Jarrett’s Radiance shines through in latest endeavor

By Eric Benson

Keith Jarrett has never aspired to modesty. At the age of 26, Jarrett recorded an album of completely improvised solo piano, shunning the safety nets of accompaniment and song structure in order to reach an unalloyed form of personal expression. Since that album, Facing You, Jarrett’s solo recordings and concerts have been both fetishized and reviled, assuming a place as the signature works of his long and multi-faceted career.

Jarrett was a member of both the Charles Lloyd Quartet and Miles Davis’s first fusion band. He has helmed groups featuring luminaries like Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. Over the past two decades, he has led one of the more significant piano trios in jazz history. And yet his name will always connote the combination of audacity, nerve, and arrogance required to take the stage alone with no plan other than improvisation.

Radiance, the eleventh installment in Jarrett’s continuing saga of solo piano improvisations, is an indulgent, diverse, and utterly fascinating piece of work. The album was recorded at a pair of concerts two and a half years ago in Osaka and Tokyo, the latter marking Jarrett’s 150th performance on the fertile jazz soil of Japan. A certain grandeur and scope have always characterized Jarrett’s solo performances, and Radiance, spanning two hours and 20 minutes, is no exception.

Jarrett’s improvisations are sprawling, but he miraculously avoids tedium by imbuing even his most abstruse moments with eager buoyancy. Many pianists who have attempted similarly ambitious projects fail when their deep introspections lose touch with any rhythmic framework. Jarrett’s genius as an improviser is his ability to combine freedom with structure; his ideas seem to emerge from the wilderness of his subconscious, yet they are always assembled into a coherent rhythmic and compositional form.

While Jarrett has maintained his profound attention to structure, Radiance marks a shift in his approach to the larger form of the performance. In his early recordings, Jarrett discovered the outline of a theme, then explored and reprised it, giving the entire concert a narrative arc. The Osaka portion of Radiance is made up of 13 pieces, each of which explores the thematic ideas of the piece immediately previous to it. Thus, instead of a long arcing structure, Jarrett has created a linear journey in which each successive piece becomes further removed from the original.

The benefit of this conceptual framework is the incredible textural diversity that it creates in the project as a whole. Jarrett goes through a plethora of improvisational moods on Radiance, where dense, dissonant chord clusters alternate with triumphant, almost pop-like melodic riffs. A lesser artist would fail to connect such disparate stylistic trends. The pieces on Radiance, however, are finely woven together, allowing Jarrett to plunge into each track’s aesthetic potential without worrying about losing the album’s greater voice.

While Jarrett masterfully creates a structure that heightens improvisational freedom and diversity, the sheer scope of Radiance occasionally overwhelms his best efforts. Two and a half hours of unaccompanied improvisation will inevitably produce certain moments that are more transcendent than others. At the end of the Osaka segment, Jarrett seems to lose some of his buoyancy, dulling the beauty and intensity of the music. The penultimate track of the Tokyo segment shares a similar fate; without a rhythmic mooring, it drifts into a repetitive, brooding sound. Yet these moments of monotony are exceptions on a tremendously inventive album.

Listening to Radiance is an exhausting exercise. Some of Jarrett’s earlier albums of solo improvisation were accessible to the point of edging on pop sensibilities. Indeed, Jarrett’s 1975 release The Köln Concert is the best-selling album ECM ever produced, a consequence of both its cultural cache and its gleeful musicianship. There are several tracks on Radiance that reprise the sensibilities displayed on The Köln Concert, but Jarrett has long since matured as an artist. Many of the tracks on Radiance are dark and haunting where The Köln Concert was earnest and youthful. Yet the buoyant rhythmic drive that propelled The Köln Concert to its bestseller status still hums at the core of Jarrett’s music. Perhaps it is Jarrett’s boyishness that makes him brave and arrogant enough to attempt solo improvisation on stage. Certainly it is Jarrett’s boyishness that saves Radiance from the unfocused meandering that so often plagues solo improvisations. The music on Radiance can be joyful, moody, or abstract, but in every disposition, Jarrett’s piano sings.