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Keith Jarrett European Quartet LIVE “Spiral Dance”

Keith Jarrett European Quartet LIVE “Spiral Dance

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Also known as the Scandinavian quartet, Jarrett’s alliance with Jan Garbarek (tenor and soprano sax), Palle Danielsson (bass), and Jon Christensen (drums) stood in smooth contrast to the American quartet’s restlessness. Common to both groups was Jarrett’s brilliant writing and a few free and ethnic tangents.

Their first album Belonging was recorded in the heyday of the American quartet, but they only became a working unit after the Americans had dissembled. Considering all the compositions Jarrett wrote for both groups, it cements him as one of the most creative jazz artists of the 1970s, all without playing a lick of fusion. Not that the history books or politicians make much mention of it.

Discography

Belonging
Apr. 1974 / ECM

This is one of the most accessible and just plain fun albums in the KJ catalog. The six compositions feature Jarrett’s knack for gospelized grooves (“Long as You Know You’re Living Yours”) along with a new lyrical realm (“Blossom”, “Belonging”). “Solstice” is geared to the players’ pensive romanticism and develops a heavenly vamp at the end.

“The Windup” is an ebullient hoedown with partly unaccompanied solos, and the taut “Spiral Dance” features what might be my favorite Jarrett melody ever. The only improv in “Spiral Dance” is Palle Danielsson’s bass solo, but the track is more about groove than soloing.

Jarrett sounds completely at home with this group. He’s very supportive of Jan Garbarek, whose icy sax tones, in turn, sound like a spiritual extension of Jarrett. I find Garbarek intriguing and bit puzzling, even after years of exposure. His sound is steely cold, but he can come down to earth in his tougher phrases. In the end, along with the compositions, the piano really makes the record as enjoyable as it is. From the hip comping in “Spiral Dance” to the joyousness of “The Windup”, Jarrett’s enthusiasm is irresistible.


My Song
Nov. 1977 / ECM

Even though I prefer Belonging, I’d say My Song has certain superiorities: the band is more unified, the solos are generous and superb, and the recording exemplifies ECM at its best. (By the way, even though I’ve probably used the phrase elsewhere, I don’t hold “the ECM sound” as a constant. Some of the label’s records sound much better than others.

I have no idea what the engineers were trying to do to Dave Holland’s drummers in the 1980s, for example. But generally speaking, the ECM honchos do pay more attention to ambience and detail than the norm. My Song is a near perfect recording. Belonging is good, too, it just feels a little boxed in.) You can’t really blame Jarrett for setting smooth jazz in motion with such consonant ditties as “My Song” and “Country”, even though they have a sweet face value.

Better are the mysterious auras of “Questar” and “Tabarka”, the latter nodding to third world folk. “Questar” contains an exceptional piano solo, whose frictionless lines preview Keith’s future standards trio. Garbarek plays gracefully on this tune as well. “Mandala” attempts to mimic the free-form style of the American quartet; it’s a little forced, perhaps, but the snaky melody is great and the album needed a shake-up of this sort.

All comes together in “The Journey Home”, which pines, dances, and muses in three parts. My Song is a lyrical album, occasionally profound, and very consistent. Not counting “Mandala”, I think it lacks tension, but you don’t have to go far into Jarrett’s past or future to get a fix of that.


Nude Ants
May 1979 / ECM

This rather messy two-disc live set from the Village Vanguard takes a step backward from the refined studio records, where not a note was wasted. Here, Jarrett instigates a lot of indulgence. He leaps from the piano to add percussion, prompts at least ten unnecessary minutes of the endless “Oasis”, and goes completely overboard with a melodramatic piano vamp in “Processional”.

If these new tunes were intended to place the quartet in new pastures, Jarrett does the most running around, while his bandmates trot behind, or in Garbarek’s case, mostly watch from a distance. It’s like Fort Yawuh in that a lot of chances are taken with mixed results. On top of that is a thinner recording quality, and it’s the one European quartet album where Jarrett’s piano vocalizations are noticeable and distracting.

All that being said, the brave listener will still find some strong parts, like the funky groove of “Chant of the Soil” – the way Danielsson and Christensen twist that beat around is sick. “New Dance” echoes the childlike joy of the sappier My Song material, and “Sunshine Song” is similarly lighthearted with good performances from all members. On the other hand, “Innocence” is disposable, and the overlong jaunts “Oasis” and “Processional” betray lot of anxiety.


Personal Mountains
Apr. 1979 / ECM

This CD of five live tracks from Tokyo was actually recorded before the Nude Ants gig, but it wasn’t released until 1989. It puts a proper cap on the quartet’s legacy, and it’s a high point of Jarrett’s ‘70s era. Two tracks overlap with Nude Ants, one being the sugary “Innocence”, which isn’t much different, and “Oasis”, which is. At the Vanguard, “Oasis” lasted a half-hour thanks to Jarrett’s nagging vamps, while this version has more focus. Garbarek plays a lot better in contrast to his warbles on the Vanguard version.

The exclusive material is among the best that Jarrett ever penned, including the austere jig of the title track, all displaced melodies and chords as stern as a memory of medieval Europe. “Prism” ascends beyond standard ballad status, even though it’s played in that style, and Jarrett’s solo is marvelous. In the soulful groove piece “Late Night Willie”, Jarrett again delivers a solo as well constructed as the tune itself. Much emotion echoes through these Personal Mountains and it’s far easier to recommend than its sister.

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