Keith Jarrett: Staircase (ECM 1090/91)

 

Keith Jarrett
Staircase

Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded May 1976 at Davout Studio, Paris
Engineer: Roger Roche
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Staircase is Keith Jarrett’s fourth solo piano album for ECM, and his first after the previous year’s Köln Concert. In contrast to his earlier studio effort, Facing You, Jarrett elides romantic titles in favor of four singly marked suites in this entirely improvised studio session. Like every carefully chosen word of a William Carlos Williams verse, Jarrett’s equally lyrical insights plough to the heart of the matter like no others.

The title work gives special insight into the pianist’s improvisational process. Atop a foundation of steady syncopation, he constructs a helical tower. Rather than expanding it into a broader sound palette, however, he works his way into every crevice. Ever the master builder, he approaches melodies as if they were bricks to be laid. Upon these he takes careful steps, taking care to rest his fingers upon ivory like toes upon stone. And though he may stumble, there is always a counterbalancing action waiting in the wings, swooping down like an owl from the rafters, pulling a thread in its break to that final microscopic strand.

While Jarrett often works wonders with variations, in the first part of “Hourglass” we also experience the reverse. With great vibrancy, he rolls through its spiritual-infused fields like a child tumbler. Yet this is only a prelude to Part II, in which the ecstasy of elegy blinds us with its 14-minute plenitude. Jarrett’s crisp yet fluid arpeggios run across the keyboard with the fullness of a life that has much to give still. Every note in the left hand is a feather tested by the heavy air of the right. And as every utterance floats ever so gently to the waters below, it traces a zigzag of arcs in the winds of our slumber.

Like the angled shadow of its eponymous timepiece, Part I of “Sundial” appears still when we look at it directly, and only seems to move when we do not. It is at once frozen and highly animate, pulling existence forward with every intangible revolution. Jarrett sings with a genuine croon, holding his breath through the keys. This music is his respiration, and he concludes it on a forgiving sigh.

The three-part “Sand” rises in large handfuls before being thrown into the air. We listen, enthralled, as Jarrett scours the landscape, picking up every last grain. He places them into the hourglass, which he rests on a nearby sundial before ascending the staircase out of sight.

Though difficult to spot in the shadows of other many fine solo outings, there is an essential quality to Staircase that one rarely finds in the confines of a studio. Jarrett accomplishes something much greater than music here, flushing out details like a biological organism developing in reverse, so that by the end we return to the music’s infancy, where the corruptions of a nurturing world fail to wreak havoc on a tender mind. There is a method to his seeming lack thereof, and its name is “now.”

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