Newark, new jersey, 1998. a jazz trio plays a gig at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The occasion isn’t extraordinary except for the players involved, and the fact that the future of this trio—the past and present of all jazz piano trios—hangs in the balance. Tonight’s concert is an experiment: Keith Jarrett has not performed in public for two years because of a debilitating illness. His partners, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, have been playing with him since the ’70s, defining the sound of the modern jazz piano trio for decades. “We got together a couple of times before we played that concert,” says Peacock. “Keith was making tentative steps to see how he would fare, so it was a test for Keith to play a full concert, rather than a couple of tunes.”
Twenty years later, the Newark concert has become an album. After the Fall offers the listener a musical retelling of the story of that evening. Recorded live from the mixing board, the sound—good from the start—was tweaked and mastered by the audiophile ears at ECM Records. “It was direct from the pickup to the mixing board,” says Peacock. “Usually the bass would sound awful just digital-to-two-track, but on this album, they did a great job.” The trio explores a mix of standards and bebop anthems, capturing three master musicians at a crossroads in their musical development. “The Masquerade Is Over,” “Old Folks,” and “Autumn Leaves” give the listener a taste of the classic, standard side of the Jarrett trio.
“Autumn Leaves” begins with a top-of-the-middle broken-swing groove. Peacock and DeJohnette dance with Jarrett’s melodic statement, constantly evolving into the next, seemingly inevitable contrapuntal episode. The energy moves up a notch. After several choruses of brushes and conversational bass counterpoint, DeJohnette switches to sticks and stokes the fire up a level. Jarrett’s solo reaches an apex through the impeccable rendering of chorus after chorus of flawless eighth-note lines. Up another level. Peacock sneaks into 4/4 walking. Burning. DeJohnette helps Jarrett finish the piano solo, then shifts gears for the bass solo. Slow burn—simmering. Peacock speaks through the instrument’s complete range, delivering his story with ferocious grace. Floating. After the bass solo—in a moment of inspiration—Peacock hits a pedal vamp. Suspense. Jarrett jabs and punches as DeJohnette solos. Jungle. After the drum solo fades to its logical conclusion, time morphs into broken, interactive swing. Jazz piano trio beauty.
The track exemplifies all that’s cool about the Jarrett trio—three master musicians, working out on standard song forms, creating new ways of telling old stories. Bassist Steve Rodby says, “The playing, the hipness, the finesse, the harmonic sophistication, the endless melodic invention, the elegant improvisational execution—they are all peerless.” Says Peacock, “That spontaneous development happened a lot during our playing; that’s what it evolved into. ‘Autumn Leaves’ suggests certain unknowable options while it’s being played. That’s what we’re out to discover as it moves toward a conclusion.”
After the Fall also features renditions of several bebop classics: “Scrapple From the Apple,” “Bouncin’ With Bud,” and “Doxy.” The trio burns through a version of Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” and it even lays down a holiday romp on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” “When I learned to play bass, those bebop tunes were part of the initial syllabus for jazz players,” says Peacock. “It was incumbent on bass players not only to learn a particular tune, but also immediately to be able to play it in any key. That’s how we developed our ears, our hearing, our technique.”
The trio is known as the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio, even though some of the playing throughout their recorded history explores free jazz, as heard on Changes [1983, ECM], Changeless , Inside Out , and Always Let Me Go . Whether playing standards or freely improvising—or a combination of both—the musicians move fluidly between musical styles, creating a sound palette without borders.
THE WEST COAST SCENE
Born in 1935, Gary Peacock hails from Burley, Idaho. After a stint in the military, he settled in Los Angeles and soon fell in with the best players on the West Coast jazz scene. Drummer Bill Goodwin says, “I first heard Peacock in about 1960. He was considered one of the top three young players in L.A., alongside Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden. They were all mentored by Red Mitchell. Gary played with Bud Shank and recorded with that group along with Dennis Budimir, Carmell Jones, and Mel Lewis. I sat in with that band often and became a member at Gary’s behest in ’61. We also had a trio with pianist Mike Melvoin.”
