The jazz musician who doesn't improvise is the chef who doesn't cook, the writer who lays down his pen, the ballplayer on the bench. Nonetheless, the famously quirky (and infamously temperamental) jazz pianist Keith Jarrett has decided to go straight in his new solo CD, The Melody at Night, With You.
The title makes clear his intentions: Here are eleven standards, ranging from the overworked "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good [250K aiff]" to (no kidding) the four-square "My Wild Irish Rose [258K aiff]," essayed melodically, with the barest minimum of interpretation. Jarrett says he was looking for the pure essence of the songs, but the result of his restraint is austere at best, vacant at worst. You're a better listener than I if you can find a fleck of passion in his pared-down rendition of "Don't Ever Leave Me" or a hint of invitation in the bare bones of "Blame It on My Youth."
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Maybe we should blame it on Jarrett's middle age. This experiment, conducted in the pianist's home studio in rural New Jersey, may signal some artistic reassessment or a mid-career turning point -- hard to tell -- but these plain-Jane meditations sound very much like he's practicing, and we have no business in the room. The best solo pianists in jazz -- the seemingly four-handed Art Tatum, thunderous McCoy Tyner, even the contemplative, ethereal Bill Evans -- give off sufficient fire and feeling that we feel privy to some wonderful secret, some passageway to the artist's solitary self. Jarrett's work here, in contrast to the transcendent dazzle of his earlier solo performances, feels pinched and a bit stingy. It's pretty in places (witness the minimalist splendor of "I Loves You Porgy"), but you wonder whether he begrudged even the presence of a microphone. It's not difficult to imagine Jarrett approaching his piano in the bright, clean light of a lab, wearing rubber gloves and a surgeon's mask.