Keith Jarrett's numerous volumes of improvised solo piano recordings are all treasure troves of spontaneous music making. Documented since the 1970s, they reveal the opening of his music as it readily embraces classical and sacred music influences, filters out what is unnecessary in his technique, and encounters the depth and breadth of the jazz tradition and his own unique abilities as a composer. The four discs in A Multitude of Angels were recorded in as many Italian cities during the last week of October 1996 -- some 20 months after the concert captured on La Scala. These were his last concerts before being sidelined for two years from chronic fatigue syndrome. Jarrett is musician, producer, and engineer here. The performances were captured to his Sonosax DAT recorder seemingly without the view of release at the time. They were sent direct from the piano to transformer-less microphones to the machine, with no mixing board in between. While it's not as raw as The Melody, At Night, With You, his set of intimate home recordings, there is a less airy, less pristine feel in the sound of these recordings.
Sound is only one aspect of what makes these recordings different. In the accompanying booklet, Jarrett describes these discs as the "pinnacle" of his career in the sense that these were uninterrupted performances (no set breaks) in smaller rooms with quiet audiences (a big bugaboo of his, all before the advent of the digital age). Though he was weakened by the burden of his as yet undiagnosed illness, he goes for it here. The gorgeous interpolations of folk, funky gospel, and jazz during the Modena concert's first ten minutes (disc one) are among the most joyous in his catalog. Jarrett describes these shows as if he were ordained by fate to be in the moment as if "playing for the last time." The unfettered feel in his improvisation is sometimes choppier and more rugged than elsewhere in his catalog -- though his playing remains astonishing both technically and creatively. Check the knotty classical improvisations in the second part of Modena where he encounters -- and extrapolates on -- ragtime and modal jazz in blocks, feints, stops, and starts that all flow through the well without obstacle. Processional balladic improv introduces the first half of the Torino show on disc three. It shifts and shimmers, emerging as a wedding of Bach and torch song before stripping itself to the bone. Its final section investigates a repetitive phrase with an extended view of harmony and rhythm. The final show in Genova (disc four) concludes with a fantastically funky blues encore before the pianist delivers a reading of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow." Jarrett's never delivered it with such tenderness before -- at least on record -- as he illuminates the hidden magic in its lithe harmony. For fans of the pianist, A Multitude of Angels is an indispensable document. It's not only wildly creative, but deeply soulful, spiritual, and dazzling in both variety and facility.