“Body and Soul” from Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden: Jasmine
In our insanely fast-paced, no dominant style, brave new world of the 21st century, if there’s anything that’s tantamount to a directive it’s impatience with staying in any one particular place for too long. But shouldn’t today’s zeitgeist where there is no dominant style be a time in which anything is equally permissible, including music that isn’t quite so restless? Even if it is, there seems something decidedly un-now about an introspective duo of two acoustic instruments playing relatively straight-forward—albeit extremely subtle and carefully considered—renditions of American song standards. Perhaps even more anomalous is the fact that the duo in question is Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden, who both have been harbingers of this era’s nomadic, voracious music-making.
For nearly a half century, Keith Jarrett has seamlessly blurred the lines between fusion, free jazz, and more straight-ahead approaches. He has even been active as a classical music interpreter and composer, and has been equally comfortable on piano, organ, harpsichord, and even clavichord. (On some early records he played saxophone as well.) There is perhaps no greater testimony to his ability to transcend genres than Jarrett being the only person ever to win the Polar Music Prize on his own. (Every other year the award has been shared by two or more musical greats from seemingly opposite aesthetic vantage points.) Charlie Haden, as the original bassist in the Ornette Coleman Quartet, helped to forever redefine what is possible in the context of small group improvisation. And in the fifty years since then he has been involved in an extremely eclectic array of musical activities from leading the wild, politically charged Liberation Music Orchestra, to performing with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Yoko Ono, to exploring Cuban music and bluegrass.
But despite such omnivorous and experimental tendencies, Jarrett and Haden both have a profound love for classic American songs, which has been the source material from which many of jazz’s greatest performances have sprung since the dawn of the genre. And Jarrett has frequently mined this repertoire in his longstanding and fittingly named Standards Trio with bassist Gary Peacock and percussionist Jack DeJohnette, which has proven to be his most durable performing group.
Like numerous recordings by the Standards Trio, the Jarrett-Haden duo session (titled Jasmine), evokes a bygone world not only with the material being performed and the approach to its performance, but also in the production values that went into making the recording. There’s no fancy multi-tracking or the opportunity for multiple takes. In fact, Jasmine was pretty much unrehearsed. It was recorded entirely in Jarrett’s home, and features him performing on the piano he practices on every day, a worn American Steinway whose action is uneven across the keyboard. The conditions under which this album was made are akin to the extremely vulnerable settings in which most of the great golden age jazz recordings were made; it’s a condition to which the present album successfully aspires.
Jarrett and Haden sound like they’ve been playing music together all their lives. Ironically, while Haden was part of the very first group led by Jarrett and that continued to play with him for nine years, the two had never previously recorded as a duo and have not worked together for over thirty years. The album opens with an expansive rendition of “For All We Know,” a 1934 ballad which has been championed by Diana Washington and Rosemary Clooney. They apply the same sensitivity to Victor Young’s “Where Can I Go Without You?,” a song originally recorded by Peggy Lee, who actually wrote the words for it, and which has been a mainstay of jazz vocalists’ canons ever since, having been performed by Nat King Cole and Nina Simone, among others. While the present instrumental version eschews Ms. Lee’s words, there are some occasional vocal utterances from Jarrett, Glenn Gould-style, as has been part of his own piano performance practice for decades.
The temperature really starts heating up, however, with the more up-tempo late ’40s tune “No Moon at All,” which in the hands of Jarrett and Haden sound like a full piano trio, with each filling in the appropriate rhythmic underpinning of the missing drummer over each other’s solos. Things get more relaxed again with Joe Sample’s 1980 “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” the only composition included herein that was composed after Jarrett and Haden last played together. The slower tempo gives Haden an opportunity to pull out his bow and take center stage for some arco bass maneuvers. But a fleeting 45-second piano solo, which is Jarrett’s sole original composition included on this disc, leads us back to earlier times, serving as an intro to Cy Coleman’s “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Mind,” another Nat Cole favorite which has also been sung by Nancy Wilson. Jarrett plunks down some deft scat-like piano figurations on what turns out to be the longest track of the entire album.
For me, however, the most miraculous feats from this bout of home music making, recorded over several days in March 2007, come during “Body and Soul,” which has been performed so frequently you’d think there’d be nothing new to say with it. That’s undoubtedly why Jarrett feels no obligation to state the melody directly and immediately starts things off instead with his own more elaborate paraphrase of it. Following that, he proceeds to go through a series of variations that reward all the more because, since the tune is so familiar, you can hear what he’s doing. Particularly thrilling is the way he contrapuntally weaves thematic ideas in both his hands as well as in inner voices. Then a little more than half-way in, it’s Haden’s turn to weave magic as Jarrett gives only the barest accompaniment. But Jarrett is not gone for too long, returning as the music builds to a climax with an almost chorale-like rendering of the main theme.
That’s a tough act to follow. But they do with “Goodbye,” a 1935 Gordon Jenkins tune which for many years served as the theme for the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Here it is much more subdued and mysterious. The album concludes serenely with a briefer account of Jerome Kern’s “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” which Jarrett has previously recorded as an unaccompanied solo.
All in all, the disc is an extraordinarily refreshing antidote to the treadmill of a workday afternoon. After hearing the disc several times, I was not at all surprised when I began surfing the web and chanced upon Jarrett and Haden’s observations about today’s typical listening proclivities (in the online bonus portion of their recent NPR conversation with Liane Hansen of Weekend Edition). According to Jarrett, “People are getting less nutrition by having too fast a life. There are too many categories and too many choices. We need to turn things off and then take some time and then listen to something selective.” To which Haden adds, “What a better world this would be if everyone had great ears.” Indeed.