Keith Jarrett Tribute Album Strikes Right Balance

Bruce Hornsby, Joe Lovano, Bob James, others deliver idiosyncratic interpretations of pianist's tunes.

Tribute recordings can squeeze the life out of the original compositions, sometimes through overinterpretation, sometimes because the artists or tunes are just wrong.

As Long As You’re Living Yours: The Music of Keith Jarrett, currently in stores, mostly avoids the usual pitfalls and delivers some clever reworkings of music from the brilliant, mercurial pianist’s impressive catalog, which extends back to 1971.

Produced and conceived by Milan Simich, As Long As You’re Living Yours is a musical balancing act among artists as diverse as pianists Bruce Hornsby and Chucho Valdés, guitarist Andy Summers and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Such eclecticism is not out of the ordinary for tribute records these days — it’s almost de rigueur. But Simich, who put together 1995′s tribute to alto legend Jackie McLean, Jackie’s Blues Bag, has the knowledge and taste to make his new CD worthy of Jarrett’s music.

“The reason I came to Keith is that I had always been a fan of his music, from the first time I heard him with Art Blakey, to Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis, Dewey Redman, the trio, etc.,” Simich said. “I consider acoustic jazz to have become like classical music and is part of the canon, and in Western classical music, you don’t have to be dead for your symphony to be played.”

A pianist without parallel, Jarrett is at home playing any number of styles, from standards to Bach to sacred music to pure improvisation. But prone to histrionics and loud groaning, he gets something of a bad rap. His own compositions are sadly overlooked, partially because he never performs them.

“His music is very well put together,” Samich said. “You can pull them apart and they always come back to the basic song. Hopefully other people will start playing these songs as well.”

Big Sellers, Little Critical Acclaim

Jarrett started out playing in drummer Art Blakey‘s Jazz Messengers in 1965, then was picked up by tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who cut several hugely successful crossover albums with Jarrett in 1966 and ’67. In 1969 Jarrett played electric piano in trumpeter Miles Davis‘ explosive plugged-in band. After that, Jarrett became a leader.

In the early ’70s he released a series of improvised solo albums, such as Solo Concerts and the 10-LP Sun Bear Concerts, that were gargantuan sellers but earned him the derision of snotty jazz critics who accused him of self-indulgence. In recent years he has staked a claim as one of jazz’s most creative interpreters of standards, making several impeccable albums with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock.

His latest album, The Melody at Night, With You, an album of mostly standards played solo, is a crowning achievement.

Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who contributes a swinging rendition of Jarrett’s “Shades of Jazz” (RealAudio excerpt) to As Long As You’re Living Yours, spoke of the 54-year-old pianist.

“I first heard Keith with Miles in 1971 after Live Evil came out, and loved his expression, sense of time and feeling. Shortly after that, I caught his quartet with Charlie Haden, Paul Motian and Dewey Redman. For me that was the next quartet after John Coltrane‘s quartet. The music they played, the interplay and beautiful dialogue that was happening, really inspired me to play in that world of music.”

Light years removed from Lovano’s tune is the pairing of
Salerno-Sonnenberg with contemporary jazz pianist Bob James for a beautiful note-for-note reading of “Book of Ways 9″ (RealAudio excerpt). Hornsby’s rendition of “Backhand” (RealAudio excerpt), from Jarrett’s record of the same name, places the tune’s melody up front and drenches it in New Orleans gumbo. Simich took an inspired risk on “Innocence,” a ballad from Jarrett’s Nude Ants and Personal Mountains, asking tenor player George Garzone to superimpose the melody over the chord changes to “I Got Rhythm.” It works, with Garzone bobbing and weaving through the tune with great agility and creativity.

Tracklist With A Purpose

Simich also is shrewd. He begins the record with the Hornsby cut because, he said, “Few folks will sit through a 70-minute disc, or program their disc players. We need to get people right into it immediately, or they will go sell it for three dollars.”

As Long As You’re Living Yours falls into the eclectic-tribute-album category pioneered by producer Hal Wilner, who put together homages to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill and Walt Disney in the ’80s using such musicians as alto sax player John Zorn, bandleader Sun Ra and rockers Sting, Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull. Simich acknowledges a debt to Wilner, but for a different reason.

“I was more influenced by the TV show Wilner did with David Sanborn called “Night Music.” One night they had Sonny Rollins with Leonard Cohen. What a great idea! When it worked, it worked. That was more of an influence than the records. The show has always stuck in my mind. It was a way to get out of the jazz ghetto, so to speak.”

According to a Jarrett spokesman, when the pianist was asked for permission to use his music for the tribute, he said, “Sure. Good luck.”

After he heard As Long As You’re Living Yours, Jarrett reportedly said, “Some tunes are interesting, some are not.”