By Don Heckman
When three musicians have been playing together as long as Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette have, it’s not unreasonable to expect a certain amount of repetitiveness to surface in their performances. Even the Duke Ellington Orchestra, for all its vaunted longevity, spent a good deal of its onstage time playing arrangements they’d played for decades. And, of course, the audiences for pop acts such as the Rolling Stones, would surely rattle the cage if the program didn’t included a healthy serving of familiar classics.
Small jazz groups, however, afford the opportunity to try something new every night, even between the same players. And few have made more – or even as much – of that opportunity as Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette, who have basically been on an exploratory improvisational journey together for more than twenty-five years. Yes, they often repeat the same tunes. But once the melodies are stated – often in dramatically different fashion – and the soloing begins, repetition comes to an end.
The trio’s appearance at Royce Hall Thursday night in a UCLA Live concert came barely a year after their previous booking in the same venue. Interestingly, there were a pair of tunes on the program that were also played in 2008: Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser,” and the old Jo Stafford pop hit song, “You Belong To Me.” And each was approached in a fashion recalling the earlier performance: the Monk blues as a wildly spontaneous, avant-garde tinged romp; “You Belong To Me” as a sweetly lyrical ballad. Yet, even in this relatively repetitive context, there was an exploratory feeling in the playing – stretching the envelope with the former, finding the melodic soul of the latter.
Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette typically spend a good portion of their sets playing standards, and this program was no exception, with the inclusion of the familiar – “Autumn Leaves,” “I Thought About You” and “Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries – and the less well-known “Once Upon A Time” and “No Lonely Nights.” The slower tunes were stunning displays of Jarrett’s capacity to make his lines sing, to find emotional timbres via the sensitivity of his touch. In the faster numbers, his bebop chops reigned, enhanced by occasional passages of impromptu counterpoint, several stunning long lines reaching playfully across the phrases of the song, some surprisingly Shearingesque block chording, and the empathic rhythmic groove carved by Peacock and DeJohnette.
In addition to “Straight, No Chaser,” a trio of jazz lines roved through the music’s stylistic history: Miles Davis’ “Solar,” introduced by a characteristically layered drum solo from DeJohnette; a light-hearted celebration of Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring”; and, unexpectedly, a stride style updating of James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout.”
All jazz groups – and especially those that deal primarily in improvisation – are potentially subject to inspirational hills and valleys. And the first half of the Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette performance had a few slopes in which imagination seemed less than optimal. But the second half – after the obligatory piano tuning – more than made up for the slight lapse. And it was in that segment that this remarkable collective again reaffirmed – as they have so often done in the past – the life, the vigor and the ever-fascinating new information that improvisational jazz, at its best, can offer.