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Setting Standards - The New York Sessions

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Album Review

Setting Standards: New York Sessions, a specially priced three-disc set issued by ECM, marks the 25th anniversary of the "standards" trio formed by Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette at a very particular time in jazz history. It assembles — for the first time in one place — the first three offerings by the trio recorded in its landmark 1983 sessions for the first ECM outing of "cover" material from the Great American Songbook. That they have been together this long is remarkable in and of itself, making them one of the longer-running ensembles in jazz history. Even more remarkable is the fact that longevity is only part of the story; the vibrancy they continue to display is the larger part. The issue of My Foolish Heart in 2007 (also on ECM) is continuing proof that, even though this group is playing material that is well-known and has been completely spent by lesser musicians, these three artists know how to use these nuggets (being played to death by second-rate singers and lazy instrumentalists at the dawn of the 21st century as kitschy nostalgia) as springboards to the most sacred and sophisticated aspect of playing jazz: improvisation. Tunes and structures are employed by Jarrett and company as a matter of tone and theme, a topical beginning from which to expand a conversation.

Whether that song is the opening moment of Standards, Vol. 1, "Meaning of the Blues," or its hinge piece, "It Never Entered My Mind," or the latter two selections on Standards, Vol. 2, "If I Should Lose You" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily," the effect is the same: these three men can swing as hard as anybody, but they also investigate harmonically, rhythmically, and intuitively the far more subtle aspects these tunes offer as possibilities. Check the intros to both discs for more proof. Another compelling argument is that, given when these recordings were made, when jazz had entered its most reactionary period with the new conservatives like Wynton Marsalis rising in the wake of the backlash against the vanguard of the 1970s and more electrified current of jazz-funk and later smooth jazz, the records of this trio offered another view of the rigidity of the Young Lions at the time. The true respect and even loving view these three had for the canon is everywhere evident from the beginning, but it is not limiting. In fact, if anything, recordings like these offered proof that the tradition itself need not be guarded and held in the new cultural confines it was being courted with, and which sadly now is its "mainstream." Here was new grammar built solidly from the old, where one form of musical speech translated without misunderstanding to another.

The final disc in this set is not a standards recording. It is basically a pair of improvisations called "Flying, Pt. 1" and "Flying, Pt. 2" (then divided by LP sides), though they are credited to Jarrett. The first part is a little more marginal, but its lyricism is still flowing and immediate and it does not sound out of place in this collection. In fact, it underscores what has already transpired and the voice of what will come next. Gary Peacock's playing is stellar. His rhythmic pulse and harmonic foundation offer so much room and support for both DeJohnette and Jarrett to move around that he becomes an immutable but ever renewable force of musical language itself as it relates to the jazz idiom. The final moments consist of a six-and-a-half-minute improvisation called "Prism," which given its melodic structure and rhythmic flow is actually a Jarrett composition. It is pure lyricism, and a reflection of just how deeply the songs on the previous two volumes have influenced his own playing and composing, to be sure — but this is also true of the entire trio as a unit. Finally, it should be noted that this is the period Jarrett stopped writing for the most part, concentrating on classical music and playing standards, a tenure that has basically continued in his own work since that time. He has done solo improvisations in concert, but his manner of reliance on song, especially songs like these that came sometimes two generations before him, has become a musical journey in and of itself. And it is one that DeJohnette and Peacock share when they perform with him, extending not only the links in the tradition's chain, but adding new ones as well. In addition to the three discs included here, there is a wonderful new essay in the liners called The Art of Metamorphosis, by critic Peter Ruedi. It appears in both its original German and in English translation in the booklet.


Born: 12 May 1935 in Burley, ID

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

A sophisticated, forward-thinking jazz bassist, Gary Peacock is a subtle yet distinctive musician whose intuitive, sympathetic ear for group interplay has found him crossing from straight-ahead standards to avant-garde free jazz. While his intellectual curiosity has drawn him to such wide-ranging pursuits as biology and Eastern philosophy, his immense musical talents, most often associated with pianist Keith Jarrett's "Standards" trio, have kept him at the epicenter of progressive jazz and creative...
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Setting Standards - The New York Sessions, Gary Peacock
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