Monday, July 19, 2010

Through The Spyglass

Treasure Island – the fifth album released by pianist Keith Jarrett's so-called American Quartet – begins in what sounds like the middle of a performance, the band already churning on Jarrett's "The Rich (And The Poor)." Driven by Charlie Haden's bass, it's a slow groove that sounds like some of the extended vamps improvised during his solo concerts of the time. Recorded on the final two days of February 1974, Treasure Island actually features an expanded band, with guitarist Sam Brown on two pieces and percussionists Danny Johnson and Guilherme Franco throughout. Those added percussionists are well used, too, as the band explores some funky movements – making Treasure Island one of the more exuberant recordings in the band's catalogue.

On "The Rich (And The Poor)" the percussionists balance the weighty theme and Jarrett's gospel-inflected piano trills with what sound like a bicycle bell and a child's metallic noise-maker. On "Fullsuvollivus (Fools Of All Of Us)" Johnson and Franco stir up a cacophonous backdrop to the quartet's cascading improvisations. Jarrett's piano pulses with energy, Redman reels out a declaratory statement. What struck many listeners at the time—and what remains so attractive about the performance now—is that this was clearly music with American roots, abstracted but not obscured. There is no mistaking the relationship to what the Art Ensemble of Chicago had been doing a decade earlier, and yet Jarrett's take sounds like it is coming at the source material from a classical perspective.

Another element that makes Treasure Island compelling is the accessibility of the material. On the title song, Brown and Jarrett trade the lead on the bright, upbeat melody—their tones and attacks almost indistinguishable from one another, while the theme of "Introduction/Yaqui Indian Folk Song" is almost pastural. "Le Mistral" has a strong pulse running through it, and Jarrett's playing on "Death And The Flower" is rhapsodic. Only "Angles," with its flatulent bass solo, brawling tenor and Ornette-informed head strides outside the comfort zone that buyers of The Köln Concert might be happy living in.

From the somewhat iconic photographs of Jarrett to the detailed map work in the ornate cover art, Treasure Island stands as the least thorny, dare-I-say-it, most commercial release by the American Quartet. Little wonder, then, that the album was reviewed in Rolling Stone and other mainstream music publications of the time, and remains an ideal entry point to the band for those who are familiar with the latter-day Jarrett.

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