Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio interpreted the jazz songbook and improvised together for 30 years. A look back at the group that set the standard for piano trios going forward.
by Marshall Bowden
Where It All Began
Back in 1983, three musicians assembled at New York’s Power Station studio to record some jazz piano trio sides. Specifically, the trio was planning on exploring the standard jazz repertoire composed by the likes of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and other songwriters of equal status.
Not a radical concept, but certainly an unexpected one given the musicians involved. Keith Jarrett had accomplished many things in his career up to 1983, but he was certainly not known as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Jarrett first came to the public’s attention in 1966 as a member of Charles Lloyd’s quartet, of which he was a member through 1968. During 1971-71 he worked with Miles Davis on stage and on recordings, playing electric piano and organ. He followed up with a duet recording with Jack DeJohnette, Ruta & Daitya, the last time he worked with electric keyboards.
That same year, he formed his ‘American’ quartet (Jarrett, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian) and released the solo piano recording Facing You. 1973 saw the release of Solo Concerts Bremen/Lausanne, which cemented Jarrett’s popularity and his niche as an artist who gave solo performances at which he improvised new music at the piano out of thin air.
Keith Jarrett continued to work with the American quartet, formed the European quartet (Jan Garbarek, Jarrett, Palle Danielsson, Jon Christensen), and continued to release solo piano works such as The Koln Concert. He also improvised organ works (Hymns/Spheres), composed classically-oriented pieces (The Celestial Hawk), and interpreted the sacred music of G.I. Gurdjieff. His reputation as a composer and improviser easily equaled that of his reputation as a pianist. He had never really played standard material much, not with Lloyd nor with Miles, and not with either of his quartets nor in his solo performances. He simply was not known as an interpreter of the standard jazz catalog.
For that matter, neither were his partners in this venture, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. DeJohnette was best known for his work with Miles Davis and his own eclectic ECM recordings with many musicians, including John Abercrombie, David Murray, and Pat Metheney. His link to Jarrett goes all the way back to the 1966-68 Charles Lloyd quartet.
Peacock spent the early 1960s on the west coast playing with the likes of Bud Shank and Art Pepper before migrating to New York where he worked with Paul Bley, Bill Evans, and Albert Ayler. He then gave up music for a period, studying Zen Buddhism in Japan until his return to the States in 1972. From 1976 until 1983 he taught music theory at Cornish College of the Arts. His work with Jarrett and DeJohnette on his 1977 ECM release Tales of Another may well have led to the eventual formation of Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio six years later. That album contains all of the elements that would eventually become the Standards Trio, although the compositions, by Peacock, are typically lyrical and introspective. But again, these are all original compositions without any standard material. So, what led Jarrett to form this trio and to decide to focus on standards?
“Ever since my solo concerts I’ve been considered a sort of ‘landed proprietor’ of my own music,” Jarrett said in a 1989 interview, “a guy who goes on stage and finds something new every time, as if on command. Now I wanted to show them that music arises from music, from ideas, from material that doesn’t belong to anyone.”
In short, Jarrett had reached a stage in his development where he felt that he could amply create new music out of the inspiration of these well-worn tunes. Not only that, but he could demonstrate what was really his contribution because these tunes would be well known. If there is a surprise other than the undertaking of the project at all in these first sessions by the trio, it is in how traditional a piano trio this was. Jarrett did not take these tunes ‘out’, nor did he mess much with reharmonization or novel time signatures.
It almost seems that part of the pact here was that the tunes would be performed as standards, as they had been written. In that respect, this trio is very much the spiritual successor to the legendary Bill Evans trios across the years, because Evans, like Keith Jarrett, tended to remain true to the original meaning and feel of the standards that he played. And, like the Evans trios, Jarrett’s trio creates much of its magic in the interplay between the three incredible musicians who comprise it.
After 25 years of playing together, there are those who say the Standards Trio has outlived its usefulness, that Jarrett has wasted his time and talents on playing concert after concert and recording after recording of this material. But these listeners miss the entire point, I think. Like a Zen master, the trio creates new music every time out with the guidelines and limitations imposed by the material—the songs they choose to perform. These songs have stood the test of time precisely because they are like koans—those meditation exercises that pose an unanswerable question for the student to ponder. There are many roads that can be taken; there are many new ideas that can be expressed contained within the chord changes and melodies of the songs.
