Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review: Sleeper – Keith Jarrett (with Jan Garbarek)

It’s European saxophonist week!  Well, not really.  It’s just a coincidence that I’m reviewing a CD with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek right after reviewing a CD by Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma.  But Sleeper, a recording of a 1979 concert in Japan by Keith Jarrett’s European quartet, got released this week, and I couldn’t wait to check it out.  (More accurately, it’s two CDs, around 107 minutes of music.)  Now, Jan Garbarek is a little out of our usual sphere of up-and-coming saxophonists; at 65, he counts more as a grizzled veteran.  But Garbarek is one of my favorite saxophonists, and Jarrett’s European quartet, with Palle Danielsson on acoustic bass, and Jon Christensen on drums, is one of my favorite groups.  I can recall sitting in the Eastman School of Music’s library listening room in the mid-1970’s checking out a vinyl copy of Jarrett’s Belonging.  I thought “Spiral Dance” was the coolest thing ever, and I listened to it over and over.  I fell for Garbarek’s sound immediately.

The CD begins with “Personal Mountains,” having a beautiful, anthem-like melody, a little like “Spiral Dance.”  Yes, you can almost see those mountains.  Jarrett plays over the rock-solid groove laid down by Danielsson and Christensen.  Jarrett’s playing is clear as a bell, and he takes the boundaries of the groove and the chord changes and has his way with them.  At one point, Jarrett lays out completely, leaving Garbarek to explore the tune with just bass and drums.  Garbarek sounds great, with his unique tone that is powerful and cutting with the hint of a growl, but never harsh; here he stays mostly in the low and mid register of the tenor (even though his control over the altissimo range is superb).  The bass and drums then have a small duet, with Christensen taking the lead.  At this point, you realize Jarrett’s been silent for a long time.  Finally Jarrett comes back in with Garbarek, and they begin to slow things down.  They end the tune trilling together, leading seamlessly leading into the next tune, “Innocence.”  After letting Jarrett play by himself for a while, the bass and drums join in, and then Garbarek comes in on soprano.  The tune is a beauty, having almost a gospel feeling; I was reminded of the prettiness of Vince Guaraldi’s tunes.  Jarrett’s solo stays close to the tune’s melody, and Garbarek plays a pretty but brief solo.  It’s only after this tune that we’re reminded that this recording was live; we finally hear some applause.  I think the audience must have been silent any time the band was playing, so as not to interrupt the remarkable music. 

Garbarek and Jarrett start “So Tender” by playing together.  At this point, it seemed to me that with all the changes in who’s improvising and who’s accompanying and who’s laying out, along with making all this seem so effortless, the performers have attained a level of near-telepathic communication between each other.  The group then gets into the heart of the tune at an upper mid-tempo pace.  The tune is another pretty one, sounding almost like a classic show song from Cole Porter or George Gershwin.  Jarrett plays an inventive but well controlled solo, really excellent.  I think this one could be transcribed and studied as a prime example of how to improvise.  Then Garbarek comes in on tenor and plays a solo that is equally good; he just glides through the changes, starting simply and then playing some virtuoso runs. His solo is so engrossing that I lost track of Christensen’s activity behind Garbarek; he is going quietly wild on his cymbals.  After Garbarek’s solo, things slow down, and the tune ends softly and sweetly.

“Oasis” starts with percussion and Garbarek on (what I think is) wood flute.  Then Garbarek plays a cool solo on wood flute against a subtle backdrop of percussion and bass.  This moves into a duet between   the wood flute and arco bass, with Danielsson showing off some fancy moves with his bow.  Jarrett then comes in on piano, and Garbarek joins him on soprano.  With very light accompaniment, Garbarek and Jarrett improvise together.  Jarrett adds a lot of his telltale moans on this one, which precedes an emotional solo from him.  Danielsson takes center stage for a while, then Garbarek comes back in on soprano.  The subtle melody of the tune is played by the quartet, then Jarrett lays out again while Garbarek solos with bass and drums.  Jarrett comes back, and Garbarek picks up his tenor to finish the tune, showing off his triple-tonguing ability.

This leads right into “Chant of the Soil.”  The melody of this tune is earthy, slightly funky, and ingenious.  Jarrett’s solo is earthy, too, simple and gospel-ish.  Garbarek then comes in and plays a soulful solo, using lots of false fingering to make his point.  The group plays the melody again, and Danielsson takes the spotlight with a good solo as Jarrett lays out.  While the interplay of these musicians is nearly telepathic, the listener is really kept guessing as to what will happen next.  Jarrett comes back in and the tune abruptly ends. 

“Prism” has a subtle and laid-back melody, and the solos from Garbarek (on tenor), then Jarrett, and then Danielsson are also subtle and laid-back.  Garbarek comes back in to play the melody, and the concert proper is over.  But the audience applauds wildly, and the group comes out for one more tune.  “New Dance” is a pretty tune with a Latin feel that sounds a bit like a movie theme, and Jarrett plays it like he’s conversing with an old friend.  Garbarek plays a fun, bouncy solo, then the group plays the melody and, without any fanfare, the song ends.  This is a good way to leave the audience wanting for more, though they got treated to a lot of wonderful music.

This recording is just terrific—beautiful tunes, beautiful playing.  The major observation about this recording in a review from All About Jazz notes Jarrett’s brilliance as a composer.  I’ve always loved Jarrett’s compositions, particularly on Belonging and My Song, and it’s great to have a new recording solely with his tunes.  One complaint that I do have is with the booklet that comes with the CD: it provides no information other than the names of the musicians, the tunes, and their playing times, along with some photos of the group.  With an old recording of such a famous and influential group, you would think that ECM could provide some historical and other information in liner notes, but, no: nada, zip, zilch.  Oh well, a great opportunity lost.  (Actually, I ponied up the extra cash for the physical CD package rather than the download partly because I thought there would be extra info in liner notes.  Thanks a bunch, ECM!)  But that aside, I’m very glad to have this recording, and I expect to be enjoying it for a long time.

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