Noah Haidu ‘Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett’ CD (Sunnyside) 5/5

Okay, I’ll admit it, it was the title of this album that grabbed my interest. That and the fact that pianist Noah Haidu is joined on this trio outing by none other than two legendary jazz musicians; drummer Billy Hart and bassist Buster Williams. Having first worked together in 1969 at a concert with vocalist Betty Carter in Chicago, Hart and Williams both played on classic Miles Davis albums before joining Herbie Hancock’s innovative sextet Mwandishi, going on to record a wealth of acoustic and electric music with legends such as McCoy Tyner, Stan Getz and Kenny Barron. At the age of 19, Noah Haidu studied at Rutgers University with Kenny Barron, but was soon skipping classes to sit in at jazz clubs in Barren’s hometown of Philadelphia. He later moved to Brooklyn and went on to record his debut album “Slipstream”. His subsequent albums and sideman work have seen him collaborating with the likes of Ambrose Akinmusire, Mike Stern, and Jeremy Pelt. Haidu made his Sunnyside Records debut in 2020 with the acclaimed “Doctone”, which addressed the remarkable legacy of pianist Kenny Kirkland.

The decision to focus this album’s material around the great Keith Jarrett crystallised when news broke of Jarrett’s retirement due to a pair of debilitating strokes. “When I heard about Keith,” says Haidu, “I was profoundly moved, and I started to envision the recording with Billy and Buster as a kind of musical response to these events and Keith’s body of work.” One of the most important things to say about this album is that Haidu most definitely has his own voice. The eight tunes reflect the spirit of Jarrett’s work – especially his trio recordings with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock – but are not any kind of imitation or reworking of Jarrett’s music. The trio here focus on their own vibe and originality, respectfully paying homage to Jarrett along the way. Of his relationship to Jarrett’s music Haidu says: “I’ve never thought of myself as a pianist who ‘plays like Keith’. However, his work has increasingly influenced my trio approach in the last few years. I’m getting back to playing ballads, standards and increasingly finding my own voice on standard repertoire. That evolution has been inspired by Jarrett who plays standards with complete authenticity, never sounding like anyone else on this music.”

Almost everything on the album is an unedited first take. According to Haidu, “These songs have a certain simplicity. There’s not a lot of pyrotechnics, everything depends on the band interaction, you can’t hide behind a complicated form or wild rhythms. You have to make a statement, and everyone has to breathe together in the music.” These are sentiments I whole-heartedly agree with, and indeed, a way of thinking that has served Keith Jarrett well on many of his interpretations of jazz standards over the years. The music here develops organically, just as it should do, with Haidu, Hart and Williams all contributing compositions. Haidu elaborates on the repertoire choices in the liner notes: “We decided to include Buster and Billy’s wonderful compositions which highlight the type of interaction and open-ended expression that I feel is the heart of the Jarrett/DeJohnette/Peacock trio.”

Williams’ dreamy “Air Dancing” opens the album in some style. Atmospheric cymbals lead us into the tune with Haidu immediately taking the reins with maturity and openness. As with the music throughout this wonderful album, there’s no holding back from the trio, a confidence and joyous spirit flowing freely and effortlessly. Hart’s “Duchess” swims with lyrical beauty, waves of golden light shimmering and glistening on the water’s surface, with an undercurrent of warmth and fondness rising to the surface. “What a difference a day makes” is the first of the standards performed here, and what a beauty it is. Haidu shows a lighter touch that dances with graceful ease, like a ballet dancer, barely touching the floor, the pianist’s fingers elegantly move from key to key, breathlessly creating a bright, sunny disposition. The Jarrett waltz “Rainbow” is fabulous. The trio interacts so well together it just puts a smile on my face and warmth in my heart. In an exception to the rule with this album, Jarrett’s “Rainbow” segues into Haidu’s jubilantly rocking “Song for Keith Jarrett”. Let’s be fair, he couldn’t make an album without pulling out all the Jarrett stops at some point or other. And it’s a blast, the trio obviously enjoying themselves as Haidu relishes the opportunity to use plenty of those Jarrett-esque frills and motifs that made him so popular, especially in his earlier years. Next up is the standard “Georgia”. This is so mesmerising, a wonderful take on this classic tune, being both thoughtful and illuminating. The title track “Slowly” was penned by Haidu and is dedicated to Jarrett’s solo piano style. It’s yet another exemplary piece of writing and performance from the pianist. It’s back to full-on jazz trio mode for Billy Hart’s “Lorca”, a tune that reverberates with all the things that is great about this trio. The closing piece “But Beautiful” may well be a tune many of us are familiar with, but I assure you that you still need to find time to listen to this performance of the timeless classic. It is achingly beautiful, Haidu, Hart and Williams bringing it together with a soft, gentle, wholly emotive touch that melts my heart.

“Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett” is a stunning album. Not only does it sum up the spirit of so many Jarrett/DeJohnette/Peacock performances, but it realises a fresh and inspiring take on the piano/bass/drums trio format. Traditional in many ways, yet original in many others, it brings together three great musicians who just play their hearts out, with skill, intelligence and a quintessential jazz verve.

Mike Gates