Aside from Keith Jarrett’s much, and justly, celebrated solo concert improvisations, such as the popular ‘Koln Concert’ and ‘La Scala’, he has also on a handful of occasions entered the studio with the intent of improvising purely in-the-moment music. The most famous of these is the first solo improvised effort he recorded for ECM records, the classic ‘Facing You’. A slightly less well-known but much more ambitious, much grander statement is his later double album package ‘Staircase’.
‘Staircase’ is of course a slightly misleading title, as only three of the pieces here are named as such, with the others being various parts or ‘movements’ under the banners of ‘Hourglass’, ‘Sundial’ and ‘Sand’ – not that the mood changes a great deal throughout to justify the differing names. Although on the original vinyl pressing, it would have made a neat set of titles for each LP side.
Taking a slightly different path from his usual solo studio albums, Jarrett avoids his usually favoured funkier and overtly gospel tones of his earlier sessions, and chooses instead a deeply introspective and reflective direction. It then manages to be simultaneously one of his best and his worst, and exemplifying both.
‘Staircase’ one through to three is beautifully played and showcases Jarrett’s perfect touch and sensitive handling, but it is ‘Hourglass’ that is the unquestionable peak here; lyrical and moving, part two is one of his most gorgeous moments of all time, and even the most ardent Jarrett critic will struggle not to love it.
The second half of the double-set then is where the let down comes. Still sensitively played, ‘Sundial’ and ‘Sand’, though with elegant highs, meander for notable periods, becoming repetitive and occasionally flat, almost as though the pianist is momentarily lost for ideas and comping whilst waiting for inspiration to again hit. Also in the mix is some unwelcome dissonance and atonalism, which while they have their place, tends here to upset the otherwise inward-looking and gently soulful mood.
It’s hard to find a bad Keith Jarrett album, and his pitch-perfect tone and exquisite touch are always there to both admire and be hypnotized by. Here he finds great beauty which can often take the listener to musical places never before felt, and yet there is a certain wasted space, with a sometimes directionless tinkling of the keys sounding free of any of the necessary inspiration that his usual live audience provides. ‘Staircase’ is mostly strong and an appealing lesser-known work from Jarrett’s vast catalogue that, though would have benefitted from some editing, comes with many highs and also a fair smattering of lows. Jarrett has produced much better and much more consistent, but on its own terms this ambitious sprawl remains a definite and stand-alone listening pleasure.