February 1996

Why Play Standards?

By John Ephland

It boggles the mind. Since 1983, the Standards Trio of pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette have thrived not only playing just “standards” but avoiding jazz clubs like they were cesspools. In addition, last fall they completed their first U.S. tour in eight years. For most jazz groups, clubs—overseas and stateside—are the warp and woof of their existence. Not for these guys.

A 1983 Village Vanguard appearance served as a kind of jumping-off point immediately after the trio was formed. But for more than a decade between that first New York club gig and a 1994 engagement at the Blue Note—documented on six-CD set Keith Jarrett At The Blue Note: The Complete Recordings—messrs. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette, for the most part, made the European concert hall their venue of choice.

But the story goes back even further. Jarrett and DeJohnette originally played together in 1966 with Charles Lloyd, and again in 1970-’71 with Miles Davis. In 1978, Peacock (having played with DeJohnette in the early-’70s) brought the three of them together for Tales Of Another, his album of original, mostly dark and brooding music. All three were used to the piano-trio format: Jarrett had formed a band playing new music with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and Peacock and DeJohnette at different points performed with Bill Evans.

At the behest of Jarrett, in December 1982, DeJohnette and Peacock started talking with the pianist about a “standards” collection that, among other things, has resulted in two Grammy nominations, three filmed concerts (available from BMG Classics Video), 11 critically acclaimed albums and, in 1991, France’s prestigious Prix du President de la Republique from the Charles Cros Academy for the Recoding of the Year for their two-CD set Tribute, an honor usually reserved for classical and opera productions. Most recently recorded is the Standards Trio’s Standards in Norway, and Jarrett and Peacock with Paul Motian on Live At The Deer Head Inn.

Apart from the trio, DeJohnette’s next album (due out on ECM this summer) is a trio date of a different sort: The drummer is joined by keyboardist Michael Cain and reedist Steve Gorn. A followup to ’94’s Oracle (ECM) duet with guitarist Ralph Towner is expected later this year from Peacock. As for the band’s nominal leader, Jarrett is coming off a year that began with top piano hours in the DownBeat 1994 Readers Poll. He also turned 50 last May, released the critically acclaimed, highly successful Handel: Suites For Keyboard and made his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing Mozart’s Piano Concert No. 23 at Tanglewood in August.

The following conversation, which took place in Jarrett’s lovely, quasi-rural New Jersey home, is the first time the three players have been cornered for a formal interview. Another reason to scratch your head.

Keith Jarrett: You know this is the first time we three have all been together here. I was afraid to show these guys where I live and how I live! [laughs all around]

John Ephland: Keith, you do have a very clean house. On a more musical note, what was the story behind the Standards Trio’s origins?

KJ: I had an agenda; I don’t usually have an agenda. The idea of doing a trio album was in my head. Jack and Gary came to mind. They had been through so many kinds of music in their lives already. They were multi-instrumentalists. I didn’t know enough, though. I needed to find out if the constitution was understood, that the agenda was to dispossess ourselves of the music, to be giving, not to be taking it and saying, “This is ours.” To just be ourselves and play. It sounds simple. I think Gary told me, when he first heard we were doing standards … “Why would we do that?”

Gary Peacock: I remember very clearly, telling myself, “I need a little time to think about it.” Because a lot of people were still doing standards. I was still at the Cornish Institute in Seattle teaching music theory, and we were always dealing with standards. And I was thinking, “Why would anyone want to do standards? I don’t want to get out there and play a standard. I mean, just to play a standard—what’s the big deal?

KJ: Yeah, that’s what Miles would say: [imitating Davis’ raspy voice] “I did that already!” [laughs]

GP: And then, after a while, it was like, “If Keith is interested in doing it, it can’t just be about the music; it has to be something a little bit further than that.” So, I called him up and said, “Yeah, okay, I’m game for it.” But part of me was saying, “If this starts to be [gestures for lights, camera, action!], ‘Standards1’” I was prepared to say, “I think I’m gonna leave.” But what happened was, as you know, we were going to do an album in a day and a half, and we did it in three hours. [Actually, three albums resulted: Standards, Vol. 1; Standards, Vol. 2; and Changes, a record of free improvisations.]

