Ten seconds into the fourth piece of his improvised solo concert at the Royal Festival Hall last year, American pianist Keith Jarrett stopped playing and delivered a curt lecture about the evils of coughing in the concert hall. So devoted was his audience, however, that his reproach garnered a thunderous applause. Immediately after, Jarrett returned to the piano and began the piece exactly where he’d left off, as if he’d already completed the whole thing in his head. He went on to give what was described as a ‘never-to-be-repeated, pulsing rock band of a concert’.
It was his first performance in London for 18 years, and it filled the Festival Hall. Jarrett is one of the very few jazz musicians in the world who don’t need to plug their CDs at the end of a gig. One critic likened his return to that of a prophet – and amongst his acolytes were students, families and film stars (well, I recognised Jurassic Park’s Sam Neill). A stark contrast, certainly, with the grey-heads, Boden shirts and tasselled deck-shoes that dominate so many jazz clubs. And now we have a recording of the long-awaited event. Testament, a 3-CD production, brings Jarrett’s Festival Hall concert together with one given five days earlier in Paris.
After working with Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis, Jarrett astonished audiences in the 1970s with a series of unique solo improvisations in which one piece could last for an hour or so. The most famous of these musical high-wire acts is the Koln Concert, which has gone on to sell nearly four million copies.
In the early-90s, however, the format of Jarrett’s concerts started to change. In place of the ‘epic journeys into the unknown’, as he describes them, he offered his audiences a series of vignettes reflecting the remarkable breadth of his style, which ranges from blues to bebop to baroque. The effect, in some recordings, can be a little disjointing. But what is striking about Testament is that, even though it crosses many genres, Jarrett’s playing remains unmistakable.
The tone of the Paris concert is darker, with Jarrett’s early classical training coming to the fore. It kicks off with a brooding, often atonal, improvisation, followed by a forceful ten-minute vamp in C-sharp. The London concert begins in a similar way, but its pace quickens with the scurrying bebop scales of ‘Part II’. Then the musical language is simplified. ‘Part III’ is an insouciant blend of gospel and Americana – two of Jarrett’s most enduring influences. This is what many in the audience at the Festival Hall had been waiting for – and Jarrett clearly enjoyed himself in his notoriously eccentric way. He played a good deal of the piece standing up, gyrating and singing along. Every now and then, in the recording, we hear a trademark nasal yelp (there’s a video floating about on YouTube with the title, ‘Keith Jarrett IS Cartman’).
‘Part III & VI’ of the Paris and London concerts, respectively, are beautiful examples of the shimmering, ethereal inventions that have in recent years become one of Jarrett’s hallmarks. There is, in fact, a good deal of music in both concerts that sounds as if it comes from the experimental end of 20th century classical repertoire. But in the Festival Hall concert, Jarrett’s new and old selves come together. ‘Part VII’, a highlight, achieves the drive and the refinement Jarrett sought by shortening his improvisations, but evokes the spacious, emotive gospel tones of his earliest work.
The lengthy essay in the album sleeve makes it clear this is an important album for Jarrett, now in his mid-60s. It vindicates his new approach to improvisation, but is also a triumphant testament to his innovations over the last 30 years.