Last night was as the French would say, un moment fort. A strong moment – hearing Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack deJohnette play together under the pines at Juan-les-Pins on the Côte d’Azur. It was a 6 hour round-trip from Montpellier, (of which more in a separate post), and worth every minute. Here’s a long post about it.
The Keith Jarrett Trio‘s been together for 26 years, and has played Juan-les-Pins for for ten consecutive years. You’d forgive the guys if they treated their annual French appearance as a cushy retirement gig. But on the basis of what I heard in July 18th, 2009, these greying musicians are really, really still on the top of their game.
The setting at Juan is extravagantly romantic: an open-air stage with the Mediterranean as the backdrop, the audience gathered under stone pines as cicadas chirp into the evening and the hills behind Cannes fade to purple.
But this is France, and nothing is totally perfect. In my section, the arrival of the trio onstage was spoiled by a brief, sharp argument between a man and a woman as to whether she was allowed to smoke during the concert. But the crowd settled and Jarrett’s opening cantata eventually threaded into On Green Dolphin Street.
The first few numbers were stretching exercises, three musicians slowly reconnecting. Critical mass was acheived three songs in, as they teased Johnny Mercer’s I Thought About You to a slow-burning climax. Keith’s phrasing on the second four of the head (the “I thought about you” lyric) was witty, held back an extra millisecond just like Miles used to do in the 60s. The guys were smiling – you could tell they were enjoying themselves, and this song was possibly the musical highlight of the evening.
Seeing these musicians on stage somehow makes you hear new and different aspects of their music. In the flesh, Keith Jarrett’s debt to Ahmad Jamal and Bud Powell is more blatantly obvious than on the ECM albums.
These days, Gary Peacock looks for all the world like a gangly grandfather from Florida, in sweatpants. On record he sounds fluid, almost ethereal, and yet live on stage his phrases are as metrical as a Bach fugue.
Heard live, you realise Jack deJohnette is not a kit drummer – he’s a guy whose central business is, simply, to play his snare drum. The other items on stage with him are placed there to make Jack’s snare drum sound even better.
The second half was full of references to the Trio’s past, including Clifford Brown’s Sandu – recorded on the Trio’s 1999 Paris album. It started at medium-up, propelled by Jarrett’s rollicking blues chops, before Gary and Jack curbed Keith’s enthusiasm and pulled it back to a stately hard-swinging medium: proof that even masters can disagree on tempo, and they can make flawless mid-course corrections.
Later on, a balladic outro melded into a 10-minute long ostinato groove, like a gamelan cycle on a single chord. Jarrett’s insistent pentatonic runs recalled the best of his Köln Concert-era solo work. It seemed clear that this passage of play was a completely unplanned part of the concert, and the grins on stage confirmed it.
After a cleverly-disguised version of Round Midnight (Monk’s music always appears in the Trio’s concerts, noblesse oblige), the show was over. But the crowd was having none of it, calling the group back for THREE (count’em) encores.
First up, Butch and Butch was a twisty bebop showpiece for Jack’s drumming. More standing ovations brought the guys back for When I Fall in Love (sort of the Trio’s theme song), and it seemed that the tender ballad was meant to lull the audience into heading home quietly while contemplating the play of lights on the waterfront.
But the crowd wasn’t leaving. Keith, Gary and Jack re-emerged and re-ignited the stage with a long, gospel funk version of God Bless this Child. Everything came together. The swaying groove revived the ghosts of Jarrett’s 1970’s American Quartet with Gary digging deep into the pocket. Jack’s snare and hi-hat summoned memories of the lines he laid down exactly 40 years ago on Bitches Brew, just a couple of weeks after Aldrin and Armstrong came back to Earth.
If this wasn’t the best concert I’ve ever heard, it was close. For these musicians, age does not seem to weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun on the Mediterranean coast, even the cicadas in the pine trees shut up and listen.
(Musician images taken at soundcheck at Juan-Les-Pins in 2008 by Guillaume Laurent. Creative Commons license.)