The Survivors' Suite - Keith Jarrett - LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #49

A drone… a sound evocative of a seafarer’s horn. Deep, earthy, but above all furtive. A moan at first; a deep, earthy groan, as if nature itself were longing, to be reconnected with that which was lost. The yearning cry of the lonely islands shrouded in mist “like the hollow of a thirsty earth from which they broke off,” the folk-songs of ancient mariners, the vast expanse of water and sky, lonely, in solitude. Thus begins The Survivors’ Suite, with Keith Jarrett’s bass recorder playing the part of aforementioned haunting sound. As we are enveloped in our seclusion, however, mysterious semblances of bass and percussion paint an almost elegiac picture. The bassline, uneasy but regular, gives the track a backbone, its insistent presence like the waves or the tide, casting the track forward in its drift. With the eventual unity of the percussion and bass, the recorder is lost, and the track delves into quiet contemplation for a brief moment before a new sense of rhythm is established.

Rhythm and unity, that groove, is almost an established part of jazz, after all, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!” So it’s pretty daring for Jarrett, on this wildly eclectic session, to partly forsake rhythm for the sake of melodic and sonic exploration. Of course rhythm is not neglected entirely, but often just used as a means of punctuation, like any other instrument. After the somber introduction, The Survivors’ Suite continues in an uneasy frame of mind, with the stark bass and deep tympani giving a funerary feel before the track eases into a steady progression. Actually, eases isn’t the right word: there’s nothing easy about The Survivors’ Suite. It’s consistently avant-garde but listenable, challenging the conventions of “normal” jazz…the post-Coltrane horns acting in quiet unison before the snaking sax engages in a contemplative but harmonically devious solo. The track breaks down to give Jarrett some room for solo piano explorations, feeling his way through the chords, exploring some themes before the band rejoins him, repeating those themes, developing them and pushing the track on. I hesitate to call this “Free” jazz, but certainly the rhythmic improvisations are very free in their definition and adherence to rhythm. As I said, the music definitely doesn’t swing, rather it takes jazz in the opposite direction, a criminally unexplored area of improvisation. What exactly this area is I’m not sure… but Jarrett’s ensemble does it here. Never happy with being locked in a groove, a definable set of boundaries, the musicians change and drop so many styles you’d think it was going out of fashion, yet all continuing in the same melancholic sensibility.

Track 2 is different. This is free jazz. Opening with a barrage of cacophonic piano ramblings, skittering drums and wailing saxophone, it’s evocative of a terrifying storm. Such powerful drumming!  Such furious ramblings! Seriously, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard piano so loose and disharmonic, except perhaps in a Boulez sonata. Jarrett takes on his role of bandleader further in this second piece, leading a cagey, loose improvisation for a few minutes with his strong playing and ideas. At this point the music does develop a regular swing, but by no means a conventional one. Teeming to the brim for a good ten minutes, eventually the music loses its puff, calming down in a quiet dirge of mournful sax and mysterious recorder, momently regressing before bursting forth “with ceaseless turmoil seething” for an intense and gratifying conclusion. In a sense we have come full circle, almost as in a tidal motion. From the gently lapping waves of the opening movements, the more turbulent and engulfing exposition, the chaos of the storm in the second track, eventually receding back in the end to peace solemnity. This cyclical structure adds a much needed unity to the music, keeping it from being a mere exercise in freakishly odd jazz improvisation to a thematic concept, imagined by me or otherwise. If you like challenging, exciting and convention-breaking music, check this right out. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be reading this blog.
Words – Adam.

1 comment:

dominic said...

thanks for posting! Keith Jarrett has been one of the most original musical minds for 50 years now... it's pretty incredible. I have mad respect for his approach to the piano.

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