KJ: We had dinner the night before, and the next day we recorded. I didn’t know how deep this idea actually had roots: to have a small group made up of people who don’t have to think about the material at all, they can just sit at their instruments. I mean, I think one of the most beautiful ideas about the trio is that we can set up and leave and come back and play. Jack doesn’t have to think, “Was I supposed to play brushes on that part of this?” And I don’t have to think, “I wonder if Jack is happy with the voicings on this tune.” We knew we were writers, and if we wanted to, we could have a band that played our own music. But why does everyone have to be owning their work? In jazz, it’s the last place you should have to have that as a rule.

JE: And you would think that way when playing original music?

GP: Oh, yeah that’s why you write it.

KJ: When you’re playing someone else’s music … in general, the [standards] that we play were written out of context. I mean, they might’ve been written for a context, but it wasn’t a jazz context. It’s like taking an objectively nice thing and expanding on it rather than creating the thing for the context you’re in. In other words, I know, for example, that Gary can play certain things on a certain part of his bass, and maybe I even know the preferences he has. If I write music, I’d know who was playing. As I did in my quartet, I wrote for the guys. Each guy has his own statement to make, and I didn’t want to crush that statement; I would be writing for many voices at once but trying to make these things have their own outlet for each person. Charlie Haden, for example, might not have wanted to play vamps. Dewey [Redman] might not have wanted to play on chords all the time. I’d have to create a situation where everyone was mostly happy. That’s the challenge of the writer, and that’s a valid thing. But it’s not freedom.

JE: Isn’t it ironic since it’s your own music?

KJ: But that’s the reason. If you own anything, you’re not free. We don’t have to worry where our music is; all we have to do is have the instruments.

JE: Jack, how does this process relate to what you’re doing?

Jack DeJohnette: I co-lead a band with Dave Holland and John Abercrombie [the Gateway Trio]. But that’s a process where we have original pieces, and explore taking those pieces, approaching them in an organic way. In my own band, it’s another thing that’s happened where you have to direct it, but you also have to keep open with that. It’s more challenging because I’m dealing with younger players. So it’s a different kind of situation, where there’s more work involved ’cause I’m developing the players, the music and myself as well. But here [with Keith and Gary], I’m not thinking about, like Keith said earlier, “I’ve got to write this for this piece,” and so on. It’s not the same, because of the individuals and the approaches.

KJ: We’ve stood on stage at a soundcheck and Jack might mention a tune; “Did we ever play this?” And Gary might say, “Gee, I don’t think so.” That’s as much thinking as we have to do about the material, unless we don’t know the bridge or we don’t know the chord changes.

JE: But, when the three of you play a concert, don’t you at least huddle just before you go out to agree on the first number?

KJ: We actually don’t even do that.

JE: What about sign language on stage?

GP: Not really. Keith will begin to play something, and you just keep listening and listening. You don’t know whether you’re gonna start with a ballad, or a medium or uptempo number. Sometimes it’s like, “Okay, he seems to be moving in this direction.” Sometimes, it’s, “Okay, here we go; and you turn right.” So you just keep listening.

JE: So, you communicate through your instruments.

KJ: That’s right.

JE: And it’s usually through the piano?

KJ: Well, yeah. I have more at my disposal, harmonically, to make a suggestion. But also, I think one of my strengths is knowing what to play. And that might come from free improvisation alone; it may come from just knowing what the air needs around us.

JE: Clearly, your relationship to the material is a passionate one.

GP: Each one of these pieces is like a living organism that you can’t divorce yourself from. You listen to “Stella By Starlight,” say, and you become seduced, you become drunk, you drowned. If you’re willing to drown, then you’re giving up all your stuff. You can’t define what it is that you’re drowning in, really. But there’s a love affair going on, there’s a drunkenness, a diving in, and rapture, an ecstasy.

JE: It sounds like all of you and your various playing experiences have added up, have filled you up, to make this great music.

GP: The end result may be that way, but it’s really the opposite, for me. If I’m filled up, then all I can do when I play is throw up. But if I can get to some place and be real empty, then I can be available. And the only way I know how to do that in a musical environment is to listen, is just simply really, really listen, and keep listening, and keep listening, and keep listening. I never want to be full; I hate that, that’s like [gestures with bloated face].

JE: Why a trio? What is it about three musicians?

KJ: Japanese flower arranging. [laughs]

JE: Ok. Jack, what’s your answer?

JD: It’s just enough. It’s rewarding and challenging enough with the three of us. For me, anyway.

