It was the jazz event of the year. Maybe of several years.
The audience at the Wiltern Theatre Sunday night knew it. They knew, almost from the lilting opening phrases of the Keith Jarrett Trio performing "Spring Is Here," that they were sharing a rare and memorable moment in jazz in the Southland.
It was memorable because the Jarrett trio--which had not performed in Los Angeles in more than a decade--is one of the great musical entities in contemporary jazz.
And it was memorable because Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette were doing something very special and eminently worth hearing.
The Jarrett trio was reviving one of the essential contracts of jazz. A contract in which the musicians say to the audience, "We're going to do some improvising based on tunes that you know so that you can be part of the process." And in which the audience replies, "We're with you all the way."
Nothing complicated about that. But in an era that has only recently begun to move beyond two decades of lackluster jazz "originals" built over stretched out vamping and static harmonies, the Jarrett trio's excursions through a program of standards was a brilliant return to an improvisational style that pulls the listener into the music.
The results were extraordinary, an experience that seemed to be as transforming for the nearly sold-out crowd as it was for the musicians.
Jarrett played--as he almost always does--with the passion of a man possessed. Head moving, body weaving, his arms flowing with fluid grace, he repeatedly rose up and down from his bench, energized by the vitality of his solos. At peak moments, he sang along with his lines, occasionally uttering cries of satisfaction at an especially focused rhythmic coming-together.
Remarkably, his movements were a sort of visual extension of the music, drawing the audience to respond in kind, with an empathetic physical intensity rarely seen at jazz concerts.
The music fully justified the reaction. Jarrett's piano lines were soaring flights of imagination. He is always a melodic player, regardless of the speed or the complexity of the piece, and his phrases unfolded in an unrelenting flow of melody, shifting and changing with a kaleidoscopic array of color and emotion.
On ballads like "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "All the Things You Are," he produced segments that were literal recompositions, recasting the harmonies into dissonant bi-tonalities, using the chordal essence of the works as the foundation for rhapsodic expansion.
On the up-tempos--Sonny Rollins' "Oleo," Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser"--his fleet-footed playing, still melodic, still firmly connected to the tunes, came together with Peacock and DeJohnette in a manner that belied the great intricacy of the music. Together for more than a decade, the trio members constantly know precisely where the others are, a synchronous affinity that allows the rhythm to sizzle and burn without having to overemphasize the fundamental beat. Very subtle, very gripping and infinitely appealing.
All this from a not particularly prepossessing looking group of musicians: Jarrett, slight and studious; the white-haired Peacock, handling his bass with calm, unrushed ease, and the muscular DeJohnette, delicately working an impressive battery of percussion, never resorting to bashing. There were no light shows, no stage settings, no smoke pots and no back-up singers. None of the players said a word to the crowd.
But the Jarrett trio's music said it all: that the standard jazz repertory is very much alive; that straight-ahead improvisation continues to be filled with possibilities. And, above all, that jazz that reaches out, in a creative, sharing fashion, will find an enthusiastic, receptive audience.