In his brilliantly funny dictionary of human feelings, Hobbes (the real one) defined laughter as “sudden glory.” By this reasonable standard, as indeed by most others, Keith Jarrett is certainly the most glorious jazz pianist at work today. His swinging is so graceful that you cannot fail to smile, and when he embarks on one of his trademark exploratory solos, he grunts and gurgles as he plays, as if the rich surprise of ideas pouring forth from his hands were being physically mined, with very great labor, from some deep vein of genius within him, you find yourself unexpectedly bursting out in laughter. Unlike so many of his peers in the world of jazz, Jarrett is capable of expressing, of communicating and making palpable, the boundless, wondrous joy of the music. He doesn’t play to show off the fact that he is a great player; he plays because he uncovers sheer happiness in the music, the pathos and sudden glory of transcendence. And for that reason alone, millions of fans (and fanatics) around the world consider him something like a god.
You can’t teach an old god new tricks, but on the evidence of Tokyo ’96, the gods surely can learn to perform the old tricks even better. Along with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Jarrett has for two decades been perfecting the possibilities of the piano trio, and the latest release serves as a state-of-the-art summary: This is what three masters sound like at the height of their powers. Recorded during a single evening’s concert, Tokyo ’96 runs the gamut of feelings, from the gentle lilt of “It Could Happen to You” to a rousing carnival-style romp through “I’ll Remember April” to an aptly bittersweet take on Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” You can’t imagine it being improved in a single way. What’s interesting, particularly for longtime admirers of the trio’s work, is how relaxed they sound now, how fully comfortable Jarrett and Peacock and DeJohnette are with each other. Their previous effort, the rather daunting six-CD set, Live at the Blue Note, is a delightful collection in its own right, but on it the music occasionally falls prey to one or another of their strong musical personalities: DeJohnette’s love of bombast and rhythmic wizardry, Jarrett’s relentless introspection that can obsess on one melodic figure for minutes at a time, the supreme detachment Peacock acquired during a decade’s study of Zen in Japan.
Tokyo ’96 shows that the three have found the proper balance point, the still center at which each can play what he feels in the tunes without disrupting the group’s cohesion and harmony. DeJohnette has toned himself down ever so slightly, while Peacock seems newly bursting with confidence and melodic ideas. The synergy is magical. Peacock’s melancholy solo on “My Funny Valentine,” for example, is so utterly right for the mood of the piece, wistful and yet not overly sentimental, figurative without being unduly ornate, that it ought to be taken as a model for study by the countless bassists who use their solo turns as an opportunity to show off their technique without heeding what’s going on in the music around them. He throws the melodic figure back at Jarrett’s accompaniment, delicately tweaking and twisting and refining it like a glass blower carefully shaping his latest creation. And in the very fast-swinging numbers, particularly a blistering gallop through Bud Powell’s little-recorded “John’s Abbey”, Peacock now sounds utterly unfazed by DeJohnette’s idiosyncratic approach to bebop rhythms. In the past, you could almost hear the bassist thinking, after encountering one of his colleague’s protean percussive explosions, Well, what am I supposed to say to that? Now he knows perfectly well what to say: In one of the most gratifying moments of the recording, while DeJohnette is blasting his improbable way through a brief solo section in “John’s Abbey,” Peacock plucks a thumping, even bumptious, bass line in counterpoint. Wonderful stuff.
For his part, DeJohnette seems to have absorbed some of his colleague’s Zen-like reserve. There have been moments in the past when he has sounded almost resentful of his instrument, he did not pick up a pair of sticks until age 21, training before that as a classical pianist, and his playing could sometimes favor the exposition of complex rhythmic ideas, which he has in embarrassing abundance, rather than the development of a collective swing and groove. That edge has been taken off just a bit here, and the result is superb. His solo breaks can still defy comprehension, more than a few drummers swear that it is impossible even to keep count of the basic 4/4 beat during some of his more pyrotechnic excursions, but playing behind bass and piano he sounds
much happier to work in unison, more content to concentrate on the emotional intent of the music. On the group’s really quite fabulous rendering of the Charlie Parker chestnut, “Billie’s Bounce,” DeJohnette plays the first couple of choruses at half-speed, just a simple figure on snare drum
and hi-hats, establishing a wonderful tension before Jarrett finally erupts into a full-bodied swing. And on their calypso-flavored “I’ll Remember April,” he keeps varying the accents on his cymbals ever so slightly, creating underneath Jarrett’s own repeated
figures a terrific rhythmic propulsion that drives the piece to an ever more ecstatic frenzy. Then, in wholly surprising and satisfying fashion, he begins gradually winding down the volume, concluding the revel with a solo in which he eventually is making just the barest scratches of rhythm along the sides of his drums. It is completely unexpected and completely wonderful, and the crowd quite rightly explodes in applause.
Jarrett once said, in his characteristically prickly way, that he has no favorite nights among his group’s performances. He has a genuine and rather defiant attitude toward artistic integrity. He likes to claim that he was the first important jazz pianist to make the kinds of demands, about concert hall acoustics and the quality of his pianos, routinely made by his classical colleagues. But on this early spring evening in Japan, he must have been feeling quite at peace with the world. His playing throughout Tokyo ’96 sounds unsurpassably happy. It’s hard to imagine a night on which he wouldn’t have turned the somewhat maudlin “Mona Lisa,” made famous by Nat King Cole, into a 20-minute investigation of the history of jazz piano styles. Here he plays it through simply and sweetly, with Peacock doubling the melody on bass to quite poignant effect. On “Autumn Leaves” as well, a tune that became a nearly half-hour extravaganza on Live at the Blue Note, Jarrett is content to give the piece straightforward swinging treatment, although still showing why he has no peer in his capacity for harmonic invention at the keyboard. As he plays the melody through a second time at the piece’s beginning, his substitute chords in the left hand create a different emotional register for the song, much darker and richer than
that suggested by the melody itself. With a wider emotional palette established for the piece, he delivers a whale of a solo, evolving from simple blues inflections to sparkling single-note runs up and down the piano.
Few musicians in any genre can convey so much feeling within such
The highlight of the evening, though, is a remarkable take of the Harry Warren-Al Dubin standard, “Summer Night.” It is a favorite number in the trio’s live performances, but I have never heard it performed with such depth of feeling. All three players are magnificent. Peacock’s opening solo is exquisite, bending ideas suggested by the melody up and down the bass until he finishes with a flourish in the upper end of the scale. That conclusion launches Jarrett into his finest playing on the recording, a breathtaking solo that builds from laconic phrases a bit behind the tempo to a series of virtuosic, sprinting runs across the keys, with DeJohnette shifting from quiet brushes to swinging cymbals as Jarrett’s momentum builds. There is no word for it other than magnificent.
Emotional modulation is the key to the brilliance of Tokyo ’96. Not in need of long-winded and indulgent explorations on this outing, Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette sound instead in complete command not only of their technique but also of their ability to create a mood and manipulate it at will. The swinging highs are stratospheric, the somber lows affecting and profound. Jarrett aficionados will probably have already added this disk to their collections. But for those who have yet to sample the intensely moving music of this masterful trio, Tokyo ’96 is an ideal introduction. This group have never been better, which, as longtime fans know well, is no small claim.