Thoughts about Keith Jarrett and his “American” Quartet

As I’ve been reflecting on the passing of Wayne Shorter I found myself searching for friends’ commentaries on the internet about his life and music. This led me, unexpectedly to discover a very recent video interview with Keith Jarrett, which led to memories and reflections about the importance to me of Jarrett’s 1970s band, his “American” Quartet. And within the interview, I discovered that Pat Metheny had parallel thoughts.

Piano trios are particularly important to me as a listener and as a player. For me, this love really begins with the Keith Jarrett American Quartet. In college I heard the album Death and the Flower(1975), and two years later, I had the immense fortune to see the band at the Village Vanguard, playing Survivor’s Suite (release on record in 1977). I think I walked around in a daze for the next month. 

Death and the Flower was the first small acoustic ensemble album I ever purchased, even before Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and the Bill Evans trio recordings with Scott LaFaro. I was completely hooked, and I came to think of this band, with Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, and Paul Motian as the go-to, the ur-text of modern piano trios and quartets. Maybe all quartets, whether they were playing improvised music, or Beethoven, or rock music.

I’ve had Keith Jarrett on my mind this weekend because I watched Rick Beato’s December 2022 interview with the pianist. This provided the first images I’ve seen of him talking and, in fact, playing piano, with the one hand unaffected by his strokes. For me, the most telling moments were sequences when Beato and Jarrett listened together to performances from years ago, one an eye-popping solo rendition of Miles Davis’ “Solar,” and the other, an unreleased work composed for and performed with the Eastman Conservatory band. The camera focuses on Jarrett’s facial expressions as he listens, witnessing him experiencing those moments with intense fascination, and at times it is as if he is inhabiting the unfolding of the musical lines. You can find the interview on Rick Beato’s YouTube channel, uploaded in late February and linked below.

Early in the Jarrett video interview, Rick Beato inserted a segment of another video interview, one he did with Pat Metheny in August 2021. It led me to search out the full interview from which it was excerpted, also located within Beato’s YouTube channel (again, the link can be found below). 

I was fascinated to discover, that Metheny holds the Keith Jarrett American Quartet and its music in similar esteem. I rarely hear anyone expressing the level of appreciation that I feel for this Quartet and its music, and I think that’s a shame. Here are some excerpts of what Pat Metheny told Beato: 

“That band, the “American Quartet,” to me that was the last great acoustic jazz quartet. Nobody plays that music because it’s too hard… But that book of tunes he wrote between the American Quartet and the Scandinavian Quartet, to me that book of tunes has tunes… [even aside] from him as a player, just as songs it is the last great song book… And also, that band was such an unlikely band in a lot of ways. Dewey, you know, Dewey is such an enigma… [Jarrett] could have gotten somebody who could play inside changes in the most detailed of way. Dewey was this other kind of player, and that’s a lesson too. Don’t cast a band in your image if you have another way to do it; get people who are going to think different.” (from the 1:19:00-1:20:00 point in the video).

The band didn’t “only” provide a terrific, empathetic bouncing board for Jarrett’s pianistic excursions, but it paired him with the tremendously intuitive, responsive rhythm section of Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and it renewed the pairing of Ornette Coleman bandmates Haden and Dewey Redman.

The compositions, as Metheny points out, are wonderful, often unfolding gradually as they move through subsequent, sometimes contrasting sections. The melodies are beautiful and Jarrett’s harmonic language, a blend of folksy diatonism with the ii-V-I harmonies of the bebop songbook, is quite distinct. Even while I was on a several year “pause” from playing the piano, I periodically sat at the keyboard and played the tune “Death and the Flower.” In the late 2000s and early 2010s, this tune, plus “My Song,” and a reshaping of the extensive first half of “Survivor’s Suite” were regularly on the set lists of two of my trio and other concerts. The stepwise moving perfect fifths in the bass periodically shows up as part of my musical vocabulary, and I hopefully approached the music from my own angle. What a pleasure it has been to know this music, as a player and as a listener. I’ve placed links to two of my “Death and the Flower” performances.

You can find a version of “Death and the Flower” I played in 2017, an outtake from a duo session with drummer Tani Tabbal, recorded at Karl Berger’s Studio in Woodstock:

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And here is another from a concert in 2014, a memorial to a great college friend, performed here with bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan, drummer Tani Tabbal, and me) – it is the fourth tune in this playlist:

Here is the link to Rick Beato’s Keith Jarrett Interview:

And here is the link to Rick Beato’s Pat Metheny Interview:

[note: both SoundCloud and YouTube often have brief advertisements for x, y, or z prior to the start of the track]

~ by bobgluck on March 6, 2023.

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