Keith Jarrett Trio at UCLA's Royce Hall
Miraculously, time both stands still and is constantly evolutionary in the case of Keith Jarrett’s so-called “Standards” trio, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Sure, 25 is just a number, but it’s a remarkable one, making this grouping—a model of empathy between Jarrett and his tight allies, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock—not only one of the longest-lasting in jazz history, but quite possibly the greatest jazz ensemble in existence at this historical moment. And they did it with standards. Go figure.
They’re still doing it, perhaps stronger than ever. During a long and inspired March evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall (one of the more complementary and acoustically friendly of American venues for this group), the Jarrett trio laid out one of the official first concerts in its 25th-birthday year, and handily demonstrated the staggering staying power connected to the reverse radicalism of their 1983 ECM debut. Back then, our senses reeled: How dare these famed jazz musicians stoop to playing standards, in a time of transitional vertigo in jazz. But those sessions now play like one of the most epiphanic and prophetic moments in the music’s history.
The trio’s left-handed miracle is all the more impressive when you stop to closely listen to the recently released three-disc set on ECM, documenting the 1983 revelation, now packaged as the retrospective New York Sessions. Those seminal sessions sound as good, or better, than ever, and they set the stage for an adventure still unfolding.
At Royce Hall, Jarrett opened with a wisely sighing, soul-soothing introduction to “The Masquerade is Over,” a gleaming jewel of a tune in this trio’s version, and followed that with “The Meaning of the Blues,” both tunes included on the trio’s inaugural Standards recording of 1983. Fast-forwarding to the very recent past, from the set list for the trio’s dazzling 2007 release, My Foolish Heart, came “Solar” and an especially un-straight “Straight, No Chaser.”
Jarrett fulfilled expectations in terms of calling up standards like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (equipped with this evening’s most luminous piano solo) and his oblique Miles Davis tribute, “Bye Bye Blackbird” (with its roiling, heat-modulating extended coda). Yet standards in the strict sense don’t comprise the only fair game in a Jarrett trio set. Tilling his own history, from the long period when composing was a potent creative outlet, Jarrett opted to open the second set with an old original, “Is it Really the Same,” written during his tenure with Charles Llloyd’s group in the ’60s. This is one of those Jarrett originals that make us wish he would awaken the composer within again.
In the Royce Hall show, nuzzling up to the three-hour mark, the trio gave us heaping doses of what this group has become known for: There were surprises, comforting washes of “thinking person’s” romanticism, an acute and personalized ensemble rubato, and the flowing ingenuity of Jarrett’s lyricism-cum-virtuosity that makes him so unique.
Retrospective considerations are in the air this year, given the milestone anniversary. Jarrett’s Power Station pow-wow may have seemed like a lark at the time, decidedly an anomaly amidst Jarrett’s then-common pattern of doing solo piano and quartet work. But now, all these years, concerts and jaw-dropping live recordings later, the trio projects like the pianist stumbled upon lifelong mates of the sort few jazz musicians find. Not for nothing does Jarrett pull out tunes like “When I Fall in Love” and “Poinciana” as encores, as he did at Royce Hall this season. He has fallen in love with this trio, seemingly forever, and Jarrett’s particular rapport with Ahmad (“Poinciana”) Jamal’s democratic trio paradigm is still in full swing.
What this trio does is old, it’s new, it’s timeless and it’s exploratory, in the right degrees on an inspired night. This was one of those nights.