A must-hear for fans of Keith Jarrett’s solo piano concerts.

Keith Jarrett – A Multitude of Angels [TrackList follows] – ECM Rune 2500-03 (4-CDs), 70:37, 77:12, 73:58, 75:19 [11/18/16] *****:

(Keith Jarrett – piano)

There is much to absorb on Keith Jarrett’s multi-CD set, A Multitude of Angels, which contains five hours of music—spread over four discs—of live, solo piano concerts held in October 1996 at four Italian cities: Modena, Ferrara, Torino and Genova. This material represents the last (probably final) time Jarrett played solo piano with no breaks within each set. It’s a minor miracle this documentation exists. For one, Jarrett was suffering from the onset of chronic fatigue syndrome. After these shows, Jarrett was sidelined for two years while he battled and ultimately came back from his debilitating disease. Another reason is that Jarrett’s label did not record these specific performances; Jarrett used his own DAT recorder (which had no glitches over the course of four venues) and two transformer-less mikes which went directly to the recorder: no mixing board or close-set microphones. The tapes sat, unheard by most, until Jarrett listened to them again 20 years later, and decided to release the music. Why call this collection A Multitude of Angels? Partially because Jarrett believes fate was on his side. He was fighting his physical exhaustion, but persevered. Technical issues with the microphones or DAT recorder could have caused problems. He had no hindrances with the pianos or audiences. And there is Jarrett’s sense of self-discovery when he heard these piano excursions again, and realized the music he fashioned was as compelling, passionate and wonderful as the when these long-form, spontaneous moments were made.

While there is a continuous arc of improvisation throughout each disc, listeners will find areas or sections which exhibit different aspects of Jarrett’s. The first disc, from Jarrett’s Modena, Italy appearance, has Jarrett’s lyricism on full display. The 34-minute opening track includes beautiful and stunning outpourings which meld jazz, bits of folk themes and echoes of classical music (nothing overt, rather a generalized similarity to European classical music). The 31-minute second track has a different flavor with a fluctuating vamp with a strong rhythmic determination, a groove-glinted gospel touch is prevalent, and Jarrett can be heard grunting along to the moving and intermittently driving cadences he crafts. Later during this second Modena part Jarrett conjures older jazz forms such as ragtime and other Southern jazz-laced accents, as well as modulations which comprise unexpected stops and starts, chordal blocks, but also flowing melodicism which reflects a spiritual or transcendent spectrum. The audio is occasionally marred by coughing from the crowd, but thankfully only seldom. Jarrett concludes the Modena show with an elegant, five-minute stroll through the ancient Irish song, “Danny Boy,” which provides another measure of picturesque solo piano emotionalism.

The second disc (Ferrara) includes three segments, which brandish lush extrapolations. The first, 44-minute musical trek integrates clipped passages where Jarrett leaves notes hanging in the air, crossed with slices of rhythmic components which have a metrical momentum. Jarrett regularly hums tunelessly as he improvises, a Jarrett convention which undoubtedly still annoys some fans. Discordance flits into the second, 30-minute portion as Jarrett shares explorative extemporaneity, seemingly about to get lost but always uncovering another new pathway. This is imaginative and probing music which may throw off some listeners while Jarrett heads out into non-linear jazz territory. Jarrett ends the Ferrara appearance with a short, 3:26, untitled improvisation which acts as a sort of summation.

The third CD, the Torino engagement, displays Jarrett’s gift for ballad-informed improvising. The 42-minute first half is replete with nuances and polished details. The music glows with warmth and stylishness, a light mixture of classical music inspirations and the kind of soft drama found in slower Cole Porter or Gershwin tunes. Jarrett’s Torino music is often bared to the essentials. The closing portion of the first Torino section investigates a repetitive phrase with an extended view of harmony and rhythm. The second Torino piece is a 31-minute discourse on breaking up harmonics, with flares of dissonance and tension. In the finishing half of the Torino performance, Jarrett does some intriguing soloing based on a blues vamp, which proves Jarrett could get fairly funky when he wanted to.

Disc four (Genova) offers a concentrated conglomeration of musical stylings, Jarrett’s diverse technical prowess, and some astounding and animated inventiveness. Jarrett enthusiasts should review disc four with attention, since it has some breakthrough movements. The disc starts with a 31-minute demonstration of Jarrett’s fast-paced inclinations where ideas flash past at a high rate of speed. That’s followed by another 31-minute foray, but here Jarrett focuses on melody, affable phrasing, and superb right-hand application. There are meditative instances but also occurrences of lower-steeped keenness. Jarrett completes the Genova concert with two encores, first a six-minute groovy blues romp where you can “hear” Jarrett smile as he happily hums to his revealing rhythmic undertaking. The second encore is a poignant reading of Harold Arlen’s enduring “Over the Rainbow.” It’s a song Jarrett aficionados will recognize since it is on other albums, and is a nice wrap-up to the five hours of material. A Multitude of Angels is a vital chronicle of Jarrett’s late-October, 1996 Italian visit. This lengthy artistry is actively creative but also penetratingly expressive, stimulating, and luminous due to Jarrett’s exposition and brilliance.

These CDs have a wonderful, very natural soundscape. Jarrett was engineer and producer of these recordings. That means he adjusted everything during sound checks to let his touch, dynamics, overtones, and shading come through suitably.  As he explains, these are things “that disappear as soon as you use ‘choke points’ such as mixing boards or anything with a circuit. All it took was a good pair of headphones and a knowledge of the pianist’s range (me, of course) to do successful sound checks, running back and forth from the piano to the chair [where his DAT was located] backstage.” Jarrett utilized high-end cables connected to his Sonosax DAT machine, and two Bruel and Kjaer transformer-less microphones which went directly to the recorder. The mikes were set about ten feet in front and seven feet above the floor. No transformers, mixing boards or close-miking was employed, giving the best unprocessed sound possible.


CD 1: Modena, Pt. I; Modena, Pt. II; Danny Boy

CD 2: Ferrara, Pt. I; Ferrara, Pt. II; Encore

CD 3: Torino, Pt. I; Torino, Pt. II

CD 4: Genova, Pt. I; Genova, Pt. II; Genova, Pt. III; Over the Rainbow

—Doug Simpson