By contrast to Bill Frisell, Keith Jarrett’s work has been part of my regular listening for many years. The jazz pianist and composer – who has in latter years proven himself to be an equally adept interpreter of classical pieces – is a veritable force of nature and, I would argue, one of modern music’s most important figures. Through his willingness to draw on traditions associated with genres outside of his ‘home’ territory of jazz, and explore arrangements that are far from conventional, Jarrett has pushed instrumental music into all manner of new and exciting shapes.
Broadly speaking, Jarrett’s career can be divided into two phases – before and after the chronic fatigue syndrome that beset him in the 1990s and resulted in long stretches away from both the studio and the stage. In phase one, he had been a prolific recording artist in various configurations – solo, small group, larger ensemble – with his own pre-written compositions to the fore. In phase two, studio recordings would become few and far between as he concentrated on live work with his extraordinary trio featuring Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums – although over time he would also return to the solo improvised performances that helped to propel him to global recognition in the early 1970s.
On which note there is no doubt that his most influential individual release remains 1975’s The Köln Concert. The best-selling piano album of all time with sales exceeding 3.5 million, The Köln Concert's iconic status rests both on its extraordinary, wholly improvised flights of fancy and its individual character in the Jarrett catalogue. That character is partly attributable to the deficiencies in the upper and bass registers of the piano rented for the concert, as a result of which Jarrett focused more on the middle section of the keyboard. Notwithstanding these challenges, the performance was utterly mesmerising, and has lost none of its potency more than 40 years later. If you care about piano music at all you cannot be without a copy.
But it wasn’t my own entry-point to Jarrett’s work – that was the previous year’s Belonging, recorded in Oslo with his European quartet of Jan Garbarek (saxes), Palle Danielsson (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums). And what led me to that album was the similarity of one of its tracks, the infectious ‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours’, to the title track of Steely Dan’s album Gaucho, released six years after Jarrett’s album and a long-term personal favourite that I will return to in the coming weeks. Indeed, it was a bit too similar as it turned out; Jarrett cited copyright infringement and was subsequently added as a co-author of the Steely Dan song.
Although the gospel-tinged ‘Long As You Know…’ is undoubtedly one of the album’s strongest pieces, there are plenty of other highlights on an album that is perhaps Jarrett’s most diversely satisfying. The tense ‘Spiral Dance’ is a powerful opener that exemplifies the chemistry of this still-underrated quartet, whilst ‘The Windup’ – based around a complex, compelling melody that recurs throughout – is still one of Jarrett’s most popular compositions.
Although a hugely significant figure in jazz’s modern development, Jarrett’s position in the scene today is somewhat hard to assess. In part this may be attributable to a contrariness that has seen him speak out repeatedly about the excessive use of electronic instrumentation in jazz, and an overt intolerance of audience noise – particularly coughing – that has led to heated confrontation with several prominent venues and festivals. (And it’s fair to say that no one blows a fuse on-stage quite like ol' Keith – just search YouTube for 2007 Umbria Jazz Festival or the self-explanatory ‘San Francisco 2010 Cough Lecture’ for proof.)
But it would unfortunate if any negative perceptions of Jarrett’s public persona were to discourage any potential listeners from exploring one of the most rewarding catalogues in all of jazz. Ceaselessly creative, intellectually rigorous, and massively gifted both melodically and harmonically, Jarrett’s work can – once discovered – provide a lifetime of delights. And there is no place better to begin than Belonging.