This album was a favorite of this listener when it was purchased on cassette in the early 90s. Featuring Jarrett's "American quartet" of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, this April 1976 recording employs the multi-instrumental bent that the pianist employed often in the period.
The "Beginning" section, stretching over 27 minutes, begins with the quartet utilizing various types of African-like percussion, wind instruments (Jarrett on bass recorder) and stringed instruments (notably Haden's plucking, apparently, of his double bass), establishing a melancholy and contemplative that builds into a stronger rhythmic "ethnic" and tribal groove.
This is probably why it was so enjoyed at the time and is now, given this blogger's bent for all types of "world music" and it's always good to see musicians established in certain genres (though this is not of their own making usually) employ other instrumentation and ideas to give a freshness, vitality and variety to their work.
In Jarrett's case, in particular, given that he has become so identified with solo piano and the covering of standards, albeit fantastically done and also not reflective of the fact that he and his associates often do move into freer playing and other excursions, this move into a very different kind of sound was particularly welcomed.
At about six minutes, the band settles into using their traditional instruments, with some overdubbing of the flute, including harmonizing of Jarrett on soprano and Redman's tenor. This is another interesting aspect of the leader's work at the time, in which he made more use of his playing of other instruments aside from the piano, which he has not done much of in recent years. His soprano playing is quite good and this ability of his to play well on other instruments than piano is somewhat reminiscent of the late, great Sam Rivers.
The theme is majestic, compelling and memorable and is restated throughout several minutes with Haden's bass being particularly notable for its deep, rich and "spreading" (can't think of another way to say it) sound, especially as Redman begins a very fine tenor solo at about ten minutes. Motian's drums are also recorded in a way that emphasizes the use of the hi-hat and his shifting patterns throughout his kit, but almost no cymbal work at all, which makes his playing stand out. Meanwhile, Jarrett's accompaniment aids further in the rhythm section's foundation behind Redman's solo.
Just prior to thirteen minutes, Redman winds down and the mood changes to a light, dream-like one with Jarrett playing a beautiful solo with Haden's accompaniment. Overdubbed celeste by Jarrett further highlights the airiness of the portion of the piece. The solo is short, as by sixteen minutes, Redman comes in with a strong assertive expression of another theme along with Motian, who makes active use of his cymbals here, and the tenor player goes off into another excellent solo, well supported by his band mates.
At nineteen minutes, Haden takes an emotive solo, accompanied by the celeste, eschewing flashiness or a demonstration of technical ability, and this is what has made him such a unique and formidable bassist for so long. Using the celeste and its delicate tones is a nice way to compliment Haden's excursion, as well.
Just past twenty-one minutes, the full band returns, continuing with the slower rhythm from the bass solo and Redman's playing again soars for a period before Jarrett performs another crystalline and gorgeous solo, this time with the remainder of the band along for the ride. Towards the end of this opening section, Haden goes into another evocative solo with the celeste as the "Beginning" winds down.
The "Conclusion" has an abrupt change in tempo and intensity as the band tears immediately into a frenetic and powerful theme, propelled by Haden's often-chaotic bass work, Jarrett's freer acompaniment and Motian adept use of cymbals and shifting patterns, while Redman launches into another solo (in many ways, Redman gets the best opportunity to showcase his talents than the others in the quartet on this record.) For a time, Redman blazes away, while Motian tears at his kit and Jarrett employs various percussion instruments for a very stark and powerful accompaniment before he returns to jabs and off-kilter runs on the piano.
From three minutes or so, Motian solos with Jarrett there for a bit before he drops off and leaves the drummer to explore his kit. About a minute in, someone lets out a few whoops before Jarrett and Haden return and the tempo is slowed and a steady groove comes in for the pianist's next solo, with more tribal percussion for color employed. The bass recorder also returns in overdubbed form to provide a ghostly background.
At about 7:15, another theme, bright and catchy comes in and Redman takes it up shortly after on his tenor to considerable lighten the mood and provide the all-important variation needed to keep long tracks from becoming redundant and meandering. Jarrett has another fantastic solo for about four minutes, before Redman comes in and lays down another beautiful solo along with a bright and telepathic accompaniment from the others that makes for a highlight of a record filled with them.
Haden solos again at just over 13 minutes and this time ranges further over his instrument for a couple of minutes, before Jarrett returns with a plaintive statement on his soprano and Haden and Motian quietly playing behind him. Then comes an overdubbed bass recorder and Haden's plucked bass, while Jarrett continues on soprano and the piece returns to that spiritual and tribal element that opened the record way back when and then a dramatic fanfare comes in at about 18 minutes with Redman back on tenor and Jarrett on piano as the band winds down to the conclusion of this masterful recording.
Often, these side-long performances in suite form wind up being alienating to some listeners, particular if the playing meanders, but the changes in instrumentation, tempo, theme and expression make The Survivors' Suite a beautifully-integrated and flowing recording that provides enough change in color, theme and instrumentation to grab and hold the listener's attention throughout. It also helps having the superb band that made up the "American quintet," because Redman, Motian and Haden were such a great combination to work with Jarrett through some impressive 1970s recordings.
The Survivors' Suite is quite likely that group's peak performance and is certainly at the top of this listener's list of great Jarrett and jazz recordings.
Keith Jarrett: The Survivors' Suite (ECM Records, 1977)
1. Beginning 27:21
2. Conclusion 21:19