The Meaning Of The Blues

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

What is the meaning of the blues? And if anyone knows, is it really all that likely to be Keith Jarrett?

Isn’t it far more likely to be Wynton Marsalis? After all, in 1983, when Jarrett’s Standards, Volume One was released on ECM, Marsalis was talking an awful lot about the blues. He was talking an awful lot about an awful lot of things: pop music, Miles Davis, Buddy Bolden, his own jazz pedigree, and under it all was always, of course, the blues. Marsalis is a black musician from New Orleans, after all.

Of course, for all Marsalis’s talk and outward appearances, his claims to the heritage of jazz are more often contested than not in the jazz community, while Keith Jarrett’s musical philosophies  – if not his attitudes towards his audiences – have weathered extremely well.

Perhaps it’s because even though Standards, Volume One was released at the inception of Marsalis’s neo-traditional movement in jazz, and though its concept of interpreting standards – and only standards – seems to fit snugly into that traditionalist moment, the Jarrett Standards Trio is a band committed to the music. Just the music. Unlike Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette are three musicians with a point to make, and they let the music make it.

That’s the point.

Aside from all this analysis of the context of Standards, let me just say that this record is a scary fucking record. It’s visceral in a way that standards records, even later ones by Jarrett himself, fail to be. Part of this is undoubtedly the fiery playing by the trio; at times, Jarrett’s fingers seem to overtake themselves, and Peacock and DeJohnette are dizzyingly adept at filling in blanks and intuiting musical directions. Part of it is surely the literally frightening array of sounds that issue from Jarrett’s mouth over the course of the record. But the really scariness of Standards lies in the combination of these two; monumental imaginings of jazz standards, seemingly by some kind of inhuman beast.

I mentioned that the Standards Trio lets the music make its points. That’s what allows them to take liberties with the tunes, liberties that suddenly, when heard, seem no less than the composer’s complete intention. The Jarrett trio can’t make their points any other way – their histories are too contradictory, or at least meandering, for that. All played avant-garde jazz at one point; that’s how Gary Peacock made his name, after recording surf-movie soundtracks with Bud Shank, and it’s what Jarrett did with Charles Lloyd and DeJohnette in the ’60s. Jarrett, after breaking ground with the electric Miles Davis, renounced electronic instruments. All three were at the forefront of a generation that relished in leaving standards in the dust.

Wynton’s never been that way. That’s why he’ll never be able to record a version of ”God Bless The Child” that rocks out for a full fifteen minutes, Leon Russell-like, with backbeat and funky bassline and all. That’s why he’ll never squeal his way through an ”All The Things You Are” that somehow finds new paths through old changes. That’s why he’ll never find the meaning of the blues, or at least the meaning of the jazz tradition: that the music can’t be limited by its past; that the music only really lives when it’s injected with something new and fresh. Why was Louis Armstrong so badass? Because he played these notes at this speed over these changes? Partly. But mostly because no one had ever played that way before, and he did.

A lot of words have been written about how Marsalis went wrong. But not much time has been spent looking at the people who were doing it right. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette do it right. They do it for the music. And hey – that’s the point, right?