Keith Jarrett Gets Down on His Own

Keith Jarrett’s new album, No End, is a Jam Band of one.

No EndIf you’re shocked by any direction that Keith Jarrett takes, then you haven’t been paying attention.  The peripatetic pianist has recorded albums on solo pipe organ (Hymns/Spheres) and clavichord (Book of Ways). He’s recorded classical works from Bach to Mozart, including Bach’s Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano with violinist Michelle Makarski just this past September.  Jarrett was an early exponent of Arvo Pärt (Tabula Rasa) and took on the music of the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff (Sacred Hymns).  And let’s not forget his second album.  He followed his debut, a trio jazz release with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, with Restoration Ruin, a singer-songwriter outing with Jarrett crooning in a Bob Dylan impersonation complete with harmonica. In a case of foreshadowing, he played every instrument himself.

So when Jarrett decides to create a jam band with him as the only member of the group, you shouldn’t be surprised. No End was recorded in 1986, the year after Spirits, which used a similar technique of Jarrett alone in his studio, using two cassette tape decks to overdub himself, bouncing tracks from one deck to the other.  It’s the anti-Manfred Eicher/ECM Records recording aesthetic.

SpiritsBut No End is the yin to Spirits yang.  Spirits was soft and meditative, with wood flutes, recorders and tablas. While No End is dreamy in its own way, it’s more the dreaming of an after-hours jam in a New Orleans nightclub.  There is a drugged out, heroin suffused mood to this album, with vamps that could go on forever and solos that meander like cigarette smoke, all of which are interesting analogies for a musician who has long eschewed drugs and cigarettes and the culture that surrounds them.

The first track will have you popping the CD out to make sure this is a Keith Jarrett disc you’ve inserted.  It opens to shakers, a snaky, swamp-walk bass line and Jarrett soloing freely and melodically, not on piano, but electric guitar, evoking a backwater storyteller or an African griot.  In fact, there’s a lot of Africa in Jarrett’s guitar playing, with his terse, slightly reverbed tone and cross-picking lines that recall Ali Farka Toure in an especially dreamy mood. Some of these tracks, like the blues-inflected “VI” could’ve been on a Les Baxter/Martin Denny space-age bachelor pad album.  All you need are the jungle animal noises.

Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett

Jarrett’s drumming and percussion veer between congo village grooves to Muscle Shoals earthiness.  The bass, a central sound on this album, is sensual, probing and as rubbery as Jim Carrey’s face.  The only recognizably Jarrett signature here is his grunt, which you hear occasionally, but usually his vocalizing is turned into trancy choirs on “XI” or murmuring voices on “III”  On “IV” he gets an “Iko Iko” style chant going ala the Dixie Cups.

No End, like Spirits, was completely improvised and occasionally comes off as casual to the point of off-handedness.  On “XII,” he sounds like he’s tuning up the bass, literally, before it slips into an ostinato groove.

You could see No End as the ultimate form of narcissism. In the liner notes, Jarrett himself says that “the pitfalls of playing music in a band are the ‘differences’ between each player’s musical experiences.”  That’s something a lot of bands would celebrate, but Jarrett eliminated the differences, playing an ensemble music without the ensemble, jamming with himself in what could be perceived as an exercise in total self-gratification. But Jarrett is a multi-dimensional musician and he pulls off these jams as if it were, indeed, a band, reacting and coaxing each other along in his lazy haze of sound.  This is as earthy and funky as Jarrett has ever been.  And if you don’t drift away, he does slip in some piano on “X”.

John Diliberto (((echoes)))

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