‘Book of Ways’ offers a unique insight into the possibilities of the clavichord that takes the instrument out of the familiar and into unknown territory.

ECM 1344/45  /   7751480

Keith Jarrett (clavichord)

Recorded 14th July 1986

Keith Jarrett’s recording of clavichord improvisations are often viewed with suspicion within the musician’s vast discography.

With nothing else to compare it to, the music has often been dismissed and damned by the critics. Like Jarrett’s other projects such as multitracked solo album Spirits recorded a year earlier and Hymns/ Spheres, a double album of organ improvisations from a decade earlier, Book of Ways must be taken as a single entity and free to exist in its own right.

Not to be compared or judged against any other recording but purely on the merits of the music produced on the day, and in the moment. Like his solo piano recordings, the music presented is completely improvised with no prior preparation, but there any comparison ends.

The clavichord is a completely different instrument and Jarrett quite rightly approaches it as such. Adding to the uniqueness of the album is the sound of the clavichord itself. Not least because it is now seldom heard, and also because of the way it was recorded.

A very quiet instrument, the clavichord cannot normally be heard more than a few feet away, recent recordings of the instrument have relied on microphones to amplify the instruments for public performances.

In making this particular recording, three clavichords were used and very closed miked to capture the full range of dynamics. Two of the instruments were placed at angle to each other so that Jarrett could play both simultaneously and the third set off to one side.

Once the instruments were set up and ready to record, Jarrett spent the next few hours exploring the range, dynamic and timbre of the instrument in a series of improvised pieces that are staggering in their intuitive understanding of what the instrument is capable of, and how this can be explored.

The sound of the clavichord, falling somewhere between a lute and the Japanese koto, in Jarrett’s hands becomes an expressive instrument that takes the listener well beyond what they might expect to hear in such a recital.

The speed of thought and execution is only part of the process as Jarrett is also making adjustments and discoveries as he is creating music and sounds clusters in the moment.

Book of Ways takes the use of the instrument as far away from the niceties of the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical music that has gone before. His two handed playing on two keyboards enable him to produce combinations of notes that would not otherwise have been possible.

That is not to say that Jarrett is not respectful of the history of the clavichord, as is evidenced in improvisations such as ‘Part 1’ and ‘2’ from Volume 1 of the set that basks in the past glories of the clavichord as if to give it a time and place before moving on.

It is possible to sense Jarrett’s thought processes he finds new sounds to explore and the notes to breathe life into the music. ‘Part 3’ evokes a duet for lute, while there is a rhythmic impetus to ‘Part 4’ with a use of counter melodies and rhythms which is also developed on ‘Part 6’. A startling improvisation on ‘Part 8’ takes a detailed examination of the instruments lower register, with Jarrett seemingly coming to the conclusion that some of the lowest notes can be used sparingly.

Interestingly, Voume 2 takes a step back with the opening three improvisations that hark back to the late middle ages and early Rennaissance music. As the improvisation progress so the voicings become more contemporary and familiar.

‘Parts 14’ and ‘15’ reveal a different beast altogether with Jarrett producing the harshest tones from the clavichords so far. Almost striking the keys to get a response the improvisation has a stark and bright sound with Jarrett’s melodic development taking shape slowly over his own harsh accompaniment.

Relief from the harsh metallic tones is found in ‘Part 16’ and most notably in a delicate improvisation on ‘Part 17’ that is played on a single clavichord and has a most satisfying ebb and flow to a lyrical piece of music making.

Recorded as Jarret said at the time “on an off day between concerts with my Trio” in a session that took just four hours Book of Ways offers a unique insight into the possibilities of the clavichord that takes the instrument out of the familiar and into unknown territory.

With the re-issue of Book of Ways, it is perhaps time to reassess this rarefied item in Jarrett’s discography and place it in context in the development of this most gifted of musicians.

Reviewed by Nick Lea