FRINGE PRODUCT: It has been a whirlwind year for the great jazz pianist Keith Jarrett-if the word “whirlwind” can be applied to an artist who works slowly and steadily and not only tends to avoid the madding crowds, but also often berates the crowds who do come to hear him. For all the majesty and creative vitality he invests in his musical work, Jarrett’s life goes according to a clockwork schedule of his own fierce devising. He gives a limited number of concerts each year, either with his now 25-year-old “standards” trio, or in the solo piano format he has virtually trademarked.
Alas, though, business was not as usual when Jarrett’s trio stopped at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia in July. The pianist has often chided audiences for their sins-mainly defined as making undue noise or wielding the devilish device known as the camera-but in Perugia, Jarrett launched into an expletive-laden outburst before playing a single note. The festival’s director then summarily banned him from the legendary festival. The skirmish appears to have earned Jarrett the title of misanthropic Boor of the Year in the jazz world and wherever else people pay attention to such things.
But from that dubious distinction, Jarrett ascends to a level of casual grandeur with last week’s release of My Foolish Heart, Live at Montreux (ECM). In a way, it’s just another live recording-from the Montreux festival in 2001-piled onto a now huge discography of Jarrett’s live recordings on ECM, but something extra magical this way comes. It may well be the jazz record of the year.
Jarrett, with trusty artistic allies bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, traverses a familiar song list, with some twists. Jarrett does wonders with “My Foolish Heart,” which he had previously avoided because of its close association with Bill Evans, and he takes a surprising detour into stride piano and Fats Waller land with “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
Yet the masterpieces on this record neatly represent both the wild side and the balladic genius of the man. Jarrett’s ride through “Straight, No Chaser” is anything but straight, and all about the chase into the zone of inspired free jazz. Just when you think it’s over, Jarrett unleashes a furious solo coda that might take your breath away. For poetic balladry, Jarrett is unmatched, and he takes on “What’s New” and “Only the Lonely” here, but the pice de resistance is his lavish, rubato reflection on “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.”
Analyzing what makes Jarrett one of the living greats on his instrument is an elusive task. Such is the slippery nature of getting at what makes great art great. It seems to come down to this: how and when he depresses the keys, the great complexity and interaction of his phrasing, his note choices and whims, and finally, the huge musical vocabulary from which he draws. Jarrett’s artistic adventure continues both apace and off to the side of whatever else goes on in music.
TO-DOINGS: Santa Barbara has had a fairly healthy dose of world-class jazz in the theaters recently (i.e., the impressive Dianne Reeves concert at the Lobero last week), but we still yearn for more club-level action. Exciting things are happening in jazz in the region between the high-profile established artists and all the fledgling up-and-comers.
On that note, all jazz fans should proceed without hesitation to hear the Hoenig/Pilc Project on Monday at SOhO. Here is a fine example of young-to-middle generation players with something bold to say and the chops and creativity to pull it off. And it so happens that pianist Jean-Michel Pilc met drummer Ari Hoenig a decade ago at the legendary Greenwich Village basement known as Smalls (don’t miss it when visiting NYC). They put on a powerful show at SOhO last year under Pilc’s name, and the new partnership promises to bring the same, only more so.