Back in 1983, 37-year-old pianist Keith Jarrett had a characteristically contrarian response to the media swirl surrounding Wynton Marsalis and jazz's exploding "youth" movement.
He called on bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, both around his age. And using skills acquired in the progressive settings where each previously thrived, they explored the basic jazz songbook of three decades earlier: Tin Pan Alley, torch songs, bits from Broadway musicals.
Jarrett wasn't trying to be radical. Or retro. The instrumentalist and composer's intention was simply to reanimate material that had become trite through overuse.
The trio marked its 20th anniversary last year, and there are plenty of reasons to marvel at how far Jarrett's original idea has traveled. It's rare for a jazz lineup to survive even five years. It's rarer for that group to delve into such disparate music: Over the last few years, the trio has recorded spry bebop, languid ballads, and fiery, structureless avant-garde.
And it's rarer still for the musicians to have so measurably evolved, both as individual artists and as an empathetic unit.
As Jarrett observes, "We're much more interesting now. It's like that adage: If only youth could know, if only age could do. In my case, I've got this bank of experience, but I'm still able to do."
That turns out to be quite a powerful combination. It doesn't matter what these three choose to play - an old song, a spontaneous riff: The real attraction is what happens beneath the melodies, as the music unfolds. DeJohnette and Peacock support the mercurial Jarrett not by shadowing him, as many accompanists do, but by issuing broad provocations, or sudden shifts that bathe the pianist's themes in a different light.
Even when the music starts as typical bebop soloist-accompaniment, as on the trio's most recent recording, last year's "Up for It," the music evolves into a contentious three-way conversation of motif and rejoinder. Those quick changes, Jarrett says, are what keep the group vital.
"We're all visual people. If somebody starts to play something, and we notice it as a special thing, we'll look up," Jarrett says. "Over the years we've gotten faster and faster at acknowledging those, and then doing something with them.
"In jazz, a lot of times when you play you don't get off the ground right away. That happens to us, for sure, but usually we can eliminate a lot of waiting-around time. We know each other, and we just lock right into the conversation."
The result, he says, is the sound of musicians dedicated to keeping themselves, and one another, fresh.
"I don't mean to sound elitist, but one thing is we're all intelligent," says Jarrett, who grew up a prodigy in Allentown, Pa.
"Music is a demanding craft, and improvising takes your synapses up several thousand percent. Someone claims they're improvising, it's an easy claim, but most of them really aren't. If we're playing free, I want to play something these guys haven't heard me do. I want to hear Gary, but I don't want to hear him play Gary. We're all aware of what it sounds like when you hear yourself talk too much."
All three of the trio's members were shaped by their experience in the employ of Miles Davis, the legendary trumpet player and conceptualist.
"Miles left it to you to figure out what he wanted. He didn't talk about it, but you knew he wasn't looking for the perfect echoing response to something he played. He wanted you to be alert, and considering every possibility."
The pianist credits the time he spent away from performing, battling chronic fatigue syndrome, as a major influence on his approach to improvising. Diagnosed in 1996, Jarrett spent two years away from his instrument, and another two years in very limited activity with the trio and as a soloist. An indication that things had changed for him was his ruminative 1999 set of solo pieces, "The Melody at Night, With You."
After that, he began to reflect on past solo performances, such as his famous 1975 concert in Cologne, Germany. ("We ended up with a tape of terrible-sounding piano, almost bad harpsichord," he says. "Everybody wanted to get that sound for a while, but we never wanted to get that sound.") And, of course, he thought about the soloist contributions he might still make - interpreting more of the classical repertoire, exploring new moods.
"I wanted to find a space I hadn't inhabited before," Jarrett recalls, noting that, since he had been recording all-improvisatory solo concerts since the early '70s, that was a tall order. His target was a 2003 concert in Japan.
"I practiced for months, which is somewhat unusual for me, and I tried to practice my habits away," he says. The result, which was recorded and is awaiting release, was an evening of music he describes as "out in Abstract Land but not like anything I've done."
Contrary to what many think, Jarrett doesn't record every show. Only a few of his solo performances get documented each year, and though the trio usually performs at least 25 dates annually, three might be professionally documented.
"Our output is fairly good, considering," Jarrett says, and recalls a night in Montreaux several years ago that was taped and, he predicts, will see daylight someday.
"We're playing for this dead Swiss audience, and we kept ratcheting it up. We were going to get those people out of their tombs somehow. We played ragtime without [lampooning] it. It was like a train - we're pushing, things keep going higher and higher. And eventually that got the Swiss."
He's asked why such a memorable set hasn't been released already. To hear this electrifying trio play something like "Honeysuckle Rose" would be a rare treat.
"Any moment's right" to release a CD, he laughs. "But some moments are righter."