“So, who’s your favourite pianist, then?”
It’s a question most of us run from. But over the years I have become comfortable naming Keith Jarrett as, if not “favourite”, then certainly one of the most extraordinary pianists alive.
So when a new album of his live improvised music is released, it jumps straight to the top of the pile, and likely becomes a very easy choice for “Recording of the Month”.
Happily for me (and for you) La Fenice is not simply an album of live outtakes from the vault, but another very special Jarrett release which demonstrate just why he is such an extraordinary and acclaimed musician.
Recorded live in concert on a single evening, La Fenice exemplifies everything that those in-the-know have come to treasure in Jarrett’s music. So let’s take a closer look…
La Fenice is the latest of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s solo concert recordings, building on a legacy which inexorably leads back to the legendary Köln Concert recording of 1975.
It’s easy to use superlatives like “legendary” with too much ease, but in this instance it is fully justified: notching up global sales of more than 3.5 million, the Köln Concert album is not only the best-selling solo recording in jazz history, but also the best selling piano recording ever.
The story goes that when organising the concert at the Cologne Opera House, the wrong piano was placed on the stage; not the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial that Jarrett had expected, but an inferior baby grand normally used backstage for rehearsal. Jarrett’s exploration of this instrument’s many quirks inevitably had a significant impact on the direction his freeform improvisation took. The results, however, are extraordinary on every level, fully justifying the album’s ranking as the most successful piano recording in history.
In between recording with various ensembles, notably his “American” and “European” quartets and longstanding Standards Trio (with Gary Peacock on bass and drummer Jack DeJohnette) Jarrett has frequently returned to the medium of the solo, improvised performance. And ECM’s Manfred Eicher has regularly (and understandably!) been on hand to record the proceedings.
Notable solo concert releases include the Paris Concert (1988), Vienna Concert (1991), La Scala (1995), the Carnegie Hall Concert (2005) and Rio(2011).
His recording Paris / London: Testament (2008) is another remarkable highlight: recorded over two evenings in the aforementioned cities, these solo appearances took place just days after Jarrett’s wife of 30 years had left him. The naked flame of emotional intensity hasn’t burnt brighter in any piano playing I’ve ever heard, and while not always an easy listen, the three CD set really is an indispensable record that should grace every piano enthusiast’s collection.
La Fenice: The Album
We now step back two years from that recording to the date July 19, 2006. The venue is that iconic Italian Opera House, Gran Teatro La Fenice, Venice. The stage is set, the correct piano in its place, Manfred Eicher’s recording equipment primed. A hush falls on the audience.
Keith Jarrett steps out and approaches the grand piano…
“Although I seemed to others to be some kind of freak of nature, the amount of preparation work, mental, physical and emotional is probably beyond anybody’s imagination (including my own). It is NOT natural to sit at a piano, bring no material, clear your mind completely of musical ideas, and play something that is of lasting value and brand new.”
Keith Jarrett, writing in 2008 about the development of his solo concerts during this period.
The progression of the performance which followed will be familiar to those who have enjoyed Jarrett’s more recent solo concerts: several shorter pieces are improvised, visiting a range of musical destinations, styles and influences ranging from the abstract atonal, through americana and blues, to some gorgeous closing ballads.
Most of the tracks on the CD have no specific name, so are labelled Part I through to Part VIII. CD1 includes Parts 1 through V, while CD2 not only includes Parts VI through VII, but is also interspersed with three standards (The Sun Whose Rays, My Wild Irish Rose and Stella by Starlight) and Jarrett’s own Blossom (which fans will know from his seminal 1974 recording Belonging with his European quartet).
From the outlandishly virtuosic avant-garde explosion of Part I (which at the midway point completely switches tack to become a deeply introspective meditation) to the lush balladry of later tracks, Jarrett’s one-of-a-kind playing is as astonishing as ever.
That opening track certainly highlights Jarrett’s protean creativity and technical mastery, as does Part II which follows, a similarly atonal scherzo which together with Part I could easily be regarded as a contemporary piano sonata.
But those who find these dissonant openers musically or emotionally inaccessible would be wrong to abandon ship. Part III immediately establishes an easier tonal, sunny americana, built around repetitive rolling blues vamps in a way that fans of the Köln Concert will quickly appreciate and warm to.
As was the case with Rio, the second half of the concert is a more deliciously lyrical and emotionally intimate affair, the enjoyably reflective meandering of Part VI giving way to the somewhat surprising appearance of The Sun Whose Rays, in which Jarrett masterfully covers and explores the song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1885 comic opera The Mikado.
After the deeply felt Parts VII and VIII, valedictory encores ensue, led by My Wild Irish Rose, a beautiful rendition of the tune which Jarrett previously recorded on his 1998 solo studio album The Melody at Night, With You.
La Fenice will perhaps not be remembered as Jarrett’s all-time greatest solo concert album, but is certainly a worthy and hugely enjoyable addition to his canon.
And here’s an album that encompasses so many of the strengths which have gained Jarrett his reputation as one of the world’s greatest, best-loved and most inspiring pianists.
From dazzling virtuosity to sombre reflection, and from gospel vibes to heartfelt lyricism, La Fenice succeeds, like a Mahler Symphony, in capturing a whole world. This stunning recording confronts us with pianism of an entirely different order to that encountered elsewhere; in short, this is what musical genius sounds like.