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Keith Jarrett: Rio

Thomas Conrad reviews Keith Jarrett's latest solo work

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With few exceptions, Keith Jarrett currently makes two kinds of albums: recordings of standards with his trio, and improvised live solo concerts. They are very different formats. The first begins with known form and opens it outward. The second chooses from infinite options and evolves spontaneous form.

The double-disc Rio is the latest solo concert release. It documents a performance on April 9, 2011 at Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro. Over the decades, the shape of a Jarrett solo concert has changed. In the early years, most pieces were vast, sometimes 45 minutes long. Not everything Jarrett tried worked, but it was the gigantic whole, the long journey, that mattered. The exhilaration for listeners came from knowing that they were encountering the towering structure as it was born. Nowadays Jarrett improvises three- and five- and six-minute tunes. The current format engenders less shock and awe, and raises questions about the concept of “spontaneous composition.” Can Jarrett really make up songs on the spot as beautiful as the standards he plays with his trio?

Yes, sometimes. There are exquisite spaces of music on Rio. Part II begins in rapt tremolos and proceeds like a slow search for the keyboard’s deepest secrets. Parts IV and VII are truly found songs. The first is a self-contained node of melody that Jarrett patiently unravels. The second should have lyrics. Part V is an ecstatic dancing ceremony. Part IX is points of light scattered across a night sky.

But there are also unattractive, self-conscious exercises in polytonality (Part I), outbursts of frenzied runs that go nowhere important (Part X), and snatches of rolling, prancing grooves that are fun but have appeared in too many previous solo concerts (Parts VI and XI).

Still, Rio builds. The last four pieces are the strongest. Jarrett’s previous solo concert album, Paris/London (Testament) , from 2008, was recorded when his 30-year marriage was breaking up, and it is full of darkness. Rio sounds like healing and hope. Parts XII and XIII are dignified, formal ascents that become epiphanies of affirmation. Part XIV is a breakout, a gospel and stride celebration, a cup runneth over. The final Part, XV, like everything at this concert, was pulled from free air, but it immediately sounds permanent. It is private emotion discovered as it is shared, and it resolves into acceptance. It is such a summation, with so much finality, that it could serve as the last music Jarrett ever plays. Fortunately it will not be.

Originally Published