Exactly one week from today ECM will release its latest recording of a solo concert piano performance by Keith Jarrett. The album is entitled simply La Fenice. It consists of two CDs documenting a live concert performance that Jarrett gave at La Fenice (whose name means “the phoenix”), which is the major opera house in Venice, Italy. Since 1792 this has been one of Europe’s major venues for opera performances, playing a significant role in providing opportunities for bringing the bel canto style to large audiences. Note that last adjective. The space itself is mind-bogglingly large; and, given Jarrett’s popularity, particularly in Europe, it is likely that there was not an empty seat in the house when his concert was recorded there on July 19, 2006. As usual, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for the resulting album.
Photograph of the interior of La Fenice taken at the end of 2015 (uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by photographer Youflavio, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)
By way of disclaimer, I should begin by stating that I have not personally attended one of Jarrett’s recitals, solo or otherwise. For better or worse, I have come to know his work only through recordings. This raises some interesting issues where a concert like the one given at La Fenice is concerned. For the most part the content consisted of a suite of eight spontaneously created pieces, each identified on the track listing as “Part” followed by a Roman numeral. (I say “for the most part” because Jarrett inserts his take on “The sun whose rays are all ablaze” from the operetta The Mikado with music by Arthur Sullivan setting the words of W. S. Gilbert. This takes place between the sixth and seventh improvised “Parts.”
The album also includes the three encores taken after Jarrett’s extended improvisation, which, presumably, was played without any interruption other than occasional brief interjections of applause between the parts. The first encore was the traditional tune “My Wild Irish Rose” (leading me to wonder how many times Jarrett had to deal with a drunk coming up to him and asking him to play “Melancholy Baby”). This was followed by Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight,” given a hard-driving bebop account in which the tune is far less recognizable than is ever encountered in one of Miles Davis’ takes. Jarrett them wrapped up the evening with a “documented” (as opposed to spontaneous) tune of his own, “Blossom.”
While I have not experienced Jarrett in concert, I have had the good fortune to enjoy a performance that was basically a full evening of spontaneous improvisation. That performance was given by another pianist, Cecil Taylor. I note this because, while the styles of these two players differ markedly, they agree on one strategic approach to performing.
In both cases the initial improvisation is longest, tending to be a suite unto itself that perambulates in and out of different thematic terrains and different stylistic approaches. Furthermore, Jarrett’s “Part I” is not only the longest track but the one that is very leisurely about homing in on a tonal center. Taylor was more likely to go the entire night without ever establishing such a tonal center. In Jarrett’s case, one quickly becomes accustomed to the lack of anything even remotely suggesting a traditional cadence; yet, by the time that “Part I” has run its course, the attentive listener realizes that there is a “focal harmony” (if not, strictly speaking, a “tonality”) hovering over his final measures.
Having exercised his adventurous chops in “Part I,” Jarrett frequently turns to more familiar genres or styles to provide orienting landmarks in the subsequent parts. Perhaps that gradual intrusion of familiarity is his way of preparing the audience for a take on a “real tune” taken from The Mikado. Ultimately, the sense of timing that Jarrett brings to both what he plays and how he plays it is so well crafted that it readily absorbs any serious listener. (You never hear any sound from the audience except when Jarrett provides a break for applause.)
Mind you, all this may well have been an instance of a recording crew being in the right place at the right time. (A friend of mine happened to be at a Jarrett solo performance in Davies Symphony Hall that definitely was not at the right time!) Nevertheless, whatever circumstances may have led to this document that will soon be released by ECM, that document will definitely reward those willing to listen to it attentively.