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Jarrett marks 70th birthday with simultaneous releases

Keith Jarrett, “Creation” (ECM) and “Barber/Bartok/Jarrett” (ECM)

Keith Jarrett is celebrating his 70th birthday this month by simultaneously releasing two albums on the ECM label that show why he is in a league of his own as both a jazz and classical pianist.

“Creation” — his first new solo recording in four years — marks a further evolution in Jarrett’s spontaneously improvised solo piano recordings. He created the genre in the ’70s with such albums as the multiplatinum “The Koln Concert,” featuring tightrope-walking free improvisations stretching out 30 minutes or more on which he filled in a blank slate.

After recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome in the late ’90s, Jarrett changed his solo concert format by linking together a series of shorter improvisations. But on “Creation,” rather than offering a single concert, Jarrett has selected “the most revelatory moments” from six solo concerts in four cities from April-July 2014.

In his new role as producer, Jarrett has added another layer to the creative process in the way he’s sequenced the nine parts to create in effect an improvised suite. The self-editing might surprise some of Jarrett’s critics who have accused him of being self-indulgent in his solo releases.

The result is one of Jarrett’s most intimate and reflective solo recordings, full of beautiful sparse melodies — far different from his earlier solo outings that featured highly rhythmic, repetitive blues and gospel vamps.

The highlights include “Part IV,” in which Jarrett references Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” the inspiration for Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain,” and the poignantly romantic “Part V,” which occasionally hints at Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova “Waters of March.”

On the classical side, Jarrett’s other birthday release, “Barber/Bartok/Jarrett,” offers previously unreleased recordings of 1984-85 concerts in Germany and Japan in which he interprets two technically challenging 20th-century works — Samuel Barber’s “Piano Concerto op. 38” and Bela Bartok’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.”

Jarrett deftly handles the furious rhythms of the opening and closing movements of the Barber concerto, no doubt drawing from his jazz background, and displays a sensitive touch on the slow middle movement.

On the Bartok concerto, Jarrett engages in some intricate interplay with the woodwinds on the opening movement, shows his more lyrical side in the pastoral middle movement and deftly transitions between solo and accompanying roles on the closing allegro movement. As an encore, Jarrett performs a beautiful nearly 5-minute spontaneously improvised ballad.

What links these two releases is Jarrett’s virtuosity, rhythmic command and melodic sensitivity that serve him well as both an interpreter of notated music and a spontaneous improviser.

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