KJ: There’s a lot of reasons that we could come up with. I mean, if you add a horn, what’s the horn player gonna do when he’s not playing? With the trio, nothing is outlawed. There’s no time that Jack has to not play, there’s no time that Jack has to play. Gary, if he stops playing, I have the bass of the piano. I mean, there’s a way of interacting that takes all responsibility away from any direction. But if there’s another player, what would he do? That’s one reason. But Jack’s actually correct. It’s …

GP: … it’s enough.

KJ: Besides the fact that three is a strong number, anyway.

GP: Very strong.

KJ: It’s just so strong. Positive, negative and neutral. You know, you can come up with all kinds of things. We need all these things: We need pro, con and mediator; otherwise everything falls apart. There’s a very banal way of describing why the three of us play together. It could be that I’m a coldhearted social critic, Jack’s a warmhearted optimist and Gary’s a research scientist! [laughs all around]

JD: Yeah, but somewhere, when we play, though, all that goes out the window. There’s a point where the music takes us.

JE: Getting back to this idea of a repertoire, the music you all played on Gary’s Tales Of Another and the Changes album, for example, is all original material. In the case of Changes, it’s all freely improvised. How does this music square with—excuse the pun—your “standard” approach?

KJ: I think that’s interesting, and explains something that few people might have thought about. It’s like, when you order a meal, five courses or four courses, or something, you try to figure out what resonance the second thing might have with the first thing. I mea, you wouldn’t order Oreo cookies after the hors d’oeuvres. Well, in music, if you’re allowed to use the impulse you have at a given moment, you might be working with material and then all of a sudden your heart says, “Just play something. Let’s just play something.” Because, it’s a relief, in a way, from the process you were just involved with. I think that’s what happened there. I think we were all happy with what we did, and we had a new type of relaxation, a new type of release, having thought we played well, having felt okay about what we did. And then, we were just sitting there, and then we just played some stuff. But sometimes that doesn’t work. It can’t work as a formula. Some of the Blue Note recordings have a relationship to what you’re talking about. But often, I start with a pattern, or a flavor, that has a motif in it, somehow, either hidden in it or something I don’t even know is a motif yet. And it develops on it’s own from there, and never goes further than that motif, and that might be two notes, or three notes.

JE: What about the band’s ability to gel?

JD: It’s the hardest thing, particularly on ballads, to get that symmetry. From my point of view, as a drummer—not just as a percussionist, since we’re all playin’ percussion—just to play a ballad. Yeah, I think ballads and vamps are the hardest …

KJ: Its easier for a ballad to be dead, and it’s easier for a vamp to be dead than a tune that has its own kind of …

JE: … built-in, lively twists and turns?

JD: Yeah. I mean, for me, if we play a ballad, it depends sometimes on what Gary and Keith are doing and what will set me off. Sometimes I’ll play in tempo, sometimes I’ll color. But it’s never the same. Sometimes I’m waiting to find that one moment. I may lay out, listening. Gary and Keith may have this thing happening harmonically or melodically, and I’ll just wait. Maybe there’s a space. I don’t know. I’m not sitting there intellectualizing; my body tells me how involved I am in the music. Its more intense on that level than it is to play a real uptempo tune.

JE: Why doesn’t the trio play small rooms?

KJ: Unfortunately, there’s much more to the setting itself. For example, we can’t go into a club and play one night. And we’re not getting younger, and we have other things to do. Plus, you don’t want people tearing down the doors, and the socioeconomic implications of playing not enough nights for the amount of people, and the ticket prices go up—all that bunch of baloney.

JE: Why did you choose to record your Blue Note engagement?

JD: It was nice. The people and the management were cooperative enough to not smoke while we played. It was nice to be in New York, in the city for three nights. With the audience, you can hear it on the CDs, the intensity of listening. We’ve played concerts in bigger venues with bigger audiences, but this was an intimate setting, you really felt this real closeness, dynamic-wise.

KJ: Also, there are grooves that we wish to be in, and almost every time we play, we’re in too big a space for us to hear whether we’re really there or not. The sound wasn’t going anywhere in that room, it was staying put, and actually too much. But what we got to hear was something we almost never hear in a larger room, at least for me. When we went into this club, there were other major restrictions, like the sound of the piano. Some things were truly not very good. But the one thing we aren’t used to hearing, we heard. And that has more do with swinging, and more to do with pulse and more to do with jazz than some of the things I think we’ve done. Every time we play, we might be playing the same material, but it’s a new planet.

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