Keith Jarrett: plays Berkeley on Saturday

Listen to Keith Jarrett playing Paris Concert while you read our reviewParis Concert by Keith Jarrett

Every performance by pianist Keith Jarrett comes freighted with outsized expectations. One of jazz’s most popular and influential pianists and composers since the early 1970s, Jarrett performs at Zellerbach Hall on Saturday with his “Standards Trio” featuring sublime bassist Gary Peacock and ingenious drummer Jack DeJohnette, a prolific ensemble that’s recorded a series of often ravishing live albums for ECM.

As the group’s nickname implies, the trio is a vehicle for exploring American Songbook standards and modern jazz staples, rather than for Jarrett’s original compositions or the extended extemporaneous improvisation captured on his 1975 monster hit album “The Köln Concert.”

At his best, Jarrett can reach astonishing heights of lyricism propelled by DeJohnette’s feathery caress of his cymbals, though recent Bay Area performances have been hit or miss affairs. At some concerts, half a set passed before the trio hit its stride and found its way into a startlingly beautiful place. But much of the drama surrounding a Jarrett performance is temperamental rather than musical. Famously irascible on stage, the pianist has been known to stop playing mid-tune if distracted by an offending cough during a pianissimo passage. He’s also not shy about critiquing his instrument if he finds it unsatisfactory (take note Cal Performances).

Standards Trio: Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Peacock

The diva mannerisms can be off-putting, especially when many listeners find his trademark vocalizations a bigger distraction than any throat clearing (I’ve never minded his hum, a high buzzing sound that seems to originate in the back of his throat).

Despite the shenanigans, I keep coming back because when the trio’s having a good night it’s one of jazz’s most transporting ensembles. Part of the fun is trying to figure out what tune Jarrett is introducing as he launches into a rhapsodic introduction, leaving the melody far behind until he locks into a groove with Peacock and DeJohnette.

On ballads in particular, where Jarrett reharmonizes familiar lines so that they’re almost unrecognizable, the trio can turn the most well trod tune into something startlingly new.

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....