A spontaneous notion is enough to get things going – just a gaggle of notes, really. In his fully improvised solo work, Keith Jarrett doesn’t need much more than a sketchy vamp or a hint of a riff to ignite the ever-shifting parade of melodies he inevitably conjures. It’s a babbling brook approach. The water is essential, sure, but once its moving, the momentum is the most inviting aspect of the experience. Where’s it going to wind up? Splashing rocks, soaking leaves, eddying into a pool created from pure fluid force? Possibilities abound. Through 15+ solo albums since his 1971 recital debut Facing You, Jarrett has become uniquely eloquent at concocting themes from his rich imagination and – perhaps more importantly – connecting them in rhapsodic episodes. In a word: flow.
A Multitude of Angels catches the pianist in both a place of vulnerability and strength. Comprised of four CDs from four concerts in four Italian cities, these unedited 1996 improvisations were recorded right before a major career break due to his extended bout with chronic fatigue syndrome. He bounced back from its pernicious clutches a few years later, but these days he chooses to break his virtuosic solo sets into discrete sections rather than sustain the uninterrupted sense of adventure that earned him a global rep via live masterpieces such as Bremen/Lausanne and The Koln Concert.
This current approach hasn’t played havoc with the key elements of Jarrett’s aesthetic boilerplate, though. Comparatively recent discs such as Rio and Paris/London: Testament brim with passages that range from two-fisted frenzy to one-fingered poignancy. Using the entire instrument to voice the details of his overtly emotional music has always been a Jarrett forte. A full blush of broad strokes and nuances comprise his work on Angels, so I thought it might be helpful to list a few of the maestro’s cornerstone artistic elements and point out their agency here.
DELICACY: Jarrett sat down Torino, Italy and, at a courageously limpid tempo, began to sketch an extended musing that consistently folded inward with enough commitment to be deemed a public meditation. By the time he whittled away his need for the middle register and headed up to trillville, he’d reached the kind of composure that only needs a note or three to speak its mind. His music has long been built on sensitivity. At its most dubious, far too much so. But as his right hand ekes out a series of exquisite glisses that prove a pivot point to the feistier ardor to come, he reminds us just how much terrain he can convincingly traverse while illustrating the power of grace.
EXPRESSIONISM: Frenetics aren’t a Jarrett staple but he’s certainly a fan of the high-flying vigor that reaches out and grabs an audience. His second improv in Modena takes off with a small storm of action that that dodges the dissonance but tips a hat to the cagey delirium Cecil Taylor so judiciously employed in ‘60s. As his fragmented phrases land on top of each other and the pianist determines the architectural logic in real time, a hurtling momentum arises. This skyscraper is built on shards, but its integrity is obvious.
CATHARSIS: Repeat a riff or lick with just the right volition and there’s a good chance you’re going to enhance its meaning with every new go-round. Blues musicians know all about it. About 10 minutes into “Verona 2” Jarrett reaches a point where his Morse Code repetition of one note starts to blossom into a left-hand motif that brings a hammerhead force front and center. A few more minutes and it’s a Steve Reich barrelhouse scenario – spilling, building, intensifying. The pianist takes it farther than others might – for a moment or two it seems like the soundtrack to an OCD episode. But by the conclusion the extended pounding makes way for a breakthrough. Like Van Morrison throttling the phrase “streamline promenade” during hell-raising live performances of “Moonshine Whiskey,” Jarrett wallops the instrument until the mountaintop has been reached.
TRANSCENDENCE. He poured out the passion in two extended Ferrara pieces, but the pith of this untitled encore winds up speaking volumes. Touch is a Jarrett hallmark – he can have a single note resonate in a variety of ways – and this bittersweet sign-off has the feel of a drone. He feathers the keyboard, and with one note bleeding into the next, it almost sounds like a horn player is center stage. An abstract spiritual with a folkish, vaguely Celtic, aura.
In his notes for the box set, the man who once said he slept under the first real piano he got for his birthday as a child because he was so smitten with its possibilities, reports that the “angels” of the album title are many – the audiences, instruments, concert halls, and energy that got him through these shows all conspired to reach what he deems a “pinnacle” of his career. Jarrett has had numerous successes, so as far as pinnacles go, maybe it is, maybe it’s not. But a couple things seem irrefutable. The resourcefulness and vision of this music is obvious, and these luminous excursions repeatedly cut right to the heart of the matter, even when they take the long way ‘round.