Monday, May 10, 2010

A Fort In The Village

After a busy spring, I’m finally back to my immersion in the music of Keith Jarrett’s so-called American Quartet. It’s proven to be a timely project, given Jarrett’s recent reunion with bassist Charlie Haden.

Fort Yawuh—a live album recorded at the Village Vanguard in February 1973—is where my journey with this band began. While I can’t remember the first time I heard it, I clearly recall listening over and over to the hypnotic “De Drums” on a snowy Saturday morning in early 1975 and hearing a new sonic world open up to be discovered. Until that time, at age 20, my explorations into contemporaneous jazz had consisted of jazz-rock fusion music, and Jarrett’s quartet offered a sublime alternative to the highly amplified spinoffs from Miles Davis’ groundbreaking band. The music was both more lulling and more engaging. Melodically and harmonically, it was much deeper than anything I had heard that had been produced since the mid-‘60s.

I knew Haden from his work with Ornette Coleman (working backward from Davis’ Jack Johnson—my entry point to the jazz of my own generation—I had checked out many of the signal recordings of the ‘50s and ‘60s) but hadn’t heard him in the ‘70s. The depth of his sound was a revelation, and groove was so deep on that 12-minute track that I wanted a piece of whatever mojo they were working.

Interesting that Jarrett would later comment that Haden was reluctant to play vamps in the quartet, because the bassist picks up the simple phrase that the pianist states at the outset of “De Drums,” carries it for several minutes and then, under Redman’s solo, plucks a driving ostinato that defines the piece to such an extent that it’s a surprise it isn’t titled “Da Bass.” Returning to the initial vamp, Haden carries the last minute of the performance. To my ears, this seemed as funky as Muddy Waters’ band in the early ‘50s, yet as musically sophisticated as anything I’d been exposed to.

Today, an examination of Fort Yawuh is not complete without also considering the seven unreleased or unedited pieces that were included on The Impulse Years: 1973-1974, a box that was issued by Universal on the Impulse! imprint in 1997. That set added a 7-plus-minute excerpt of another—more piano-centric—version of “De Drums,” “Angles (Without Edges),” which would appear in a studio version on Treasure Island, a second take of “(If The) Misfits (Wear It)” and three other compositions. At 133 minutes, spread over two discs, it feels like a full two sets of music from the Vanguard.

All of this band’s best characteristics are on display, particularly the ability to balance free playing and rhythm, and the sense of fun the members brought to music that demanded close listening and the ability to respond creatively to a variety of stimuli. Aside from “Melting The Ice,” where Jarrett maintains a firm hand on the tiller with a long, definitive solo, the pieces feel very organic, like anything could happen at any moment. The box set even includes one of Jarrett’s signature audience upbraidings, although it’s a pretty tame one compared to what he’s said more recently.


Richard said...

I first heard "De Drums" courtesy of Dan Buskirk at WPRB, Princeton. Did you ever notice the similarity between "(If The) Misfits (Wear It)" on this album by the American Quartet is basically the same tune as "The Windup" on "Belonging" (1974) by the European Quartet?

Michael J. West said...

James, I really love this project - it's been great in reintroducing me to the American Quartet. Thanks~