From prodigy to purity as Jarrett hits transcendental note

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette | Royal Festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

If you're going to play the genius card, it helps if you've got something to back it up: preferably genius. The American pianist Keith Jarrett has played the card, or had it played for him (his record company once issued a box-set of solo improvisations that ran to 10 albums), for much of his career, during which time he has established a reputation - as geniuses are apt to do - as something of a prima donna. A child prodigy who made his classical debut at the age of six, he's been the wunderkind of jazz for close on 40 years now, and he's still only 55.

If you're going to play the genius card, it helps if you've got something to back it up: preferably genius. The American pianist Keith Jarrett has played the card, or had it played for him (his record company once issued a box-set of solo improvisations that ran to 10 albums), for much of his career, during which time he has established a reputation - as geniuses are apt to do - as something of a prima donna. A child prodigy who made his classical debut at the age of six, he's been the wunderkind of jazz for close on 40 years now, and he's still only 55.

In recent years, however, Jarrett's perfectionism has perhaps seemed to leave him with nowhere left to go, as if the intricate pathways that marked his long, Byzantine solos had become a maze of wrong turnings that threatened to trap him forever. To make things worse, Jarrett has been through a long physical illness (eventually diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome); even if he found the inspiration to play, his body wouldn't let him play it. Part of his response was to settle on a repertoire of "standards" - the hoary old show-tunes that nourished jazz for much of the 20th century - and a band of past masters, the Standards Trio, capable of doing justice to them. Last Wednesday's London concert - one of two, both sold out at £50 a ticket - was the first UK date by the band in eight years. So could Jarrett exorcise his demons? Would genius prevail?

From the opening note of the first number to the last dying thrum of the piano strings in the final encore, Jarrett and the band produced a performance of such passionate intensity that it was hard to believe. Even more amazingly, the "standards" didn't seem to have very much to do with it at all. Teasingly, the show began with the most unpromising of omens. After the band had taken the stage to a tumultuous reception, Jarrett pressed his foot down on one of the piano's pedals and a loud feedback-type noise resulted. The gremlins disappeared immediately, but you could hear 3,000 people holding their breath all the same.

Then the band began to play. We were all expecting a run-through of something familiar - and probably written by George Gershwin - but instead we got a dense, apparently spontaneous, improvisation, in which Jarrett worked away at his instrument like a man possessed. All the classic 19th-century signs of genius were there: the head bowed so low over the keyboard that it seemed possible teeth might be brought into play; the sudden lurches into a standing position; that unearthly singing accompaniment which sounds so bugging on record but which in the flesh comes across as a quite natural surrender to the moment; and an all-round hyper-activity that defied any thought of mid-career, ME-style malaise.

The rest of the first half's set continued in a free-form improvisatory vein and even when the tunes devolved into solos by Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, Jarrett could hardly be contained. On a DeJohnette set-piece, he kept raising and lowering the lid of the piano to provide a percussive counterpoint, and he cut Peacock's stately perorations off with a lightning-quick return to the chorus. The final number was an astonishingly daring vamp on a gospel-tinged bluesy, theme, and the band walked off at the interval like gladiators, scarcely disguising their elation at the crowd's delirious response.

The second half was equally outstanding, although the repertoire was more obviously derived from jazz "standards", largely based on bop themes by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. At times the combined effect of the three players' mastery was close to sensual overload. Peacock and DeJohnette are so unfalteringly perfect that what in normal jazz shows are inevitably the low points - the by-rote solos dispatched as a gift to the selfless accompanists - became little miracles of grace, yet Jarrett always managed to come up with something to top them. To call Jarrett a genius hardly does him justice. When, on the drive home, Jazz FM played the full version of John Coltrane's "My Favourite Things", it was like a final blessing from above.

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