When Keith Jarrett and his longtime, deeply empathetic bandmates Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette returned to UCLA’s Royce Hall in October, the going was fairly “straight,” by standards set in this city in the past.
We think back to last year’s alternately profound and weirdly volatile solo concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in which Jarrett opened up with an exceptional, and exceptionally challenging, abstract improvisation, as if channeling the spirit of Elliot Carter. After that high point, Jarrett grew distractingly cantankerous at the microphone, despite the lyrical depths of his playing (a central paradox in the world of Jarrett). Several years back, on the same Royce Hall stage, the trio’s second piece was an atonal improvisational creation, a startling and memorable moment in this room.
But at this year’s model of a UCLA show, putative traditionalism and “real book”-ishness was more the order of the night. The pianist himself was as well-behaved as he was understatedly commanding at the keyboard, never using the ominous onstage microphone and neatly demonstrating that, in jazz, traditionalist repertoire doesn’t mean staid music, in the right, sensitive and virtuosic circumstances. Musical poetry hummed and bubbled up over the two sets, from the opening “Green Dolphin Street” on through encore time, with the groove-slithering, soul-fizzy take on “God Bless the Child,” on through to the final encore, easing down into the balladic exit strategy on “I Thought About You.”
Whatever the material being dealt with, of course, Jarrett and co. held sway and gently twisted things to make it theirs. Jarrett soloed with his usual naturalistic phrasing and vocalist-like sense of breath, often saving the more exploratory energies for extended coda vamps. DeJohnette exerted a playfully rubbery, winking rhythmic feel on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” and elsewhere showed his special balancing act of openness, propulsion and deceptively direct rhythmic elasticity. Peacock was also in “on it” mode, sure of intonation, careful with the delicate balance of support and assertion that he particularly brings to this trio compared to other work he does, and solidly expressive in his solos, especially on the ballad “Answer Me, My Love” (one of the rare lesser-known numbers on the set list this night).
Jarrett himself wowed in measured doses, issuing an elegant keyboard blur fit to worship on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and doling out heat and flurrying runs into his solo on “When I Fall in Love,” opting out of the rhapsodic route he usually treats this favorite with. Jarrett also swapped juicy riffs with DeJohnette on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” with which the trio opened the second set, getting deeper and looser as they went.
Not many jazz entities around can imbue the warhorse-y “Autumn Leaves” with the kind of freshness and insight that this trio gave it, ending the second set at Royce Hall in a glowing blaze of creative integrity and fire.
That’s why we keep coming back for more whenever Jarrett’s name lights up a marquee, in whatever city.