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Still three of a mind after 25 years

As far as Keith Jarrett is concerned, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette are the 'perfect' musical partners for jazz.

January 30, 2008|Charles J. Gans | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- The chemistry felt special right from the start of the January 1983 recording session when pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette began playing "The Masquerade Is Over," a standard covered by singers from Billie Holiday to Stevie Wonder.

They had gone into a Manhattan studio without rehearsing or any arrangements, but in an outburst of creativity they needed just 1 1/2 days to record enough material -- mostly from the Great American Songbook, highlighted by a 15-minute gospel-flavored, hard-grooving exploration of "God Bless the Child" -- to fill three albums instead of one as planned.

At the time, the three musicians hadn't the slightest inkling that this would be the start of a musical partnership that has lasted 25 years and counting. "If somebody had told me that, I'd say you're nuts," Peacock said, laughing.

"We just talked about we'll do this until we don't feel like doing this anymore, and 25 years later we still feel like doing it," said DeJohnette, in a telephone interview from his upstate New York home.

"I think partly the reason for that is we don't play together all the time . . . so we have a breath, step away from it and then come back fresh," added the drummer, who first began playing with Jarrett in the mid-'60s in saxophonist Charles Lloyd's quartet and later with Miles Davis.

This month, their label ECM marked the trio's 25th anniversary by releasing a three-CD box set, "Setting Standards -- New York Sessions," that reissues their recordings from that 1983 session -- the "Standards" albums, volumes 1 and 2, and "Changes" with freer-form original improvisations.

Jarrett's trust in his partners is reflected in the fact that in the last 25 years he has not worked with any other jazz musicians, except on one 1992 recording when Paul Motian filled in for DeJohnette. Jarrett says the trio members are flexible enough to play any jazz style and hate to stay predictable.

"If you meet the perfect other two people for your needs in a musical jazz situation, why would you force yourself to go around the corner and find other people to play with?" asked the 62-year-old pianist.

Back in 1983, it was a radical notion for a contemporary jazz musician to play standards because the emphasis was on original compositions. Jarrett had become renowned for his spontaneously improvised solo piano performances, such as 1975's "The Koln Concert," one of the bestselling jazz albums of all time.

Jarrett himself felt restricted as a composer because he had to tailor the music to the preferences of the musicians in his '70s quartets. When ECM chief Manfred Eicher suggested a trio album, Jarrett decided to record standards that he hadn't played much since the early '60s.

"This material was so damn good, and why was everyone ignoring it and playing clever stuff that sounds all the same?" Jarrett said in a telephone interview from his rural western New Jersey home. "We know how musical these songs are. . . . Jazz musicians don't have to always break down doors, there's music inside the rooms too."

The trio had previously played together on Peacock's 1977 album, "Tales of Another," which featured the bassist's own compositions. Peacock was initially skeptical about a standards album until Jarrett told him they would have the freedom to take the music anywhere they wanted.

"The minute we started to play, it was like, whew, there's something really special here," said Peacock, 72, speaking by phone from his home in New York's Catskill Mountains.

Since then, the trio has kept playing except for a nearly three-year hiatus in the late '90s while Jarrett recovered from chronic fatigue syndrome. But they came back strong with the 1999 concert recording "Whisper Not."

Today, the trio still doesn't use arrangements or even a list of tunes to play each set, instead letting each concert take shape based on the hall's acoustics, their instruments' sound and the audience response.

Jarrett says that to maintain freshness, the trio limits itself to only about 10 to 16 concerts a year. (They'll be at UCLA's Royce Hall on March 5.) But the musicians are aware that their next concert might be their last, given their various physical ailments.

"We have this desire to try to play the best music we can as long as we are physically able to," DeJohnette, 65, said. "We're senior citizens now, but we still have a youthful spirit about us."

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