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Keith Jarrett: Radiance

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In the liner notes for his first solo album in eight years, pianist Keith Jarrett admits that many of his listeners “will be momentarily (at least) shocked at the initial absence of melodic-or even motivic-content,” as Radiance is two discs’ worth of free improvisation, performed in 2002 at concerts in Osaka and Tokyo. But it’s not hard to discern at least a direction for any given moment: a field of impressionist ripples, a steely march turned into a demonic dance, a rollercoaster of scales with a slight bop tinge, reticent but poignant balladry with harmonies so apt they couldn’t have been improved by forethought. Motivic content arises in the course of exploration, as Jarrett latches onto three-note cells or rhythmic snaps during the longer pieces to propel him on journeys from one section into an unknown that coalesces into something new, measured and gripping at once.

And yet, by the end of the Osaka concert (presented here in its entirety), he’s traversing ground that’s at least been sighted before. Part of the problem is that Jarrett allows himself only major-mode harmonies in the ballads, with other pieces trapped in an indeterminate tonality that would be even more exciting if it occasionally resolved. In addition, we get four pieces from the Tokyo concert, added “to fill out the second CD,” that have considerable interest but don’t seem to really belong here given the immensely satisfying end to the Osaka concert. (They do, however, function as an effective teaser for the DVD of the Tokyo concert that ECM will release this fall.) Still, such criticisms only underscore the fact that Radiance has a heck of a lot of brilliant playing; any Jarrett fan will be enlightened by its purchase.