Anyone delving into Keith Jarrett’s solo piano music for the first time with this three-CD set will find the qualities that made him hugely popular in the 1970s. Romance, drama, startling leaps, and spins along pathways from one musical idea to the next—it’s all here in these live performances captured within a week of each other in late 2008. Longtime Jarrett listeners, mesmerized early on by the lush, long-form improvisations of Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne (1973) and The Köln Concert (1975), will hear additional twists—pithy structures and concentrated doses of fervor—that make Testament one of the most engrossing and thrilling of Jarrett’s many concert recordings.
Always motivated to transcend previous triumphs and audience expectations, and to experiment with formats and material (as in his Standards Trio), Jarrett tried shorter improvised pieces in the late 1980's (Dark Intervals), but returned to extended forms with Paris Concert (1990) and the sublime Vienna Concert (1991). In the early 2000's, however, he became dissatisfied with the strategy of “starting from nothing and building a universe.” During solo concerts in Osaka and Tokyo in 2002 (released in 2006 as Radiance), he began from scratch, as usual, but stopped when the music told him to, whether it was after 14 minutes of playing or a minute-and-a-half.
Then, in 2008, after a series of concerts in Japan that the pianist felt “hit a technical high-note in the history of my solo events,” Jarrett’s wife of 30 years left him. Suddenly, the notion of stopping and starting took on new meaning in his personal life as well as in his music. He “quickly scrambled to stay alive” by scheduling a solo concert in Carnegie Hall for January 2009 and then squeezing in earlier dates at Paris’s Salle Pleyel (November 26) and London’s Royal Festival Hall (December 1). He may have had doubts about how his “incredibly vulnerable state” would affect the music, but these recordings leave no room for questioning Jarrett’s ability to lose and release himself—to brilliant effect—in his music.
The above quotes come from Jarrett’s Testament liner notes. Essays and commentary, let alone such personal revelations, are rarities in ECM packaging. The confessional treatise is disquieting, but the real soul-baring comes in the music. Jarrett has always been a deeply expressive improviser, a fact underscored by his grunts and groans. But his playing here, without abandoning the cerebral element that creates the illusion of premeditated composition, feels as emotionally raw as anything he has ever recorded.
Ranging from just under four to just under 14 minutes in duration, these 20 cathartic pieces resonate with echoes of gospel, funk, tribal chants, New Orleans soul, Harlem stride, and free jazz, sometimes parsed into individual distillations, sometimes connected by crowd-pleasing segues. With lightning- fast runs, ringing ostinatos, rolling chords, fractured rhythms and dissonances, and fragile, lullaby-like melodies, Jarrett manages to evoke Art Tatum, McCoy Tyner, Allen Toussaint, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans, and a slo-mo music box all the while sounding more than ever like himself.
Sonics—from rumbling bass notes to tinkling trebles, from foot pedals to key action to not-so-distracting vocalizations—are almost hyper real, super sharp but deep, spacious, and true to Jarrett’s exposed humanity.