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*** 1/2 KEITH JARRETT, "La Scala," ECM

June 01, 1997|Don Heckman

Twenty years, almost to the month, after Keith Jarrett performed the music on his now-classic Koln Concert recording, he was once again playing solo improvised piano before an audience of entranced European listeners. The concert, which took place in Milan's Teatro alla Scala in February 1995, is reportedly the first solo jazz event produced at that legendary venue and is a stunning example of Jarrett's mastery of this unusually demanding style of performance.

When he played his first solo concerts in the '70s--events that were completely spontaneous inventions, with no written music or thematic starting points--Jarrett was exploring new territory. Only a performer with his combination of improvisatory talent, classical proficiency and sheer creative imagination could have created such a profoundly absorbing array of extended extemporizations.

His decision to venture into solo improvisation directly reflected Jarrett's persistent desire for spontaneity--a need to work upon a blank canvas, a need so imperative that it impacts every aspect of his diverse musical activities.

"It is the individual voice, present to itself, that needs to be heard," Jarrett wrote in a New York Times article a few years ago. "We need to hear the process of a musician working on himself."

In doing so, Jarrett, who was simply trying to find a new expressive outlet for his erupting creativity, had no idea that he was opening the door for a generation of solo pianists. But he was, and the players who followed, many in the New Age category, were clearly stimulated and inspired by his work, even though none has been able to match the awesome breadth of his musical conceptions.

The fact that Jarrett is now seriously ill, reportedly with chronic fatigue syndrome, and has canceled all of his public performances for this year, lends a special cachet to this outing, his first solo recording in a few years. The program consists of two extended improvisations--the first, "La Scala, Part 1," clocks in at 44:50; the second, " La Scala, Part 2," at 27:42--and an unexpected, but completely delightful, rendering of "Over the Rainbow."

Typically, Jarrett's improvisations defy description, organically unfolding passages through revelatory musical landscapes. What can be said about these performances is that they are demanding and intense. There are moments, especially in the second part, that bristle with hard-edged, rapid-fire, kinetic energy. And, although there are passages tinged with quiet serenity and gentle romanticism, with occasional ethnic rhythms and floating modal segments, this is music in which the pervasive feeling, even beneath the quieter moments, is restless and edgy.

Jarrett would be the first to resist the superimposition of programmatic ideas upon his impromptus, but this performance, in particular, has a uniquely current feeling, a push and pull tension that seems irrevocably connected to the anxieties and stresses of the mid-'90s. As such, it is one more example of the fashion in which jazz and jazz-related music have the capacity to provide subtle, reflective, meaningful metaphors for the complex energies of contemporary life.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent).

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