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A brilliant improvisation three decades in the making

Keith Jarrett, left, and Charlie Haden.

Jasmine

  • Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden
  • ECM

Two old friends get together one night. Long ago they had worked together, first in a trio, then a quartet, but they hadn't made music together in over three decades. Still, the guest has his bass, and the host a home studio with a funky old Steinway, so they decide to play a few numbers and see what happened.

Jasmine is the result, an album pianist Keith Jarrett describes in the liner notes as having taken three days to record, and three years to sort out. And man oh man, was it worth the effort.

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Even though it didn't start out as a social get-together - Jarrett was being interviewed for Reto Caduff's 2009 documentary on bassist Charlie Haden ( Charlie Haden: Rambling Boy) - it quickly became not just convivial but, as the best of these performances attest, an act of communion that brought out the best in two very different musical minds. Between his bright, luminous tone and effortless facility, Jarrett's playing seems almost to sparkle, a quality that lends a lightness and felicity to his improvisations no matter how melancholy the tune. Haden's bass, by contrast, has a dark, woody timbre that underscores the spare, deliberate character of his line.

What they have in common is an almost innate lyricism, and that's a dominant feature of Jasmine. Also in the liner notes, Jarrett describes the jasmine as "a night-blooming flower with a beautiful fragrance," and offers that as a model of what he and Haden tried to evoke with the eight love songs assembled here. Although some, such as Body and Soul or For All We Know, will be familiar to most jazz fans, many feel like fresh discoveries.

But that's less a matter of forgetting the originals than being wowed by how completely Jarrett and Haden have inserted themselves into the fabric of melody. Take, for instance, One Day I'll Fly Away, a lovelorn ballad originally recorded by Randy Crawford (and later covered by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge). As the harmonies undulate from major to minor, Haden and Jarrett gradually work their way into the chord structure, developing secondary lines that so perfectly capture the sweetness of the vocal line it's easy to forget that what they're playing is improvised.

Even when their approach is more straight-ahead, as on Body and Soul, the playing is so vibrantly original that it's almost a disservice to think of the songs as standards. Think instead of them as special, and hope that we don't have to wait another 30 years for the next convergence of this wonderful duo.

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