Of the ensembles led by pianist Keith Jarrett, the “European quartet” with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen is possibly the least documented. The group made a handful of studio recordings in the late ’70s – including the amazingly lyrical My Song – and toured regularly. ECM captured some of the group’s performances, and earlier this month released Sleeper, which was recorded at Makano Sun Plaza in Tokyo on April 16, 1979.
It’s a time-capsule gem, a frozen moment of overlooked brilliance from a group Jarrett once characterized as less like a working band and more like "a special event." It makes you wonder what else is lurking in the label's vaults.
This Jarrett group specialized in a lucid, determinedly uncluttered mode of conversation. Its members prized clarity over technical acumen, and as a result the music often suggests an earnest and almost spiritual quest-in-progress: As they alternate between Jarrett’s profound melodies and elaborate extensions and re-shapings of them, the musicians avoid the typical jazz soloist/accompaniment roles in favor of a more elastic, flowing mode of discourse. This yields surprising peaks, but on Sleeper some of the stunning episodes are the quiet ones, the moments when the four are trolling for ideas that may eventually coalesce into something thunderous. As happens with projects involving Jarrett and Jan Garbarek, the route is often as interesting as the destination – sometimes magic develops from Jarrett’s tersely repeated single-note spears, and sometimes it erupts from inside his simple, churchy triads. Those who know the studio versions of “Prism,” “Personal Mountains” and “New Dance” will likely be surprised by the sweeping gestures and constantly swirling energy of these performances: Even during the in-between moments, when they’re just groping around for the next weighty idea to pursue, these four make wonderfully cogent and perfectly elegant music.