Imagine that you are universally recognized as one of the most distinctive and influential jazz pianists of the last forty years and that you lead a trio whose work has become synonymous with the word consistency—so much so that you fear that the group’s work may be taken for granted because it is never less than superb.
Now imagine that you have been booked to play the Juan-les-Pins festival in France, an event that you have played many times previously. But an odd thing happens. You arrive in the midst of an unexpected rainy season (very unusual for France in July). Even after undergoing your usual ritual of having dinner backstage and watching the sun go down, you find little that inspires you to want to play, and worse yet, your trio mates agree. Your bassist says that he does not feel like playing. But you go out on stage anyway, and you start to play. And, as if impossible to repress, the old magic is there almost from the first note. In fact, the group’s performance is, if anything, lighter and less ponderous, while no less interesting or accomplished.
Those are the circumstances behind the Keith Jarrett “Standards Trio” recording Up For It, recorded live in Juan-les-Pins, France, July 2002, recounted by Jarrett in his liner notes. If you put this disc on without reading them, it might be easy to hear this as just another perfect or near-perfect recording by this extraordinary trio, but there is a real sense of lightness here that has not been there on recent Jarrett recordings.
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On last year’s Always Let Me Go/Live In Tokyo and 2001’s Inside Out, the group played free improvisations that were often dense and ponderous. Though that work revealed a trio that was at the top of its form and still investigating new rivers and tributaries, it did not always meet with approval from fans that enjoyed the group’s interpretations of standards (from which the trio received its moniker). But there is even more ebullience here than on the group’s last standards outing, 1999’s Whisper Not. It’s as though the band was able to play a set that was in direct contrast to the events that led up to, and as such the recording represents a stunning triumph for this band.
Though the group does not play much introductory material to these standards, they do manage to put their own stamp on them without taking them “outside.” Rather, they inhabit the songs and interpret them as one organic unit, much the way that the famous Bill Evans trio did. Listen, for example, to the rendition of “My Funny Valentine,” a warhorse if ever there was one. Even before they’ve finished stating the melody, you’ll be lost in the group’s living, breathing interpretation of the song rather than thinking ‘oh, no, not another ‘My Funny Valentine.’” It is precisely this ability that makes the Jarrett standards trio one of the most amazing ensembles in the annals of jazz.
On their last few CDs, this group has amazed us by adding ever-increasing layers of complexity to its sound; now they strip those layers away and simply become a great trio living up to its legendary abilities. In case you haven’t gotten the message yet: Up For It is a recording you need to hear. This is true if you’re a Jarrett fan or even if you merely enjoy some of his work or haven’t been that crazy about his last few releases. This is much more than just another perfect or near-perfect Jarrett recording—it is a really major performance that we’ll still be listening to in ten or twenty years.