At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
Keith Jarrett looms large in any discussion of jazz over the last 45 years. To track his early movements — from the peace-and-love rhapsodies of the Charles Lloyd Quartet to the post-Woodstock fire of Miles Davis to the inward-seeking clarity of Facing You — is to present a complicated portrait of a culture in transition.
Then of course, there's The Köln Concert, which established a popular framework for the existential solo piano expedition. I've seen a handful of Jarrett concerts that inhabit a similar plane, including the one that yielded The Carnegie Hall Concert, about a dozen years ago.
When I went about the difficult task of cherry-picking one Jarrett album from the 2000s on, I briefly considered a solo effort. I also thought about Jasmine, his beautifully muted set of duos with bassist Charlie Haden. But it felt more important to acknowledge the momentous tenure of his trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.
If you know this group at all, you probably know it as the Standards Trio — and for most of its 30-year reign, that was an accurate description. Jarrett and his crew illuminated songbook ballads, bebop warhorses and other pieces from the common repertory. If you were to pick an emblematic album, you'd maybe go with Whisper Not or My Foolish Heart or, for an absorbing longitudinal study, the 6-CD boxed set recorded at the Blue Note in 1994.
But I decided to tack in another direction, choosing Always Let Me Go, recorded in Tokyo in 2001, and released as a double album the following year. Jarrett had already delivered a curveball with Inside Out, the first album of completely improvised material by the trio in an eon. This follow-up carries that practice to its logical next step — proving not only that the language of the band went far deeper than its songbook, but also that improvisers of this caliber can create formal coherence out of true spontaneous interplay.
In DownBeat, Thomas Conrad gave the album five stars, a rating typically reserved for a masterpiece. Reviewing for JazzTimes, Mike Quinn acknowledged that "out" was the prevailing ethos of the set. "But what is most captivating about this virtuosic tour de force," he added, "is the way this trio can, on a dime, turn outside in, pulling a melody and structure from thin air, usually at just the right moment, bringing everything back to earth with a bit of bluesy funk, a bit of wistful romanticism, a slice of bop or swing."
Earlier this year, ECM released After the Fall, a far more swinging affair recorded a few years earlier, in 1998. Because the Standards Trio disbanded several years ago, this release served as a bittersweet postscript as well as a time capsule; I wrote about it here. What's remarkable about the Standards Trio is that it could contain so many realms without the slightest hint of strain. Here, from Always Let Me Go, is "Tsunami," which illustrates the point.