For those ardent Keith Jarrett fans out there (and you know who you are) who’ve longed for the jazz pianist to reunite with some of his collaborators from the ’70s other than Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, the time will likely never come — at least based on evidence from the last three decades. Jarrett’s duo recording with Charlie Haden, the bassist for Jarrett’s early trio and subsequent American quartet, on “Jasmine,” released in 2007, stands as the one exception.
True, Jarrett’s Standards Trio with Peacock and DeJohnette is, no pun intended, the gold standard for the format, capable as they are of amazing flights of musicianship. But there are aspects to their chemistry that have become as rote and comfortable as an old pair of shoes, and the creative tension Jarrett enjoyed with such players as Jan Garbarek and the late Dewey Redman on saxophone, and Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn has become a distant memory.
Enter ECM, Jarrett’s principal label since his groundbreaking solo piano debut in 1971, to save the day. Manfred Eicher’s imprint has dipped into its archives for the first time in its 43-year history to unearth some buried treasure: a 1979 live recording of Jarrett’s Scandinavian quartet, consisting of Garbarek, Palle Danielsson on bass and Jon Christensen on drums. The release, titled “Sleeper,” was released this past Tuesday and it provides a blast of fresh air to the current moribund jazz scene.
Several tracks from the new release exist on two other live 1979 recordings by the group, nicknamed the “Belonging” quartet after the title of its 1974 studio debut: the phenomenal “Nude Ants” and “Personal Mountains.” While its true that Jarrett’s recent solo concerts have provided ample evidence that he’s still at the top of his game, these late ’70s recordings reveal a joy and a group dynamism that has been unmatched since.
The two-disc set ranges from the startling virtuosity of the muscular opening track, “Personal Mountains,” with its intricate, snake-like melody and devil-may-care energy, to the borderline treacly “Innocence,” which might be considered a spiritual kin to “My Song,” the title ballad from the group’s second, and last, studio recording from 1977.
More than most highly distinctive reed players, Garbarek’s sharp, often mournful tone on tenor and soprano saxophones is decidedly an acquired taste. But the interplay he achieves with Jarrett is no less awe-inspiring today than it was more than 30 years ago.
Christensen, for his part, belongs among the Mt. Rushmore of modern jazz drummers — right up there with DeJohnette and the late Tony Williams. His energy is restless and his technique highly intricate, seemingly using every percussive surface within reach. And he achieves a fat tone in his symbol work like nobody else, as if he’s banging on tin cans.
The whole enterprise — not unlike the recent bootleg “Live in Europe 1967” series featuring Miles Davis’ second great quintet — is a revelation for those who given up on jazz as an art form capable of shock and awe.