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Keith Jarrett: Testament

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Last year there was an exhibition at a gallery in New York of photographs of World War II battlefields. They were recent photographs, and the scenes were tranquil, with wildflowers. It was the knowledge that these sites had once contained carnage and agony that gave the photographs their particular resonance.

Testament is like that. The full experience of the recording depends on information that is separate from the work of art: Keith Jarrett’s liner notes.

This three-disc set contains a solo concert in Paris and one in London, four days apart, in late 2008. Jarrett’s wife of 30 years had just left him, and he was having “as close a brush with a nervous breakdown” as he had ever experienced. He went through with the concerts because he saw them as a “scramble to stay alive.” He writes, “I decided that if I backed down now, I would back down forever.”

When you have been told that a man is playing music for his life, you listen differently. But the emotional journey contained in these 20 pieces, eight from Paris, 12 from London, is not understood quickly. The opening movement in Paris, with its transitional melodic gestures, sounds like the middle of something. Part II is a rolling, prancing processional, relentlessly driven by Jarrett’s left hand. Part III already sounds like a conclusion, in dramatic tremolos and melodies in chords that coalesce to a brightly lit single-note strand and become ringing chords again. It is hard to believe that Jarrett is not finished. He has just begun.

Over two more hours of improvised piano stream-of-consciousness, including a move from the Salle Pleyel in Paris to the Royal Festival Hall in London, a spiritual and musical organization emerges. Pieces of slow, piercing poignance alternate with outbreaks of wild ebullience and thunderous grooves. Parts V and VII of Paris, and I, IV, VI and VIII of London, contain human feeling inseparable from the distilled lyricism of its expression. They embody a central paradox of art: The honest creative portrayal of pain is its own liberation. Parts VI in Paris and II, III, V and VII in London are proclamations of rhythmic power. In Jarrett’s “scramble to stay alive,” each quiet immersion in crushing sadness is followed by a loud refusal to surrender, and a celebration of survival.

The last two movements of Testament, Parts XI and XII of the London concert, bring these two opposing forces together, into resolution. They proceed slowly, yet Jarrett attacks the keyboard ferociously. They gather what has preceded them into a riveting formal ceremony. (Jarrett needed heat therapy on his arms after the concert, a first.)

To compare the fearless searches and naked commitments of Jarrett’s solo piano concerts to most standard piano jazz is like comparing the full turbulence of actual life to a selective memory of it.

Originally Published