Those January 1983 sessions produced three albums worth of material: Standards V.1, Standards V.2, and Changes. ECM Records, in commemoration of the group’s 25th anniversary, has reissued these three recordings as a box set. It’s a nice collection, though not essential if you already own all three recordings, which are still available separately. There’s nothing here that wasn’t on the original albums, but it is a great introduction for those who don’t own them or who are looking to begin exploring the trio’s incredibly long discography.
Jazz writer Ted Gioia, writing about the set at Jazz.com, hits on a key element of the success of the Standards Trio, both on these recordings and in general:
“What comes across in listening again to the these old trio records, after a quarter of a century has elapsed, is how much they are about listening, instead of just playing. I have the distinct impression that these three players did not worry about working out an arrangement beforehand, and that their foremost concern was with playing spontaneously and intensely in the moment, relating to each other and to the song, without tricks or artifice. “—Ted Gioia, Keith rett Jazz Standards Trio Celebrates its 25th Anniversary—
Zen and the Art of the Trio
The trio does indeed play spontaneously in the moment, and they proved it in these sessions as well as periodically through the years, by doing something that most groups would find impossible: creating new music out of thin air together. Those who criticize Jarrett for keeping the trio going for 25 years forget that this group not only plays standards, they also improvise freely together. The first time they did this was at the initial ’83 sessions, and the results were released as the album Changes. The three tracks here, “Flying Pt. 1”, “Flying Pt. 2, and “Prism” show that the group is completely capable of playing together without any predetermined starting point. Since the trio is able to perform this high wire act, why would anyone doubt that they essentially do the same with the standards they play? Gioia is correct, I believe, in his assessment. These musicians know the melodies and changes, they know much of what other musicians have done with these tunes. And they know each other extremely well. So why worry about arrangements?
The Keith Jarrett Standards Trio clearly considers free group improvisation to be a touchstone of what they do, something that has always been necessary to keep the group’s ability to work with standards alive. Besides Changes, they have released several recordings of free group improvisation: Changeless (1987), Inside Out (2000), and Always Let Me Go (2001), the last a two-CD set. In addition, they have performed many group improvisational concerts that are unreleased. That ability to create music from the combined inspiration of the musicians without a written chart of any kind is just as manifested in the group’s performances of standard material, with the exception that the ground rules, as it were, are already laid out in the song’s structure.
The Standards Trio’s most recent ‘new’ recording is My Foolish Heart. Released in 2007, it is a recording of a concert at the Montreaux Jazz Festival from 2001. This recording, as well as The Out of Towners, a live performance in Munich from the same month and year, together with Up for It, from a 2002 Juan-des-Pins performance, document a particularly ebullient period for the trio. This was following Keith Jarrett’s return to performing after his bout with chronic fatigue syndrome. In fact, the very inspiration for this group may have come from Jarrett’s illness. He returned to recording with 1999’s The Melody At Night With You, a recording done at home. What Jarrett played here was standards—“I Loves You Porgy,” “I Got It Bad & That Ain’t Good,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” even “Shenandoah” and “My Wild Irish Rose.”
The new element was a kind of restraint of technique, a new use of space even though the whole project was infused with a high level of romanticism. Yet it was direct and simple in a way that Jarrett had seldom managed to achieve before. Said Jarrett: “The problem is not that one [song] is easier or harder. To enter the door is the problem… When a standard tune is well written it provides the door, but you don’t just enter and sit there. You have to keep making the space vital.”
It is hardly surprising that Keith Jarrett returned to his work with the Standards Trio as a way back into the world of live performance and recording. Though he also resumed his solo performances around the same time, even his work there, as heard on the 2005 release of the 2002 performances that make up Radiance, is both more direct and generally made up of shorter segments than his previous live solo recitals.
As I mentioned earlier, all of the elements that make up the Standards Trio were in evidence on the three recordings culled from the group’s inaugural January 1983 sessions. There can be no question that the group refined its approach and produced many recordings that are, technically, better than these first outings. But there’s a lot of excitement in hearing them working together for the first time and the performances are head and shoulders above what nearly any other group of the day could manage.
It is hard to imagine that they are still mining musical territory together 25 years later, but like the Zen masters, they continue to practice simply being in the moment. “Those Zen paintings made with one brushstroke after years of meditation, were always very striking to me,” he told the website CultureKiosque in a 2007 interview. The balance between control and freedom—it’s the very essence of the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio and the secret of their longevity.
This piece was written in 2008. On November 30, 2014, the Standards Trio played its last concert together.