Friday, January 09, 2015

Four free spirits: Jarrett/Redman/Haden/Motian, together and apart

Happy New Year to anyone who might be reading this!

Since I last checked in on DFSBP, I completed my listening survey of the entire output of Keith Jarrett's American Quartet and the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio that preceded it, a body of work that spans just under 10 years, from the May, 1967 session that produced Life Between the Exit Signs to the October, 1976 ones that yielded both Byablue and Bop-Be. I skipped over most of the Jarrett releases from this period that don't feature this band, though I did make time to revisit the pianist's excellent 1971 solo debut, Facing You, and to check out Jarrett's sketchy but intriguing 1971 duo album with Jack DeJohnette, Ruta and Daitya, and his stunted yet weirdly charming 1968 singer-songwriter effort, Restoration Ruin. (Fascinating, and in a way, completely logical, that Restoration was recorded while Jarrett was working with Charles Lloyd and already leading the Haden/Motian trio.) I did take a stab at Köln but it didn't really stick—I enjoyed what I heard but wanted to stay focused on the group recordings.

Conclusions, beyond what I wrote about the earlier records? Listen to these albums! Every one of them is worthwhile. In terms of the Impulse! period and beyond, which starts with 1973's Fort Yawuh, the ones that really struck me this time around were 1974's Treasure Island (which plays like a tidier sequel to the mighty Expectations, discussed in the prior post), The Survivors' Suite, Eyes of the Heart and Byablue. The latter is basically a Paul Motian album as played by the American Quartet, and it's everything you'd hope for from a session of that description. The two ECMs, Survivors' and Eyes, recorded in April and May of 1976, respectively, are mandatory for any fan of these players working together during these years. The former, in particular, is simply overwhelming, that rare jazz album that has a real narrative arc and isn't simply a series of performances. As the years went on, the American Quartet seemed to settle into a sort of comfy way of working, with the wild idiosyncrasy of the early-’70s Jarrett output crystallizing into a more or less predictable aesthetic; that is to say, you know you're going to get roughly one raucous burner, one gorgeous ballad and one world-music-y texture piece per record. There's not a dud among the mid-to-late period Impulse! releases by this band, but I admit that some of them—Back Hand, Death and the Flower, Mysteries, Shades, Bop-Be—do blur together a bit for me.

Survivors' bucks that trend in a big way. It does play with many of the same elements, but it feels entirely other to me, 1) because it's split into two big uninterrupted chunks, 2) because it's so packed with great writing and urgent ensemble performance and 3) because of the marvelous production values, which make the Impulse! American Quartet albums sound rickety by comparison. I only played it through once, but I felt absolutely spent afterward, wrung out. I feel comfortable calling it a classic, and the apex of these musicians' long, fruitful collaboration. I really wish someone had steered me toward this record sooner; seems to me like desert-island material.

Eyes is less monumental, but summons a similar kind of grandeur. An intriguing aspect of this album is the fact that, aside from Hamburg ’72, it seems to be the only album-length document we have of Jarrett, Haden and Motian working as a trio from after the point when Dewey Redman began playing with the group. Yes, Redman is on Eyes of the Heart, but—for reasons I haven't been able to fully verify—half of the album's roughly 50-minute running time goes by before he enters. As several Amazon commenters suggest, the intensity of the final section of "Eyes of the Heart (Part Two)," once Redman does begin playing, is extraordinary, so much so that it almost seems like a strange blessing that he's absent from what came before. Eyes is a mellower album than Survivors', but as with Survivors', the loud sections really go for the throat. ("Encore A" features some of the most ecstatically bashing Paul Motian drumming I've heard.) Chronologically, these albums sit within the greater American Quartet discography, but in terms of the listening experience, they almost seem like a little two-volume side project, during which these four musicians entered into some sort of collective trance and propelled themselves beyond where they went on any of the Impulse! discs, entering a truly elite realm. To me, if you're going to argue, as Ethan Iverson has and I'd second, that Keith Jarrett's American Quartet belongs in the jazz-working-band-hall-of-fame, along with, say, Davis/Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams and Coltrane/Tyner/Garrison/Jones, these are the albums you point to, particularly Survivors'. Both of these are records I need—and, more importantly, want—to spend way more time with.

