CD reviews

Keith Jarrett – “Budapest Concert”

Keith Jarrett – Budapest Concert   (ECM Records 0730194. CD Review by John Bungey)

The disclosure by the 75-year-old pianist this week [Oct 21] that a pair of strokes in 2018 may well have ended his career as public performer adds huge poignancy to this release. Keith Jarrett told The New York Times that he has lost the use of his left arm and hand, perhaps permanently.

So is this concert from his 2016 European tour a fitting recorded elegy for such a remarkable performer – someone who was fêted as the world’s greatest living musician in The Guardian on his 70th birthday? There are, of course, sceptics too who hear noodling and notespinning amid the alchemy of his spontaneously composed solo concerts. This album contains ammo for both sides.

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It is the second set to be taken from the 2016 tour, recorded a fortnight before the Munich show released by ECM last year. There are some close resemblances – a dozen contrasting pieces in suite-like form plus encores.

As at Munich and many post-millennium shows, Jarrett delivers a frenetic overture that owes more to contemporary-classical than jazz. There is little breathing space as his right hand tumbles across the keys and the bass growls. It’s a dramatic, dazzling fusillade that barely lets up for nearly 15 minutes.

Part II is contrastingly slow and pensive but continues the sombre mood without ever coming entirely into focus. Part III unfolds over portentous left-hand chords that outstay their welcome; the austerity continues in Part IV – by this stage in the Munich concert Jarrett had already delivered a poignant ballad and some crowd-pleasing barrel-house boogie. Eventually the pianist settles into one of those left-hand ostinatos made famous on the world-conquering Köln Concert but the right-hand sorties are lacklustre and the music runs out of puff.

During the break at the Bela Bartók National Concert Hall, however, Jarrett’s mood seems to have lifted and this turns out to be a concert of two very different halves. He returns with a delicate ballad/lullaby full of poise and grace; Part VI is a moment of magic – a shot of contrapuntal boogie-swing so fiendishly clever and joyous that you forgive the eruption of groaning from the pianist. Then it’s more romantic loveliness – Jarrett at the pop end of his range – showing that he could give Billy Joel a run for his money. That’s followed by a tender tremolo-filled elegy which is only slightly overwrought. He then returns (as he did in the Munich show) to the pianistic helter-skelter of the opening section. There’s a pretty charmless Part X but serene Part XI compensates before he signs off with one of his can’t-fail (if thoroughly familiar) rolling blues vamps.

His encores, as at Munich, are a radiant Answer Me, My Love and a gorgeously melancholic It’s a Lonesome Old Town that takes its time to build to an operatic intensity. No time, evidently, for Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

So Jarrett pulls it out of the bag with a  second half that glows all the brighter after the early fitful salvoes. Of course, you can’t reach musical heights without trekking through the foothills first. There’s a good deal of circling base camp here – before he discovers some nuggets that glister with his best.

Keith Jarrett’s Budapest Concert will be released on 30 October 2020.

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