A Few More Words About Sleeper and Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet

posted by Tom on August 22, 2012 at 5:38 pm
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As usual, there’s more to say.

Not just about this long-hidden music, which offers surprises around every corner. But about what this group represents – its methods, its sound, its demeanor.

What happened to this approach to improvisation?

Where did it go? Of course it’s not entirely vanished: ECM, Jarrett’s label, has diligently issued records by groups (from Europe and all over the world) who subscribe to a similar aesthetic. But for the most part, they’re having modest impact on jazz, relegated to the deep margins in a way that the European quartet was not.

Has this type of clear and open interaction – in which the ensemble concentrates on developing a conversation rather than machine-gunning through countless riffs – gone the way of the rotary dial phone? If so, why?

Armchair theory of the week: It takes a bit of attention to follow this music. Even though the sound of the European quartet is supremely inviting, its material is not as instantly accessible as a rollicking bebop blues. The through-lines are usually less obvious. The episodes within the tunes sometimes stretch over long minutes, requiring an investment of time and energy that isn’t quite a casual thing, even for dedicated jazzheads.

That doesn’t fully explain its absence from the current discourse, however. Maybe the improvisational pathways got all tangled up at the end of the 1970s, and when the traditionalists rose in the early ‘80s, they crowded out anything that wasn’t completely aligned with their version of jazz history.

Maybe playing this way is just plain hard. It is. This quartet might not have worked constantly during its run, but that doesn’t mean it was a pickup band: When these four convened, they did so with the intention to create in a very particular way. They shared an understanding about the size of the canvas, and its density, and the methods they’d use, collectively, to fill it. There’s a sense of purpose at work here: The ability to conjure sounds, and shape them, is the outgrowth of an operating philosophy that involves open lines of communication, the willingness to listen, plain old trust.

That level of connection between musicians shouldn’t be rare or exotic. It doesn’t “belong” to the 1970s or any era. It is timeless. That is why Sleeper is significant: It’s a reminder about a highly creative mode of improvisation that's been largely missing from modern music for a while now. The timestamp says it's "old." But this is one relic that doesn’t sound like a relic at all.


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#1 from Jeff, home - 08/23/2012 9:37

Great group. Great music. Agree totally, where DID the thinking/listening improvisors go!? Was the Wynton-wave of traditionalist that powerful of an influence or is it just easier to play that way? Beats me!
Anyway, SLEEPER belongs in your next 1000recordings.
Along with George Russell!!! I’m NOT going to let you forget about early group. smile

#2 from NudeAnts, NY - 08/24/2012 3:38

What about Pat Metheny’s records on ECM and Nonesuch, Brian Blade’s music with The Fellowship Band, or anything with Charlie Haden on it? Bill McHenry’s music? Or, at risk of citing an Example Example, the music of The Bad Plus?

I think it’s also worth noting that ECM had a lot more space to develop Manfred Eicher’s artistic vision after the Köln Concert balanced their ledger-books forever.

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