Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette: Somewhere

  Review by Dan McClenaghan 

??????In 1983, pianist Keith Jarrett went into a Manhattan recording studio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette and recorded two album’s worth of jazz standards and Great American Songbook tunes, in the acoustic piano trio format. This signaled a change in direction. Jarrett, who also records in the classical arena, was at the time known mostly as an avant-garde jazz man from his work on ECM Records with saxophonist Charles Lloyd, his own American and European quartets, and a series of totally improvised solo concert recordings. Throw in a stint with the always forward-looking and often profile-enhancing (for his sidemen) band leader and trumpeter Miles Davis. The standards weren’t, at the time, considered hip. Fusion had settled in, electricity was in the air and in the studios. But the standards, in Jarrett’s words, “were so damned good, and why was everyone ignoring it and playing clever stuff that all sounds the same?”

That was an excellent question, one that Jarrett—along with DeJohnette and Peacock—has answered again and again, for three decades now, with what has been unofficially labeled the "Standards Trio."

Most of the Standards Trio albums have been recorded live. It is the most “in the moment” of groups. At times Jarrett plays long, wandering solo intros until the melody seems to coalesce out of beautiful entropy. Then DeJohnette and Peacock slip in, and the tune becomes recognizable. The trio takes these familiar Great American Songbook gems from the pens of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Sammy Kahn, Richard Rodger and so many more—in addition to jazz standards by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, and others—and celebrates them with an inspired reverence married to a glorious abandon.

Which brings us to the trio's 20th album, Somewhere (ECM Records, 2013), recorded in 2009.

The previous seven Standards Trio sets are consistently excellent outings that came from a fertile time in the group’s evolution, recorded between 1998 and 2002. Pick a favorite? It’s a choice often subject to the individuals’ tastes in the particular tunes offered up on any chosen set. My own favorite was Up For It, recorded in 2002.  “My Funny Valentine,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “If I Were a Bell,” and “Autumn Leaves” are exquisite tunes, and the trio treats them as malleable entities, starting with the recognizable melodic geometries,  then shaping them into separate but thematically-linked (to the melody) sound sculptures, then returning to them in the end as renewed works of art, with  fresh coats of paint and glimmer glazes.

So this new entry in the trio’s discography, one that—time of recording-wise (2009)—is eight years along the road, poses the question: Has the group evolved, is it possible for such an experienced and cohesive trio to improve on what they’ve achieved before?

Somewhere answers that question with a “yes.”

The disc opens with one of pianist Jarrett's wandering ruminations, “Deep Space.” A delicate touch on single notes and spare chords suggests the fragile glimmer of distant stars in what proves, three minutes in, to be an introduction to trumpeter Miles Davis classic “Solar.” It's a tune that appeared first on Davis' 1954 album, Walkin (Prestige Records, 1954). It's been covered often. It sounded modern in 1954; it sounds modern now, as Jarrett, DeJohnette and Peacock pull it from deep space into a tight orbit around the familiar melody, somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. As with every exceptional performance from this trio, it's Jarrett's sheer brilliance and unparalleled feel for the melody, in conjunction with the interplay of DeJohnette's bustling drums and Peacock's unpredictable bass heartbeat, that elevate the music to the stars, stars that come to Earth in the next offering, the Great American Songbook gem, “Star Fell on Alabama.”

This is Jarrett and company exploring the ballad form. On the slower tempos, the trio tends to stick closer to the original architecture of the tunes, laying them down with a restraint and patience, exploring the intended beauty without much embellishment, yet still infusing their collective and individual personalities. “Stars Fell on Alabama” is, in the trio's hands, a work of remarkable beauty.

“Between the Devil and the Deep Blues Sea,” from the pens of tune-smiths Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, has one of the coolest titles (we've all been there)  in the Great American Songbook. In the hands of the Standard Trio, it is a jaunty, spring-in-the-rhythmic step pick-me-up following the Alabama ballad. The trio sounds as if they are having a high time, strutting through this familiar tune without a worry about the title's predicament.

The next twenty-seven minutes of the CD take it to the masterpiece level, beginning with the Leonard Bernstein/Steven Sondheim classic, “Somewhere,” from West Side Story. The trio treats this tune as a precious and perhaps fragile jewel. Jarrett's touch is crystalline; DeJohnette's drums lend a tensile rhythmic strength; and Peacock's bass injects an organic pliability into the rhythm. “Somewhere" would have been enough. They could have ended the album there, but the trio takes it “Everywhere,” an extended  three-way meditation that keeps a loose tie to theme of the previous tune and turns it into a mantra.

Then there's “Tonight,” also from the Bernstein/Sondheim songbook. Jarrett and the trio turn this one into a high-voltage sizzler, with drive and sassily intricate interplay, leading to the show closer, “I Thought About You.” It's a ballad, a perfect one when Frank Sinatra sang it in 1956, on his Capitol Records album Songs for Swingin' Lovers. For the trio, it's a perfect one to lay down as a romantic and soul-soothing close to a sterling set of music.

Is this their best? You can get an argument on that. The Keith Jarrett Standard Trio has produced great music for thirty years, but this one—with it's twenty-seven minutes of Bernstein, fifteen minutes of “Deep Space/Solar,” the chip on the shoulder of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” the unabashed sentimentality of “I Thought About You,” I think this one's it.