Jazz Albums

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The Independent Culture

As time goes by, and the man himself becomes ever more recessive, the music of the American pianist Keith Jarrett has begun to seem increasingly important. Although he has evidently been battling with something of a writer's block for a number of years now, Jarrett - who is billed to appear at the Royal Festival Hall on 26 and 28 July with his "Standards" trio of Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette (his first British dates since 1992) - produced so much music for the ECM label in the Seventies that we've needed the rather fallow years of the late Eighties and Nineties just to catch up. In retrospect, his remarkable fecundity now seems like a golden age not only for Jarrett but for jazz as a whole. Year after year, album after album poured out of him like a stream in full flood. If at the time some of these efforts seemed to be somewhat less than first-rate, they now appear to have been at least minor masterworks.

Although it has always been difficult to separate Jarrett the composer from Jarrett the consummate performer of his own tunes, a new tribute album featuring versions of his works recorded by diverse hands has just been released, and it is so good that it forces you to re-evaluate Jarrett's worth as a writer. As Long As You're Living Yours: the Music of Keith Jarrett (RCA-Victor) is an eccentric but almost completely satisfying compendium of often obscure Jarrett tunes. It begins with a rollicking New Orleans-style version of "Backhand" by a band led by the rock pianist Bruce Hornsby, and progresses through various moods, often performed by the most unlikely of aggregations, such as the classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg duetting with the pianist Bob James, who was previously thought to be long past his sell-by date.

Don Byron plays a superb clarinet solo on "Somewhere Before", and the wunderkind pianist DD Jackson contributes a gorgeous solo version of "Everything That Lives Laments". Even the former Police guitarist Andy Summers keeps up the high standard on the album, with a series of sustained notes on "Prism" that recalls Carlos Santana playing John Coltrane's "Welcome". Other contributors include Tom Harrell, Joe Lovano, Chucho Valdes and Mike Mainieri. All that remains now is for Jarrett himself to start writing again.

A new album on Jarrett's label, ECM, demonstrates how much he helped to open up the often closeted genre of jazz to influences from classical, world and folk music. In Cerca di Cibo, by the duo of Gianluigi Trovesi (clarinets) and Gianni Coscia (accordion), presents formidably spare improvisations, using original compositions that sometimes re-work Piedmontese folk themes. As the sleeve notes written by Umberto Eco (yes, that Umberto Eco) maintain, this is music that confounds all notions of genre. It is quiet and intensely felt, with the accordion's wheezing breath answered by bird-like calls from the clarinet. Less elevatedly, if ever you wanted a soundtrack to remind you of sun-dappled Tuscan summers, this is it, big-time.

European music in a more functional vein is available on Rue Martel, a collection of funky remixes by various French DJs on the Mineral label, distributed by Via. The same label (although this time it seems to be called Comet) also releases an album by the Afro-beat king Tony Allen. Produced by Doctor L, Allen's familiar old-school Fela Kuti grooves are further distressed by echo-laden raps over the expected Fender Rhodes and wah-wah guitar textures. It may be a very long way from the Keith Jarrett genre, but it's very good all the same.

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