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JAZZ / When the jazz is Miles better: In tonight's tribute concert at the Festival Hall, Keith Jarrett will reveal the rich legacy of Miles Davis. Jason Nisse reports

Fans of Keith Jarrett tend not to take much notice of the year the pianist spent with Miles Davis' band at the start of the 1970s. Jarrett coincided with what some cruelly call the trumpeter's 'heavy metal period.' Amidst the morass of guitars, saxophones, drums, bass, percussion and other keyboards, he fought for attention playing electronic piano and organ simultaneously. Unlike the entire body of his work before or since, Jarrett's work with Miles finds him acting as a colourist rather than a draughtsman.

Though it was possibly the only time Keith Jarrett has been lost in the crowd, his time with Davis appears to have been a pivotal moment in his career. After leaving Davis in 1971, Jarrett blazed a trail with his American quartet, which included saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Paul Motian, his European quartet, with the Norwegian Jan Garbarek on sax and, of course, on his own. None of these bears any strong musical relationship with what Davis was doing.

Not surprisingly, Jarrett says that Davis' influence was 'more by example than by substance. Davis' strength was what I took away . . . When he was about to play he reverted to as primeval a place as any musician I have ever come across.' From a man who appears to turn himself inside out concentrating on his performance, this is praise indeed.

But the ultimate praise is that Jarrett, who seems to have spent the last 20 years isolating himself from the ebb and flow of the jazz world, has decided to come out with his own tribute to Miles Davis. The Standards trio featuring Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums is playing three tribute concerts - in London, Antibes and Brussels - and an album, Bye Bye Blackbird, is to come out later this year on ECM.

The album title - highlighting Jarrett's version of Davis's version of the old standard - is a clue to the period most venerated by the trio. This was the music Davis was recording in the early 1960s, with Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums and Hank Mobley on sax. 'The way they played had a pulse,' says Jarrett. 'It was the zenith of swinging.'

According to Jarrett, the concept of a tribute to Davis preceded the artist's death. The organisers of the Antibes jazz festival booked the trio and suggested to Jarrett that he might include some sort of tribute to Davis. The suggestion was turned on its head and made into a three concert series.

However, the music will not be a copy of the way Davis' rhythm section played in the 1960s. In fact it will be hardly recognisable. The tracks are culled from the Davis repertoire and may even include some tunes never recorded. 'With the Miles recordings we have taken a free approach more or less aimed at Miles' aura,' says Jarrett. 'If he was listening he would know what we were going to do.'

And the Davis tributes will be different from any other concerts performed by the trio in that Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette will, for the first time in nine years, agree what tracks they are playing before they come on stage. 'We almost always only know just the first tune in a concert and often change our minds,' says Jarrett. 'We like to start with something we have not played before, or at least something we haven't played for a while.'

Also, the trio never rehearse. The New York Times criticised a concert a couple of year ago because 'the arrangements weren't coherent', a comment Jarrett found highly amusing. 'I showed it to Gary and Jack and they were laughing because we didn't have any arrangements.'

The band never plans for the future. 'Every time we play I accept that it is the last time that we play together,' says Jarrett. 'The knowledge that it could be the last time makes it a more profound experience.' But somehow the trio comes back together for, Jarrett says, organic rather than commercial reasons. 'I want to go out there with two friends who have been through the whole history of jazz as I have. When we play, we play from the gut.'

In the last decade or so, Jarrett's music seems to have evolved into three strands. He has not worked with horns since the end of the 1970s and his jazz work splits neatly into the trio and his solo concerts, the latest of which is a concert in Vienna, to be released later this year, which Jarrett believes is his best yet in that format. In addition there is a large strand of classical music which includes a series of recordings of works by Bach, including the flute sonatas which are to be released this month.

To those strands Jarrett would add a fourth. In 1985 he recorded Spirits, an intensely personal work put together in the studio at his home in New Jersey. Jarrett says that album is an arrow pointing towards this strand, but that this area of his music 'is a thing so delicate that it cannot be performed or recorded.'

Recently Jarrett has begun to come out of his shell. He has been working intensely and became embroiled in a row about the appointment of Branford Marsalis, saxophonist brother of Wynton, as musical director of the Tonight programme in the US. He sees the Marsalis brothers as the embodiment of 'style' musicians which, he argues, contribute nothing to the development of jazz music.

Jarrett's anger about this has been fed by the death of Davis. 'His death was the last and saddest loss because there is nobody left, only a bunch of sharks feeding of the bones of musicians.' He says the many musicians nowadays are playing because they like the image of jazz. 'There is no such thing as style. The first musician who played, was playing because he needed to play.'

The loss of Miles Davis leaves a hole in the heart of jazz. No-one is likely to fill it, but if it goads Keith Jarrett into reaching even greater heights, there is at least a thin silver lining to the cloud.

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette play at the Royal Festival Hall tonight