“Initially in California, I played with Victor Feldman and Stan Levy a lot,” says Peacock. “Moving to New York and meeting Paul Bley was challenging and inspiring. Paul is more freestyle, avant-garde. For a short time, I worked with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.” Peacock learned the basics of music and bass technique early on, but he was constantly searching for truth, beauty, and the essence of music. He says, “A person can learn about theory and harmony, chords and scales, how to construct a line. That’s all something that can be taught. But is that all there is? In my opinion, it’s not. Everything I’ve taught myself—or have been taught by others—that’s just there for the technical aspect. During improvisation, the thrust is to forget all of that.”
Peacock’s quest to play from his soul and reach a point of effortless musical surrender led him to collaborate with a wide range of avant-garde and free jazz players: Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Mal Waldron, and John Gilmore. His most famous recording of the ’60s came when he replaced the irreplaceable Scott LaFaro in the Bill Evans Trio. “Bill was the master of harmony and melody and everything else,” says Peacock.
BILL EVANS: TRIO ’64
Peacock worked with pianist Evans in 1962–63, filling the spot LaFaro had defined during his groundbreaking work with the trio in 1960–61. Although most of the Evans recordings from this era were made with Chuck Israels on bass, Peacock recorded one of the greatest, Trio ’64. When asked if he felt the pressure of taking over the bass chair with the Evans trio, Peacock responds, “Naw! Scott with Bill was Scott with Bill. The big aspiration for musicians during the end of ’50s into the ’60s was transformational, in terms of communication and working in a group.”
Bassist Drew Gress says, “The Trio ’64 album embodies Gary’s empathetic playing in support of Bill, and also his daring when soloing. Gary is in the moment, always answering the question of ‘what next,’ always spontaneous, always spot on. You can hear his authority and confidence in every choice.”
“I was familiar with Bill Evans’ Village Vanguard recordings with LaFaro,” says Steve Rodby. “Like everyone, I was forever changed by them. But there was something about the Trio ’64 record that really got to me. It was so well recorded—you can hear Gary’s fingerings, you can hear his dreams. He took one of the fanciest and most complicated bass chairs in the jazz world and made it his own.”
TALES OF ANOTHER
Peacock lived in Japan from 1968–72, where he explored Zen Buddhism and Shinto. From 1979– 83, he held a teaching position at Seattle’s Cornish School of the Arts. Throughout his journeys, he continued to perform. In the late ’70s, he got an offer from ECM producer Manfred Eicher to record two albums as a leader. The second, December Poems, featured solo and multi-track bass performances, along with duo tracks with saxophonist Jan Garbarek—but Peacock’s first ECM album as bandleader would foreshadow the next four decades of his career. Tales of Another features Peacock alongside his brother-in-rhythm, Jack DeJohnette, and a young Keith Jarrett. “Manfred said, ‘Do whatever you want,’” Gary remembers. “I told him my favorite format was piano, bass, and drums. I knew I wanted Jack, but I didn’t know who I wanted on piano. He sent me a couple of Keith’s records, and I said okay. That was the first time the three of us played together—on the Tales of Another record.”
THE ECM SOUND
Producer Manfred Eicher defined audiophile bass sound on his ECM Records label. Peacock says, “Manfred was originally a bass player, and he knows how it’s supposed to sound. One thing I’ve always enjoyed about him in the studio is that he walks around the musicians when they’re playing, and he listens to what the instruments sound like first. Then he makes every attempt to capture that sound. That’s rare. The engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug would do the same thing. He has a great sensitivity to what acoustic instruments sound like.”
Peacock’s recorded sound is deep, complex, and magnificent, especially when he is recorded with a microphone. “Most engineers talk about lows, mids, or highs,” says Gary. “Do you want more of this or that, more EQ—and I’m always thinking, No, I just want the sound of the instrument.”
