Three’s the best company: Keith Jarrett

Boston Globe, October 24, 2008

NEW YORK – “If this isn’t the best trio in the world,” jazz pianist Keith Jarrett announced last Saturday night to a packed Carnegie Hall audience that was clearly already on board with his premise, “then I don’t care what anyone wants me to eat – I’ll eat it.”

The remark came after a particularly intense passage of group interplay among Jarrett’s trio – including bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette – that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall. Rising from his bench, the pianist approached each man and embraced him, waving to the crowd while shaking his head in wonderment.

The room – as large and diverse a jazz crowd as one could ask for, with a strong European contingent and tangles of young Japanese women in stylish outfits – agreed. They offered one standing ovation after another and the trio replied with encores, stretching the evening into close to three hours of jazz communion.

The big-event feel has marked the trio’s jubilee tour, which makes its next stop Sunday at Symphony Hall. It’s an energy that the group knows well, having pioneered jazz performance in majestic recital settings around the world.

“Places like the Musikverein in Vienna, we were the first jazz group to play there,” Jarrett says in a phone conversation from his home in New Jersey a few weeks ago. “We’ve been in historic situations where no other improvising or solo player had ever sat onstage.”

In the process, they’ve mastered the art of filling a multibalconied hall or a vast outdoor festival environment with the signal intimacy of a piano trio, without recourse to fireworks or fanfare. At Carnegie, Jarrett played from the center, his left hand rarely traveling toward the low notes, developing each song – all of them, as is the group’s habit, standards of bebop or the American Songbook – with whimsy and imagination.

Accenting the chamber feel, each man often laid out as the other two improvised subtly. Peacock took economic solos, while DeJohnette worked a large array of cymbals. At times, he played the drum kit like a melodic instrument, as if tapping out codes in some unknown language.

In concert and on their recordings, the bond between the three – which for Jarrett and DeJohnette stretches back 40 years to Miles Davis’s band circa “Bitches Brew” – and their combined virtuosity find new life in classics like “My Funny Valentine” or bop chestnuts like “Poinciana.”

They never find themselves revisiting old solutions, Jarrett says: “We’re not thinking, `Let’s see what we can do with this.’ I’ll be offstage before an encore and in pops this song because it still provides us with material. We owe it homage. We have the best of both worlds, choosing material written in the best era of American melody and some bebop things. We’ve played `When I Fall in Love’ maybe 300 times.”

And each time is different, because the trio is attuned to the specific energy of each performance, forgetting prior renditions. DeJohnette puts it this way: “You’re in the present. You have to stay in the present. You just don’t think about it. The only way you’ll hear is if it’s recorded; otherwise, it’s gone.”

At the same time, the familiarity of the songs, the ways the melodies tap a shared popular memory, serve as invitation to the audience, Jarrett says.

“That’s the key: They aren’t put off by what we are doing,” he says. “They’re thinking this is something they know. Then suddenly everything about that is enlarged, lovingly painted, carefully performed. And the fact that draws them to be attentive is part of the game plan. If we let go of the melody correctly, it’ll fly like a balloon.”

Back in 1983, though, with jazz splintered into jazz-rock fusion versus cerebral avant-garde factions, the turn to standards seemed like highbrow heresy. As Jarrett remembers it, the notion came partly from conversation with Manfred Eicher, the head of the ECM label for which Jarrett has long recorded, and partly out of his own frustration with the burden of composition crowding out the freedom to interpret and improvise.

“I guess it was just an idea that Manfred and I both had about doing a trio album,” Jarrett says. “I said, `If we do this, we won’t own the music, it won’t have to be rehearsed.”’ It freed them, he says, from “owning it and possessing it and all that.”

As a result, the trio throws its energy into performance, which explains why the bulk of its recorded output consists of live concert dates, including “My Foolish Heart,” a Montreux session released last year.

That’s also why Jarrett demands, as he does for his solo shows, a high degree of audience attention and forbids photography, though there are always offenders who disrupt the curtain calls with flashes. His requests (and occasional stern remonstrations) contribute to a diva-ish image, but in context, they make sense.

“As they’re entering the hall, they should be canceling the world they’ve just walked in from,” he says. “It’s what we’re doing out there, not where they came from, so that they just got rid of the same stuff we had to get rid of before going on.”