At least in music. The term "free jazz" may bring to mind a free-for-all - horns skronking, drummers having fits, cats on the piano, and a guy sounding like he’s using his bass to dig out of prison - but in fact "free jazz," even the skronkingest variety, is an exercise in control and communication. Many of jazz’s finest minds have led expeditions into the realm, and their processes and practices have opened much new territory for others to explore. That doesn’t mean it can’t be difficult to wade through even once, much less over and over again. Still, every once in a while - actually more often than you’d expect - such sessions yield results that are not just interesting or provocative, but are works of wonder that reveal new secrets with every listening.
Pianist Keith Jarrett and his standing trio, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock, are capable of this sort of music - free, spontaneous, careless as a breeze but careful as a poet. Not only are they capable of it, they deliver it, and deliver it, and deliver it .... There are few collaborations in music that have been as fruitful or that have lasted as long (20 years and counting) as that of Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette. And few trios have marked such a broad swath of musical terrain with such consistent individuality, wavering between "in" and "out" like an indecisive electron. Even on the volumes of standards they have produced since the early ’80s, they seem ready at any moment to make a break for the out-there universe of free improv. Conversely, on their recent returns to fully improvisational music, they are just as likely to pick up an idea and develop it into a beautiful song.
That’s the game on their latest disc, Always Let Me Go, released last month on ECM Records (Jarrett’s label since the early ’70s) and recorded over two nights in Tokyo, Japan. This live two-CD set contains dreams murmured from the deeps of sleep and songs spun from pure glee. And, as on the trio’s Inside Out of last year, it’s all composed instantaneously and on the spot.
Jarrett jamming freely for 30 minutes is nothing new - he can keep it up for hours - but it’s as thrilling than ever knowing every time he goes to the piano nobody, not even Jarrett himself, knows what is going to happen. Add Peacock and DeJohnette and the excitement level triples, not only because there are now three brilliant minds at work.
If the anticipation is excruciating, the tension only increases as the music starts: a staggering, stuttering introduction on solo piano, lyrical head buzzing around inside a glass jar trying to get out. DeJohnette comes in seamlessly, his toms sounding like another set of fingers at Jarrett’s piano. Peacock struts in next with firm, fat tones that also could be an extension of the keyboard. Immediately there is easy rapport with amazing effects. DeJohnette’s drumming is a lyrical as Jarrett’s piano; Jarrett’s piano is as full of rhythm and texture as DeJohnette’s drumming; and Peacock adds patterns, fills, suggestions of melodies, playing a role between piano and drums, adding to the complexity and bringing it all together.
Seven or eight minutes goes by in a flash, and still the almost shapeless being grows and fascinates. DeJohnette takes the lead ... then Peacock ... then Jarrett ... dribbling musical ideas like a soccer ball across a vast pitch in a lonely sci-fi city. Twinkles, glimmers, shimmers, shifts, bursts. Is it that no one is leading? Or that everyone is following? Even Jarrett’s self-accompanying whines sound right.
Around minute 12, a new idea is introduced and Jarrett picks it up, turns it over, examines it with what comes across clearly as wide-eyed wonder. The trio falls into a relaxed though still energized pace. DeJohnette rumbles like nature; Peacock whispers commentary into Jarrett’s ear. Five minutes later another groove is born, a melody that could be an old traditional off Jarrett’s ’99 disc, The Melody At Night, With You, though it’s not.
The rest of the trio, as usual, is right there with him. At the same time, there’s the sense that it could all disappear in the next stiff wind, that the three have conjured up some devil from the dust and it’s only a matter of time before it returns whence it came. The first hints of the fate of their virtual life form come at 25:30, when DeJohnette staggers. Jarrett stands solid with his melody, but Peacock rips and tears, and the pianist begins to give. He wavers between in and out, between melody and abstraction, and then, 32 minutes after the start, the whole things ends with a sudden sigh.
That’s just track one of disc one, a little ditty called "Hearts in Space." "Waves," on disc 2, is another half-hour conjuring session, while "Facing East," "Tsumani," "Relay" and "Tributaries" clock in at 13 to 16 minutes, short jaunts by comparison but with no less ambitious itineraries. "Tributaries," for instance, starts out like wind chimes in the distance, but by minute nine turns into a nasty funk full of fire and sex. "Relay" is some crazy bebop stunt flying, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker playing tag in a park, and "Paradox," full of a similar sunny energy and fierce sense of play. "The River" is a lovely, wistful melody for Jarrett alone, a spontaneous three-and-a-half-minute tone poem.
There was a time when buying an album by Keith Jarrett was a risk; his musical questing often led places one didn’t want to follow him to. But now you can generally know what to expect on a Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette disc: technical mastery, searching sincerity, epic exploration, and nearly unerring artistry.