Music: Keith Jarrett: Hymns / Spheres

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-03-09 10:00:00-05:00 No comments

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This is the first time I’ve ever written an album review twice, but I have a good reason: this was a mutilated album, restored to its proper form. When I reviewed Keith Jarrett’s Spheres in its original CD edition, it was half the album it was meant to be. The original double LP released in 1976 was cut down to a single four-track CD when it was reissued in 1985, with no clear indication of whether Jarrett himself or his label, ECM, had approved the selections within. Worse, some of the best material on the album—especially the astonishing 3rd movement, as featured in the film Sorcerer—had not made the cut, and one had to ferret out vinyl copies of the album to hear it.

All this was rectified earlier this year, when ECM finally saw fit to release the album in its full original incarnation, spread out across 2 CDs and digitally remastered. What’s striking is how the more complete version of the album is also the more problematic version. On the one hand, it means listeners can finally discern for themselves what went missing. On the other hand, it means the album now has that much more dross.

First, some notes about the album itself. Recorded at the Benedictine Abbey in Ottobeuren, Germany, on the Trinity Organ, it consists of eleven improvised pieces that use nothing but the native sound of the organ and the resonance of the performance space. The results are closer to Klaus Schulze or early Tangerine Dream than most anything else Jarrett did (especially stuff like the Köln Concert). A whole range of unearthly effects were made possibly by simply closing some stops on the organ or only opening then partway.

The original double LP opened and closed with two short pieces, “Hymn of Remembrance” and “Hymn of Release”, both of which have surfaced separately on compilations and the like since. Re-including them here makes it clear why there might have been an argument to cut the disc down, since the paradox of Jarrett is that his best music was (and still is) often featured side-by-side on the same discs with his worst. Hymns / Spheres was no different, since the two hymns are a good example of his work at its most banal and obvious, bad examples of Jarrett’s penchant for misty spirituality.

On the other hand, the bulk of the nine Spheres in the newly-restored album are works of soaring transcendence. The four included on the original CD—1, 4, 7 and 9—still rank among my favorites, but the real star is the third movement, major extracts of which were used in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer to devastating effect. It took some listening before I was able to disassociate the piece entirely from the film and appreciate it on its own terms, something I'm sure most people coming into the album cold won't have to do.

The more middling pieces are reminiscent of jazz improvisations on liturgical music, but the best ones are the slower, more meditative performances. The sheer amount of reverberation in the performance space means that Jarrett’s usual tinkling approach to a keyboard doesn’t work well—the fifth movement, for instance, would have sounded splendid on a piano, but on the Trinity Organ it just sounds like a shapeless welter of notes.

A while back I mused about whether or not it was a wise idea to present someone’s work in a form that might have been against their wishes but which is clearly an improvement. The problem is, as I quickly realized, an improvement for whom? A work exists in the space between its audience and its creator, courtesy of a four-way tension of —the work, the creator, the audience, and the space itself. Of those four, the work itself tends to be the most reified, and any changes to it have the greatest effects on the other three. Leaving out the parts of Hymns / Spheres that amount to noodling may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but unless that abbreviation was Jarrett's idea all along, it's splendid to have them back for the sake of contrast. And even if it was his idea ...

Tags: Keith Jarrett jazz music review