Piano Continues Here: On Spectacular New Works From Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor


Only those who’ve followed jazz a good long while—longer than Chick Corea has been a Scientologist, say, or than Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran have been alive—might remember when the piano looked just about done for. Ornette Coleman dealt the first blow by eliminating the instrument from his rhythm section—in the bargain, undermining everything it stood for: improvisation according to strict harmonic guidelines and the tyranny of intonation, for starters. By 1966, when McCoy Tyner left John Coltrane, complaining he could no longer hear himself, nobody else could hear him, either, probably including Coltrane. Despite an approach as obsessively pianistic as Art Tatum’s, Cecil Taylor was routinely praised for subverting the keyboard into “88 tuned bongos,” as if his relevance depended solely on percussive attack, owing nothing to his leading jazz into fertile harmonic territory previously staked out only by European avant-gardists. But the coup de grâce was early-’70s fusion, which reduced what was increasingly referred to as an “acoustic” piano to merely one more keyboard in an arsenal of them, no better than a synthesizer or electric model—no match for them, in fact, in supplying coloration and groove.

Yet by mid-decade, piano had reasserted itself as the pre-eminent instrument in jazz, a position it shows little sign of relinquishing all these years later, given the fairly recent emergence of such acknowledged pace-setters as Iyer, Moran, and Matthew Shipp, and the posthumous elevation of such odd-men-out as Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard (unorthodoxy has become the new orthodoxy, and it’s about time). The short answer to what prompted this dramatic reversal of fortune is Keith Jarrett. Though Tyner’s rise from Coltrane’s shadow was arguably as much a factor, Jarrett’s solo concerts and the poetic image they presented of a solitary figure in communication with his muse—creating music out of thin air and making it new on an instrument still ringing from the touch of the great European masters—struck a chord with audiences previously indifferent to jazz. And why not, inasmuch as what he was doing could be perceived metaphorically as improvisation according to the ways of the hand, a perfect example of the ’70s belief in the transformative power of intuition and fetish for self-realization.

Say what you will about Jarrett, and I bet I’ve written worse—the words “preening” and “meandering” come to mind. But there’s no gainsaying his significance, and when he lets up on the self-stroking and focuses on his material, as he does throughout the new Jasmine (ECM), an album of duets reuniting him with Charlie Haden, his bassist of the 1970s (and link to Ornette, along with Dewey Redman), he can be wonderful. Jasmine was pure happenstance, culled from sessions recorded in Jarrett’s home studio near Woodstock in 2007, following a visit by Haden and filmmaker Reto Caduff to shoot footage for the Haden bio-documentary Rambling Boy, and featuring Jarrett on the same beloved Steinway heard on 1999’s charming, post–chronic fatigue syndrome The Melody at Night, With You.

The emphasis on cosmopolitan torch songs is a bit surprising in light of the duettists’ shared rural leanings, the only hint of which comes via “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” former Jazz Crusader Joe Sample’s grandiose attempt to church-ify a Strauss waltz. But this is Jasmine‘s only misfire. “Body and Soul” is a wellspring that never runs dry, and with Haden holding fast to the tempo and chord structure, Jarrett takes what amounts to a somewhat daring approach to the song 70 years after Coleman Hawkins, spinning elegant variations on the melody in lieu of reharmonizing it. And both “No Moon at All” and Cy Coleman’s “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life” are very nearly as trim and spectacular.

Before you ask: Yes, Jarrett does that distracting uvular thing of his here and there, especially noisily at one juncture on “Body and Soul.” Yet this tic of his isn’t as annoying this time, maybe on account of the intimate (almost private) nature of these dialogues—it doesn’t seem to bother Haden, so why should it bother us? Jarrett is infamous for demanding abject silence from audiences in live performance, and even though I applaud him for so, the irony is that once he starts “singing” along with himself, it’s him you wish you could shush. The most notorious offender of all in this regard was Glenn Gould, who ultimately withdrew from the stage altogether in favor of the studio, which presented fewer variables. Though I’m not suggesting that Jarrett follow suit, my preference for The Melody at Night over his solo concerts, and for Jasmine over his Standards Trio, does make me wonder if he wouldn’t be better off sticking to his own lair.

As for the other pianist doing epic solo improvisations in the 1970s, even though Cecil Taylor’s recitals were better organized compositionally, and his virtuosity more dance-oriented in its physicality (and therefore more visual), Jarrett’s promise of rapture was far easier for audiences to grasp than such agitated rumination. Also a by-product of a film portrait (in this case, Christopher Felver’s All the Notes), Taylor’s two-CD The Last Dance (Cadence Jazz) consists of a 70-minute duet with bassist Dominic Duval (who actually receives top billing), followed by three encores ranging in length from two to 18 minutes: a full concert, in other words, from the 2003 San Francisco Jazz Festival. While unlikely to change anyone’s mind about Taylor—who created an entire musical language and has sought to perfect it for more than a half-century without the jazz world ever reaching a consensus about it (he was the lone figure singled out for criticism in Ken Burns’s Jazz, and his critical standing seems to have plummeted ever since)—The Last Dance‘s centerpiece duet strikes me as one of the great pianist’s most totemic recorded works.

As with Tatum, the pleasure here is vicariously tactile—you feel those extended runs of Taylor’s (they gather momentum and then stop short, like waves cresting without splashing the shore) throughout your entire body, starting in your fingers. As if conceding no ground to Duval, he positions himself in the bass clef for much of the performance, and his attack is so brutal that during the few moments of silence, you can still hear the piano’s wood vibrating. Faced with irrelevance in the wake of Taylor’s one-man call-and-response, Duval, familiar from his work with Joe McPhee in Trio X, shifts resourcefully between selfless accompaniment and head-on encounter—his role is to provide Taylor with a canvas, and he does, artfully. There are at least three separate movements here, including an uncharacteristically lyrical one about halfway through and another resembling a mambo, of all things, toward the end. Be warned that Taylor indulges in some antic nonsense with his poetry and sound-text about 40 minutes in. But I know from experience that it must have been fun in person, and it’s far more integral to Taylor’s artistic vision than Jarrett’s atonal bleating is to the poor likes of “Body and Soul.”

Though The Last Dance takes first prize, there seems to be no end to satisfying piano albums lately, and I’d be remiss for not calling attention to two by Geri Allen: the solo Flying Toward the Sound, mostly taken up by a suite in tribute to her forebears on which she comes close to pulling off the difficult trick of reconciling Taylor’s steely intellect with Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner’s very dissimilar styles of impressionism; and Geri Allen & Timeline Live (both on Motema), where she blends the sensational tap prodigy Maurice Chestnut into her working trio. British transplant John Escreet’s Don’t Fight the Inevitable (Mythology) earns comparison to experimental Blue Note touchstones like Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure for the logic with which freewheeling solos (by Escreet, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and alto saxophonist and co-producer David Binney) emerge from the leader’s maze-like originals. You presumably already know about Jason Moran’s Ten (Blue Note), but you should also be aware of Equality (Fresh Sound New Talent), the debut album by his drummer, Nasheet Waits, featuring Moran’s Bandwagon with added starter Logan Richardson on alto, and enlivened by Moran’s snaky piano figurations. Then there are Mosaic’s Ahmad Jamal box and Dick Hyman’s multi-disk history of jazz piano from ragtime on. These will be going with me on vacation, and I promise to tell you all about them when I get back.