond classical you can attend contemporary music and the occasional Jazz concert here as well. They even go into mainstream by having some orchestra play the soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean and other stuff (why somebody would want to hear THAT in concert, escapes me, but I digress).

So back to me being in front of this beautiful building. You should know that being disorganized and traveling a lot for work I wasn’t part of the crowd who bought ALL of the tickets in the 48h after they became available. I went nevertheless, trying my luck on the grey market. And lucky I was (well if you consider overpaying 25% over the already pretty ludicrous (Switzerland is a rich country) list price of the ticket.) Note that normally I would have ethically objected to supporting the grey market on this kind of stuff, but for such a rare bird as a Keith Jarrett solo concert, my conscience quickly shut up.

An amazing experience

8pm pretty sharp (this is Switzerland after all), sitting more or less comfortable in my seat in the middle of the first balcony (at least the black market dealer had the kindness of actually choosing one of the best seats available), lights went out, a speaker welcomed us and warned us all to shut up, switch of mobiles, and ABSOLUTELY not to take any pictures of any kind. (It seems that Keith has decided to stop concerts in the past over this) We’re left with one grand piano on the large stage that can easily hold a full Mahler 8th orchestra including Choir, and about 4 microphones (this concert being recorded for ECM, hopefully it will eventually get released). There he comes, wearing his apparently usual outfit of pretty regular pants, shirt, and sunglasses (I assume to protect him from the spotlights). I’m not a religious person at all, but this was pretty close to a catholic mass in a way, with Mr. Jarrett being our high priest. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had smelled incense.

Then it starts, and here my words start to fail me. WHAT AN EXPERIENCE! I’m a regular concert goer and have seen many great artists both in the Jazz and classical fields live, but this was outstanding. Unlike earlier may of his earlier concerts, he now seems to shy away from the 20-30 min long improvisations that fade one into the other, and he goes for smaller pieces, each 3 to less than 10 min long (I certainly didn’t check my watch…), getting up for applause every time. In a way, this is similar to his latest release solo album on ECM, Creation, where the longest piece doesn’t exceed 9:25). What a marvel each of those little gems were! Let me state first of all that I’m a sucker for melodies, being a bit simple minded, and I don’t like it very much when musicians stray to far from that. Jarrett has his occasional moments where he seems to think “who needs tonality” and just improvises on (to illustrate, take Paris/London Testament Part IX). Luckily for me, there were only two “songs” of this nature last night, and actually sitting there as part of the magical experience I didn’t even mind these parts too much. Let me state the obvious: Having been there in person doesn’t make me a very neutral judge. But what I’ve heard last night takes the best elements of the “old” concerts (Bremen/Lausanne, München/Bregenz, Sun Bear), and combines them with the greatest moments of the new concerts (Rio, Carnegie Hall). Again, I’m not religious, but I wouldn’t mind having some higher authority to pray to that ECM releases this recording (apparently, Jarrett has to ok this and is notoriously hard to please).

Jarrett having fun

I don’t have any other data points to compare to, but overall, he seemed to be in an excellent mood. He was joking with the audience, at some point once the applause faded he just said “What next? What now?”, closed the cover of the Steinway keyboard and pretended to play (“You don’t hear a lot?” was his joking comment back to the audience). Later during the concert, he even went up, walked over to a microphone that had been sitting in the dark, and told us a story about how this entire concert was for his Grandmother, and her Hungarian origins. Walking back to the piano, he rhetorically, and smilingly, asked the audience “but why would you care about this?” He even tolerated somebody very loudly coughing about 2 seconds into a new song, stopping but just joking about it (I assume me and half of the audience were afraid at that point he’d throw a tantrum instead).

Overall, the range of styles we got was amazing, from small introvert pieces that played a lot with Counterpoint (you could hear he played a lot of baroque) too much heavier, larger pieces where every finger was busy. We even got a very special tribute to BB King, with a Blues/Boogie Woogie-type improvisation. But the best (again, I’m a sucker for melodies) part came with encore number 3, a short improvisation over “When I fall in love”. I’ve only heard this from him in trio form (e.g. Live at the Blue Note, Whisper now), but never heard it solo. SOOOO BEAUTIFUL (yes I know I sound like an over excited teenager praising Justin Bieber, but what the heck). Even better than my previous encore favorite (beyond the obvious Köln Concert Part IIc), My Song from the Carnegie Hall Concert. Overall, I’m very glad I finally made it to my first live concert.

If you like his music, and there is a concert coming up even on your continent, I urge you to hop on a plane and go there, no matter how expensive the tickets are. It is truly a once in a lifetime experience. And let’s not forget, Mr. Jarrett just turned 70. We all cross fingers he’s doesn’t decide to retire any time soon,   but let’s enjoy it while it lasts. Let me stop here. In a later blog entry, I’ll talk a bit more about the other recorded live solo albums. No idea how often I’ll be able to write, but again, I just presume nobody will ever read this anyhow.

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