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Music: Directly from the Heart

4 minute read
Terry Teachout

Keith Jarrett specializes in surprises. His youthful stints with the bands of Miles Davis and Charles Lloyd put him at ground zero of the jazz-rock fusion movement. Then, in the 1970s, he unplugged his keyboards and started giving the totally improvised, all-acoustic solo concerts that established him as the most individual (and successful) jazz pianist of his generation. The ’80s saw him recording arrestingly fresh versions of pop ballads with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette–as well as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on piano and harpsichord.

Now comes The Melody at Night, with You (ECM), a superlative album that at first may look like a straightforward melding of Jarrett’s predilections for solo works and standards: unaccompanied versions of such old favorites as Someone to Watch Over Me and I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good). But you don’t have to listen very long to realize that, once again, he’s up to something completely different. Gone are the swirling right-hand cascades and rocking gospel vamps, the layered harmonies and high-energy codas; in their place is a style of quiet, unvirtuosic simplicity, even naivete.

What on earth is the man who brought you The Koln Concert doing playing such penny-plain ditties as My Wild Irish Rose and Shenandoah? The answer is as simple as the tunes: Jarrett, 54, has spent the past three years stitching his life back together. In 1996 he staggered off the stage after a concert in Italy, completely exhausted and wondering whether he would ever be able to play again. He canceled his upcoming gigs, retired to his New Jersey home and withdrew into the dark netherworld of illness, eventually learning that he had contracted one of the various energy-sapping infections whose symptoms are known collectively as chronic fatigue syndrome. Not until last November was he able to return to the stage, and since then he has appeared only sporadically, scheduling one or two performances at a time. “Basically, I can’t do my work,” he says. “But I’m doing dribs and drabs of it. I can do a little more all the time–each event has been further from home and more strenuous–though sometimes just one concert is too much for me.”

The Melody at Night, with You is the first album Jarrett has made since falling ill. “I started taping it in December of 1997, as a Christmas present for my wife,” he recalls. “I’d just had my Hamburg Steinway overhauled and wanted to try it out, and I have my studio right next to the house, so if I woke up and had a half-decent day, I would turn on the tape recorder and play for a few minutes. I was too fatigued to do more. Then something started to click with the mike placement, the new action of the instrument–I could play so soft–and the internal dynamics of the melodies of the songs. It was one of those little miracles that you have to be ready for, though part of it was that I just didn’t have the energy to be clever. Also, I’d just stopped drinking coffee.” He laughs. “So the album ended up being about how you play melody without cleverness. It’s almost as though I was detoxing from standard chordal patterns. I didn’t want any jazz harmonies that came from the brain instead of the heart.”

He got his wish: rarely has a jazz album come so directly from the heart. The opening cut, George Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy, is exquisitely tranquil and songful, and the 10 tracks that follow are no less tender. Even Be My Love, Mario Lanza’s high-C jukebox hit, is transmuted into a limpid cameo. The result is a record made to be played late at night, when the streets are empty, the air is still, and you feel like thinking about what might have been or could be.

The mystically minded Jarrett suspects there was more to his latest CD than the right piano at the right time. “There was something deep going on,” he says matter-of-factly, and he might be onto something. Sometimes a great artist does everything right and nothing happens; sometimes a sick man sits down carefully at the piano and suddenly finds himself 10 ft. off the ground. The trick, as Jarrett says, and the pleasure for listeners to this recording, is to be ready for anything, even a little miracle.

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