“A few years after we did Tales of Another, I got a call asking if I wanted to do a record of standards with Keith,” says Peacock. “I was taken aback—standards? I was teaching in Seattle and using songs from the American Songbook as material. I was thinking that I didn’t want to do standards. But since Keith said he wanted to do this, I thought maybe he was thinking a little beyond what I was thinking.
“Keith wanted to be very clear that we were making a record of standards, but we were also dealing with a standard of playing. It had a dual meaning. You can love the standard—you can surrender to the standard—you can die in the music. If you really immerse yourself, it’s going to play you. That’s the core of what the trio did for 30 years: Every time we showed up, it was all about the music, not about us making a statement. We were free to let the music play us.”
The first two albums from the Jarrett trio, Standards, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, did indeed set a new standard for modern jazz piano trio playing. The Standards Trio, as the group came to be called, played together from 1983 through 2014, making it one of the most prolific, enduring, and popular groups in jazz history. Says Drew Gress, “These albums were an object lesson to me that one can truly feel free within song form. They were a big deal among the musicians I was playing with at the time. Gary finds ways to bring freedom to structure and structure to freedom. Everyone sensed the spontaneous, vibrant energy—dangerous playing!” Says Bill Goodwin, “The trio with Keith and Jack was sui generis—one of a kind—a happening that lasted for decades.”
THE ART OF LETTING GO
Pianist Marc Copland often played and recorded with Peacock, probably more than any other pianist besides Jarrett. Says Copland, “When Gary moved back to New York from the West Coast in the ’80s, he lived with me for about half a year. We’d eat dinner and talk about aesthetics, and how it felt to play, and it was like looking in the mirror—we’d finish each other’s sentences. Gary understands making music in the moment, with no agenda and no ego. You could say his Zen experiences shaped that, but I think it’s kind of the opposite. He was already that way, and with Zen he found somewhere to further explore that approach to music and life.”
“In 1983, Gary had come to Washington D.C. to play with Marc Copland,” says Gress. “He played my bass for the weekend. It’s one thing to be blown away by someone’s playing, but when it happens on your instrument, it’s quite something else.”
Copland says, “Ralph Towner and I agreed many years ago that Gary was the most harmonically aware bassist we’d ever played with—understanding the music from all angles and using his ears.” Says Goodwin, “As for being in the moment, we all strived for that, but Gary more than most.” Copland adds, “Gary is an honest musician, a real artist. He was and remains interested in growing, improving, and achieving that goal.”
Gary Peacock’s advice for bassists is Zen-like and direct: “Aspire toward what you can’t learn, things you can’t know, what you can’t objectify, what you can’t conceptualize. You know it’s there because you’ve experienced it. It makes no difference if it’s a structured piece, or if it’s free. What’s really driving you is the aspiration for something beyond.”
As a leader or co-leader, Tales of Another [1977, ECM], December Poems [1977, ECM], (with Ralph Towner) A Closer View [1995, ECM], (with Marc Copland) Now This [2015, ECM], (with Marc Copland) Tangents [2015, ECM]. With the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio, Standards Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 [1982, ECM], Standards Live [1985, ECM], At the Deer Head Inn [1992, ECM], Whisper Not [1999, ECM], After the Fall [2018, ECM]. As a sideman: Clare Fischer, Surging Ahead [1962, Pacific Jazz]; Bill Evans, Trio ’64 [1964, Verve]; Tony Williams, Lifetime [1964, Blue Note]; Paul Bley, Ballads [1971, ECM]; Bill Carrothers, Home Row [2008, Pirouet].
Basses Samuel Allen ⅞ bass, Arnold Schnitzer ¾ flatback (for travel)
Strings Thomastik Spirocore Weich gauge (G string), Thomastik Spirocore Orchestra gauge (D, A, E)
Pickup Fishman Full-Circle Amp SWR 1000, 4x10 cabinet