Can a brilliant, accomplished musician surrender what he or she has learned and return to the utter simplicity of an untutored, spontaneous style? This is the question raised by pianist/composer Keith Jarrett's latest recording, ``Spirits'' (ECM 1333/34, also on CD). The album represents a marked departure from Mr. Jarrett's previous four jazz piano releases (the three ``Standards'' albums, plus ``Changes''), all of which were recorded with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette and were well received.
The new two-record set presents Jarrett by himself - playing hardly any piano at all. Instead it features a gaggle of recorders, a Pakistani flute, tablas, and other percussion instruments, as well as a soprano saxophone, a guitar, and his own voice.
All the music on the album was created in Jarrett's New Jersey studio using just cassette recorders rather than regular recording studio equipment.
In fact, in the liner notes he writes, ``The music was not recorded with the intention of release to the public.'' His aim, it seems, was simply to go into the studio each day, improvise on various instruments, and overdub different melodies and rhythms. Why he changed his mind and released an album isn't clear.
Though some of the music on it sounds contemporary and beautifully lyrical, most of the music has a distinctly ethnic or ``primitive'' sound, with rhythmic and melodic repetition that sometimes becomes monotonous.
Jarrett writes further that ``Spirits'' is a release, a flowing out, and that he feels there was a ``rightness'' about it. Indeed, he must have enjoyed sitting in the studio and playing all those instruments - experiencing an unstructured creative event. But I believe Jarrett's real talent can be found in his educated and inimitable piano playing.
I first met Jarrett in 1962 in Boston, when he was about 17 years old. He used to come to my apartment, along with a lot of other young musicians, to play jam sessions (I had the best piano in the neighborhood). It was the heyday of the jazz avant garde, and a lot of us were letting it all hang out - playing totally free, unstructured music, which sounded like noise most of the time but occasionally came together to create something exciting. Jarrett stood out to all of us as the guy with the real talent, the one who would leave his mark on the musical world. And in those days, his music was the most structured of anyone's in our group.
I, for one, hope he'll continue to develop his piano playing - especially the trio with Peacock and DeJohnette - and let ``Spirits'' find a minor niche in his ever-developing musical life.