I'm exaggerating, of course, but in a way, the American Quartet is a prism through which all jazz of this era (late-’60s through late ’70s, a period that's often been unfairly labeled as a low point for the music) can be understood. You have all these strains colliding in one band, currents crossing: alumni from bands led by giants such as Ornette and Miles, collaborators of major figures like Bill Evans, Charles Lloyd and Paul Bley. And just as importantly, you have three other budding bandleaders aside from Jarrett, who were working out their own respective personal aesthetics while helping to shape the group one. Just as Jarrett had when he was a member of Lloyd's and Miles's bands, all of these players made masterpieces under their own names during the time they were in Jarrett's band: Haden's classic duet sessions Closeness and The Golden Number, both recorded in 1976, not to mention the Liberation Music Orchestra's debut, from ’69; Redman's The Ear of the Behearer and Coincide, from 1973–74, albums which I've loved in the past but really need to revisit; and two remarkable Motian records, Conception Vessel (a nearly fully improvised album, featuring Haden and Sam Brown, a frequent American Quartet collaborator, on guitar, that to me feels beautifully empty of compositional, directional content in the same way that Survivors' Suite feels so beautifully full) and Tribute, from ’72 and ’74, respectively. (Also, it's crazy to think that just two months after participating in the July, 1971 sessions that yielded Jarrett's Birth, El Juicio and The Mourning of a Star, Redman and Haden were recording the immortal Science Fiction with Ornette, and that two months after that, they were doing this onstage with Ornette and Ed Blackwell. Still think the early ’70s was a fallow period? That's a rhetorical question; chances are, if you're reading this in the first place, you don't subscribe to that outdated shorthand.)

All of this music above rewards attention. All of it is worthwhile. And the tangled who-played-with-whom account above speaks to something I hinted at in the Jarrett post that precedes this one. There, I quoted an essential 2008 Ted Panken interview with Jarrett, in which the pianist characterizes his trio with Haden and Motian (the one that fed directly into the American Quartet), in contrast with his later group with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, like this: "The early trio represented three free spirits, and I chose them because of that." This "free spirits" concept isn't necessarily novel; it's a driving force behind just about any great jazz. But the way it played out in and around the American Quartet during the ’70s is really remarkable. The same way Miles or Charles Lloyd did, Jarrett wasn't just recruiting top players to staff his groups, he was also growing great bandleaders. The same way everyone seemed to leave Miles a great leader (Tony Williams, to name just one shining example!), or Jarrett and DeJohnette did in the case of Lloyd, so did Jarrett's "sidemen" do the same.

The more leeway you give, the freer you allow "your" spirits to be, the more cross-pollination you foster, the more leadership you inspire, the better your jazz is, the better their jazz is and the better jazz is as a whole. Yes, the American Quartet broke up, but its members took bits and pieces of that aesthetic and spread it ever outward, Jarrett himself into his European Quartet, Motian into a series of compelling groups that culminated in his landmark trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, Haden and Redman into Old and New Dreams (which, though of course primarily Ornette-inspired, could also be looked at as a continuation of the Haden/Redman partnership that started in Ornette's bands and only strengthened in Jarrett's) and beyond.

As with Miles's bands, and many other era-defining partnerships in and outside of jazz, Jarrett/Redman/Haden/Motian was impermanent, non-exclusive. "Fleeting" would be wrong because, after all, these four musicians did play together for the better part of a decade. But what I mean to say is that each artist had somewhere else to go, a personal destiny to fulfill, a freedom of spirit to realize. And these sorts of alliances, groups composed of equally masterful, equally distinctive, equally free spirits, each a born leader and an aesthetic dynamo in his or her own right, are where maybe the greatest pleasures in jazz lie. What a gift that this particular alliance, as well as its countless offshoots, was so well-documented.

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