“I think it’s a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one’s self.”
Arthur Miller put that line in the mouth of a character from After the Fall, which premiered on Broadway in 1964. It’s an argument worth reconsidering as we welcome a new album bearing the same title from Keith Jarrett, a pianist with rare perspective on both the merits of self-reliance and the grasping pursuit of hope.
Jarrett’s After the Fall, which arrives Friday on ECM, is a 20-year-old concert recording of his trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. A justly celebrated group long known as the Standards Trio, it’s no longer an active concern — a fact that would imbue any new archival release with a bittersweet air.
But this buoyant, boppish album comes loaded with additional context, without which it can easily be enjoyed but only partly understood. Back in 1996, Jarrett fell prey to chronic fatigue syndrome, a mysterious and debilitating illness. He forced himself to finish a solo tour in Italy, and then retreated to his home, uncertain as to whether he’d ever perform again.
Jarrett has recently revisited this season of desperation, discovering gold in those hills: last year he released recordings from the solo tour as a 4-CD boxed set, A Multitude of Angels. (We delved into that music this time last year.)
The other bookend, it turns out, is After the Fall. Recorded from a board mix at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, it’s the performance that broke his silence, in a flicker of postlapsarian grace. The extraordinary vibrancy of the band is on full display in this version of “Moment’s Notice,” by John Coltrane.
In the liner notes for After the Fall, Jarrett refers to the Newark concert as “a kind of scary experiment,” a motivating target in his recovery. Earlier in 1998, two years into his illness, he had tentatively started playing the piano again. He’d even rehearsed the trio a couple of times, with mixed success. “I felt I had no option other than attempting a concert,” he recalls, “preferably near my house in New Jersey.”
NJPAC was a new facility at the time, but already up and running. Jarrett considered what he was prepared to handle in performance, and decided that bebop, as a lingua franca, would be the key. He had also spent part of his convalescence listening back to his own recordings, finding some of them heavy and overwrought — an issue he could now set out to correct.
“I’m not playing as hard,” he said in a New York Times article published days before the comeback concert. “I’d like to find a lightness — more of the sparkly bebop style. Instead of digging in, I’d like to be digging up.”
Or, as it were, digging out. The playing on After the Fall is crisp and logical, but above all it feels like a joyful release. Bebop is indeed the focus, and not only on tunes with an obvious pedigree, like Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple” and Bud Powell’s “Bouncin’ With Bud.” The harmonic flow and elaborative syntax of bebop amount to a code that these musicians know how to crack. They do so with irrepressible flair, often bordering on outright ebullience.
For this among others reasons, Jarrett-ologists will connect After the Fall to Whisper Not, which was recorded in Paris some eight months later, with a similar repertory. (“Bouncin’ With Bud” is that album’s opening track. It closes like this one does, with a sublime “When I Fall in Love.”)
But there’s reason to consider After the Fall as distinct, beyond its psychic circumstances. “Moment’s Notice,” for one thing, is apparently the first Coltrane composition committed to record by the Standards Trio. This “Autumn Leaves” begins in a boppish mode but gradually morphs into a groovy trance, instigated by a rolling DeJohnette solo. A fabulous “One For Majid,” by the late drummer Pete La Roca, feels broader than bop, becoming almost voluptuous in its cruising swing.
Still, swing is hardly a strict currency here. Jarrett employs one of his trademark funk vamps during a frisky “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” (The Newark concert fell in November, which means holiday decorations were already going up. Flag this one for your Christmas jazz playlist in 2018.)
What’s glowingly obvious throughout this album is the supreme intuition of the trio, as a social unit. Jarrett is setting the agenda and directing the action, a bandleader in unequivocal terms. But the trio contains an almost tactile manifestation of support, in the best and most generous sense of that word. What’s happening here would be impossible if not for the specific contributions of Peacock and DeJohnette, each of whom deliver gloriously. This is their reclamation too.
And the release of After the Fall, at this point in time, rings with complicated emotion: it’s a document of resilient return, but also a reminder that this trio now has only history to savor. The final concert by the Standards Trio took place at NJPAC too, in 2014, though it wasn’t billed as such. As Jarrett recently told me in an interview for JazzTimes, he had hoped for one last tour of Europe. But while the end of the trio left him with a sense of loss, he carries no regrets.
The trio enjoyed a 30-year run, after all, stretching far beyond any songbook grid. And Jarrett, following his return from the wilderness, racked up another series of triumphs. So After the Fall is an inspiring snapshot that also serves as an enduring reminder. Hope was on the line, that fine Newark evening, and Jarrett pushed to find it within himself. But he couldn’t have done it alone.