Keith Jarrett: Mystic Poet of the Piano
Music has many faces
Music has many faces, many streams, such variety that its richness can overwhelm the listener who doesn't make the effort to really listen, to hear with heart and mind. Sometimes the richness is like a well-fortified Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake) that leaves one feeling heavy but happy.
Sometimes music cuts through a lot of nonsense with an intellectual clarity that brings light into one's mind.
And sometimes music is just plain fun, involving one's sense of enjoyment and giving a feeling of sheer delight.
Of course, all these responses to music actually are in the mind of the listener, and for me the best music is that which doesn't force a particular response from me but allows me to find my own way into it and to make my own sense of it. Music that allows me to feel my own feelings, hear my own heart in its beat.
Streams of music
Keith Jarrett's music has all of these aspects in it for me. Sometimes he's just too rich, too overwhelmingly nice, and, just as I love that Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte so I love some of the music that Jarrett makes - the Köln Concert is an example. Its almost too good to be true, and I think that a surfeit of it might make me sick.
Then there is other music that Jarrett makes that leaves me wondering how it is possible for the human mind to encompass all that, all those ideas. Listening to some of his recordings of classical music can do that to me - listening to the Bach and Haydn, for instance.
Listening to the limpid clarity of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues which Jarrett recorded so incredibly beautifully is a spiritual experience, but not a soppy or sentimental experience, rather like appreciating a clear mountain stream running over rocks and through little pools with multi-coloured pebbles shining under the water: "This darksome burn, horseback brown" - the wonderful words of Gerard Manley Hopkins come to mind as I listen.
Of course, that is as much Shostakovich's as Jarrett's work, but the steam analogy also came to Jarrett, though not in relation to the Preludes and Fugues alone, when he was asked in an interview with C.B Liddell about the difference between jazz and classical music: "I would say the difference is the same as that between a photograph of a flowing stream and the actual stream flowing. The Classical world would be that photograph of that stream, because it’s all on paper already, and you can look at it and it’s never going to change. But Jazz and improvising is the actual stream flowing, at least for the player. That’s what Jazz is. And in Classical music, it’s the interpretation of the photograph. The real difference is that the potential before these things get played is completely different."(zen in the art of jazz - 2007)
To experience that stream flowing just listen to the famous Köln Concert CD, which, though recorded back in 1975, is the top selling solo piano album in history and is still among the top selling jazz albums, and get carried away in the flow of Jarrett's incredibly fecund improvisations. Here the stream alternates between gentle smooth waters, deep pools and fast flowing white water. An amazing ride, which takes you up one moment only to take you beneath the surface the next. Allowing yourself to be fully awake to this music brings one face to face with something profound and questioning and uplifting, something cleansing and healing and deeply satisfying both emotionally and intellectually. This is the stream and not the photograph of the stream, indeed! I always feel somewhat breathless after listening with a deeper level of attention to this remarkable music.
Part of the exhilaration comes from the sense of risk, the way Jarrett opens himself up: "This is the musical equivalent of a circus act without a safety net," is how Liddell describes it, and that seems like an apt description to me. As Liddell points out, all jazz musicians take risks to produce what Whitney Balliet called "The Sound of Surprise", but usually they do so with the safety net of at least a rhythm section. Jarrett is on his own with his piano and the audience on the other side of the footlights. Scary stuff!
And for Jarrett the audience is part of the making of the music. In an AllAboutJazz article on Jarrett's 2005 Carnegie Hall concert, John Allaster quoted Jarrett as saying, "In a funny way, it's solitaire: I play with the audience, and we almost become the same mental and psychological spirit. Of course, that's the attempt."
Jarrett himself wrote, in the CD liner notes, of the La Scala concert of ten years earlier that a member of audience, a staff member of the Opera House, had come to him after the concert to say that in spite of the fact that he (the audience member) had all of Jarrett's albums and had been a fan for many years, nothing had prepared him for the experience of the live solo concert, which was the "strongest and most moving musical experience he had ever had". Jarrett wrote that all he could do was "to say thank you for reinforcing the fragile (and at times, distant) knowledge that music is in the making of the music. The heart is where the music is."
The sound of Zen
Where does this amazing musical sensitivity and understanding come from? Jarrett has a long and creditable history in jazz, having played with most of the greats, from the early years with Charles Lloyd and Art Blakey, the recordings with Miles Davis and then into his own career starting in the early 70s.
Of Hungarian descent, Jarrett was born on 8 May 1945 in Allentown, PA, where he at an early age showed some prodigious musical talent combined with that extra blessing, perfect (or absolute) pitch. His debut in front of a paying audience was at the age of eight, and he played two of his own compositions on that occasion.
With Davis Jarrett recorded five albums, including Live-Evil and At Fillmore.
From 1971 to 1976 he recorded 14 albums with the quartet which is usually called "The American Quartet", consisting of Jarrett with bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Paul Motian and tenor sax player Dewey Redman.
Also in the mid-70s the "European Quartet" consisting of Jan Garbarek on saxes, Palle Danielsson on bass and Jon Christensen on drums, produced 4 albums, including "Nude Ants." which was recorded at New York's The Village Vanguard in 1979.
A story, possibly apocryphal, of the strange name of this album goes like this: Jarrett was touring in Europe and was asked by his agent, on trans-Atlantic telephone, what he would like the album to be called. "New Dance" was Jarrett's reply, the title of one of the tracks on the album. The agent heard "Nude Ants" and so that is what the album was released as. Well, who knows?
The first solo concert recording released was of 1973 concerts in Bremen and Lausanne. This turned out to be the first in what has become a long line of such concerts, culminating in the 2009 Carnegie Hall concert, which have become almost the Jarrett "brand".
This is risky music, poetic music in which spontaneity is raised to a very high level and musicianship is close to a Zen-like state, as ephemeral as a wisp of incense on the gentle draft of a mediation hall, or the Zen calligraphy paintings that Jarrett speaks of in the interview with Liddell: "Those Zen paintings made with one brushstroke after years of meditation, were always very striking to me. They are not touching the page, then they are, then they are not: and that is exactly what happens when one is truly improvising – you are touching the whole thing, and then it’s gone."
Luckily for us who were not present at the time, the sound recording technology was there and we can at least experience the "photograph" if we cannot experience the flowing stream itself.
And to judge from the photographs, those moments were of the purest musical poetry, capturing the content of the heart where music is.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009