While the group that came to be known as his American Quartet, comprised of reedman Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian, were known more for excursions into the freer realms of jazz, the title track shows that they were capable of the same sensitivity and tranquility that was more apparent with Jarrett’s later European Quartet. Birth, starting first with solo piano, and then introducing Redman on tenor, and finally Haden and Motian about half-way through the piece, demonstrated a style that became synonymous with the ECM label, once Jarrett began recording for them a year later. With a tenderness and poignancy that Jarrett further explored in his later solo work, "Birth" is a classic Jarrett track, and worth the price of admission.
Other standout pieces are the short piano/clarinet duet, "Markings," and "Forget Your Memories (and They’ll Remember You)"; the latter, with a gospel feel that is broken up by a very loose approach to time, shows how well Haden and Motian came to work together, even at such an early stage in this group’s career. Their remarkable chemistry would be further explored on Jarrett’s recordings for Impulse!, but it is clear that the roots were already there in 1970.
Other tracks on the release work with varying degrees of success, mainly because of Jarrett’s penchant, at the time, for experimenting with instruments other than the piano. "Mortgage On My Soul (Wah Wah)," aptly titled for being possibly the only track ever recorded where Charlie Haden eschewed the purity of his bass sound, feeding it through distortion and wah wah pedals, manages to maintain interest with a strong rock groove. Jarrett opts for soprano sax, an instrument he dabbled with in the early 70s and ultimately gave up as he realized his main axe was the piano. But his playing is surprisingly good, and he works well in tandem with Redman, again on tenor.
"Spirit," which predates his later album, Spirits, occupies a similar space; with the band members playing a variety of percussion, over which Redman toys with the Chinese musette, Jarrett experiments with steel drum, and recorders. The piece maintains a somewhat Native American feel and, while interesting as a footnote, only engages when Jarrett returns to the piano. The eleven-minute closer, "Remorse," features Jarrett again on steel drum as well as banjo, in a free piece shows his debt to Ornette Coleman; again, the track sometimes comes close, but never really gels.
An uneven recording, but one which has enough precious moments to recommend, Birth is a recording that, at the very least, highlights the emergence of certain styles which Jarrett would continue to explore at great length, and with even greater success. While this would not be high on the list of albums to recommend to listeners just beginning to explore Jarrett, it is a worthwhile addition to the collection of Jarrett fans who want to hear a nascent artist still looking for direction.