This terrific album marks pianist Keith Jarrett’s 40th year on the ECM label. A double CD set, recorded in concert in April 2011 at Rio’s Theatro Municipal, it runs to 1½ hours, but is notable for its concision. There are fifteen pieces here, the shortest being just over three minutes long, the longest just under nine, and they are worth considering track-by-track.
On this first exploratory number Jarrett sounds hesitant, unsure how to proceed, yet he manages to shape something memorably thematic from his improvisation. “Part II” is also initially pensive, but becomes at first stately, then lyrical. Jarrett really begins to settle down on “Part III”, which is almost jaunty with his growing assuredness. He accompanies himself with some soft scat moanin’, and there’s the first sure development of that recognizable left-hand pulse, in counterpoint to the more oblique flights of his right. Its conclusion is met with the first real swell of applause.
The four minutes of “Part IV” attains a remarkable delicacy of poise, while in “Part V”, one of the album’s highlights, there’s a real sense of tension held in abeyance until Jarrett unearths a strikingly lyrical theme. It springs forth with all the vivacity of song, only for Jarrett to subject it to a sequence of rigorous, dazzling extrapolations.
“Part VI”, which closes the first disc, is fractionally less impressive, but compensates with a strong internal groove.
The sequence of “Parts VII-X” is one of sustained brilliance. The lucid elegance of VII highlights precision of emphasis and delicacy of touch; VIII, more intricate in its arrangement, could be based on a transcribed pop song; IX has the delicate tracery of a butterfly; X is pure quicksilver dazzlement, as Jarrett’s inspiration literally tumbles onto the keyboard.
“Part XI” has a more traditional, quasi-boogie vibe; “Part XII” a satisfying mid-tempo lushness; and Jarrett’s wordless vocal in “Part XIII” has a reflective, yearning quality that highlights its poignancy.
The lighthearted and pleasingly direct “Part XIV” brings a deft change of tone, before Jarrett concludes the concert set with “Part XV”. He resists any urge to crown his performance with a crescendo, and finds once again that remarkable sense of equilibrium in 6.5 full minutes of circumscribed feeling. Cue lengthy ovation.
These aren’t improvisations in the usual sense. Jarrett mines blues memes and channels the ecstasies of spiritual music to create spontaneous compositions that – excepting the exploratory opening numbers – betray no sense of ad-hoc informality. Neither are they starchy or overly cerebral. These pieces are thrillingly alive.
Solo piano concerts are an art that Jarrett has been perfecting since he recorded his first for ECM in 1971, and there have been many since. Notable among them are The Köln Concert (1975), one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, and The Carnegie Hall Concert (2005), which marked his full return to vigor following a spell in the late 90s when he was laid low by chronic fatigue syndrome.
But the condensed brilliance of Rio marks it out as one of Jarrett’s very best, and it is the first place anyone new to his music should start.
Keith Jarrett – Sleeper – Tokyo, April 16, 1979.