"Every time we play, we might be playing the same material, but it's a new planet."
– Keith Jarrett
For fifteen years now, the trio of Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette has been mining the American songbook of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and with results that no one could have predicted. Proposed originally, in 1983, as a one-off recording session – a session so successful that it yielded three albums (Standards, Vol. 1, Standards, Vol. 2, and Changes) – the "Standards" project has proven inexhaustible. In the meantime, the Jarrett Trio is unchallenged as the most popular piano trio of our era, commanding also the respect of the critical community worldwide. As the Los Angeles Times said, "Simply put, this is jazz at its best." The trio's last release, the six-CD At The Blue Note, notched up numerous awards including Album of the Year in the Down Beat Critics Poll, the Musica Jazz Critics Poll, and in France's Jazzman; the set also received the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik.
Keith Jarrett had several goals in mind when he launched "Standards". In the first place he felt a reappraisal of the craftsmanship of the American songwriter was overdue. "Standards are underestimated," he said, "because I don't think people understand how hard it is to write melody. Most of the composers I've recorded [on the Standards albums] are not considered 'serious' yet, they occupy a space that no one in serious composition could occupy." Yet at the same time, the tunes themselves do not define or limit what happens in the music. "I thought someone could show that music wasn't about material. I wanted to say that we don't possess this, this isn't our music. If you own anything you're not free."
The trio format, Jarrett feels, is unsurpassable for work of this kind. "With the trio, nothing is outlawed. There's no time that Jack has not to play, there's no time that Jack has to play. Gary, if he stops playing, I have the bass of the piano. There's a way of interacting that takes all responsibility away from any direction. Three is a strong number anyway. Positive, negative and neutral. We need all things: we need pro, con, and mediator..."
The newest addition to the trio's discography, its 12th release, was recorded in Tokyo's Orchard Hall in March 1996. Standards played are "It Could Happen To You", "Never Let Me Go", "Summer Night", "I'll Remember April", "Mona Lisa", "Autumn Leaves", "Last Night When We Were Young", "My Funny Valentine", Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce", and Bud Powell's "John's Abbey". As has often happened in the past, the trio's improvising leads them also to Jarrett originals, "Last Night When We Were Young" seguing into "Caribbean Sky", "My Funny Valentine" into "Song."
Since the 1970s, and particularly since The Sun Bear Concerts, Japan has been one of the staunchest strongholds of support for Keith Jarrett. With the Orchard Hall concert, however, he expanded his fanbase in an unexpected direction. The concert marked, in the words of promoter Toshinari Koinuma, "the unforgettable moment that the imperial family and the public shared the world of jazz for the first time. Keith had added a significant new page to Japanese history. This was the first royal concert in jazz in Japan with the Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako in the audience."
The anecdote need not detain us long in the west; there is a strong likelihood that also without royal patronage the concert would have been "unforgettable". This sparkling performance in Japan maintains standards, in every sense.
As Keith Jarrett said to American magazine Jazziz, "I'm actually proud of the consistency we've been able to have over the years. I think it's a legitimate thing to be proud of." The Standards Trio's achievement is indeed, in the words of England's The Observer, "a triumph of sustained creativity."