Keith Jarrett


By Carter B. Horsley

At this point in his already long career, Keith Jarrett has mastered many music modes: jazz group improvisation; orchestral composition; percussion; classical interpretation; and, most famously, solo piano improvisation.

More importantly, he has created and recorded magical moments of dazzling, awesome beauty.

Not all the time, however.

His newest CD, "La Scala," (ECM1670), is not one of his best. It is one of his solo piano concerts, this time recorded at the famed Italian opera house. It is harsh, occasionally abrasive, and is not transcendent, as his best solo concerts have been.

It should be avoided, but only in favor of Jarrett's many masterworks.

Jarrett is an infuriating performer, known to stop a concert if too many coughers cannot control themselves and is his own worse distraction, gyrating and crouching and enwrapping himself with his instrument while uttering the occasional and not infrequent gasps and groans and yelps of ecstasy at what he is wringing. Sometimes his vocal outbursts are targeted punctuations that blend into the work in the progress, but often they come awkwardly at transition passages as he has mentally discovered his next turn several measures ahead. Even worse is his soft singing along with his playing, soft enough to alter the tonality of the piece but often seemingly off-key and in an unattrractive voice.

Such accompaniment, of course, is, for Jarrett aficionados, a natural expression of the artist's intense emotionality. For others, it is horrific clashing.

It is unimportant, however, as whatever it takes for Jarrett to cut his jewels is worth it and it is his art.

Jarrett's prolific output and constant pushing of his own artistic envelope has given him many personas that appeal to different tastes. There are many who regard his improvised renditions of "standards" in a traditional jazz trio setting as brilliant, while others find his symphonic works interesting and maturing and his classical interpretations fine, in large part because of his fabulous "touch."

His supreme achievements, however, have been in solo piano improvisations and these have been the most important artistic influence in my life, and doubtless others.

I discovered Jarrett a bit late in the mid-1970's shortly after the release of his first two important, indeed, legendary, solo improvisation recordings, "Bremen-Lausanne" (ECM 1035/37) and "The Koln Concert" (ECM 1064-2).

Enraptured by these works, I was awed by their romantic, soaring, surprising intensity and inventiveness. The beauty mounted and moved with immense passion, overflowing technique, exploding sonority, engulfing the listener with rhapsody.

All listeners have asked themselves incredulously, How could he be flawlessly creating this on the fly?

Wondrous at his best, Jarrett, however, is human and in most of the concerts there have been those lagging moments when it was clear he was a bit "lost," and desperate for inspiration as he crescendoed some rhythmic pattern. How he got out of those problems, those pits, while not stopping, and, more impressively, how well he got out of those problems, were the saving grace of the concerts. No matter how many problems might arise, however, Jarrett is never tentative and is attacking his own stream of consciousness with every fiber and sinew of his prodigious technique, knowledge of the classics, and gospel and funk and jazz and almost never resorted to a cliché.

Sometimes it was apparent that a certain note might not trigger a new line at one level of touch, but he would caress and hammer and pound away at it until it did and the whole piece would shift to a different and usually higher plane.

A few years later, when, inspired by Brian Eno with the sounds of synthesizers, I was doodling on my Moog Source synthesizer, without training or technique, I would resist the despairing urge to give up by incorporating my mistakes into whatever it was I was trying to evoke from my electronic marvel. It propelled me forward and forced me to listen, not to be on guard against mistakes but to test out new patterns, new phasing, new moods. I became acutely aware, especially a bit later when I acquired my first "velocity-sensitive" electronic keyboard, the Rhodes Chroma, how critical my touch was, how a few milliseconds lingering on the black keys, my favorites because there are fewer and better spaced than the crowded white keys that dared my pudgy fingers not to make mistakes, make an incredible difference, to say nothing, of the amplitude of sound that the precise velocity with which they were struck made.

My music is linear abstract, that is, it moves ahead and unfolds with different conversational phrases and voices, not choruses, or refrains, and cares little for motifs. My music, of course, is irrelevant to a discussion of Jarrett's oeuvre, but is mentioned only in the context of improvisation. Without Jarrett as an exemplar, I might never have had the courage to buy a synthesizer since I have no training and virtually no technique. When I make a mistake, I try to find a way to incorporate it into the ongoing dialogue and such accidental, chance twists often add interest to the piece. Needless to say, some mistakes just have to be edited out but then that is what computer musical sequencer programs are all about as well as recording every performance nuance.

Jarrett is decidedly anti-electronic, although he did play some electronic keyboards with Miles Davis early in his remarkable career. More importantly, Jarrett doesn't make mistakes. When he ambles momentarily in his concerts he is listening to the sounds and using them to spark his imagination with very determined and usually inspired skills.

Jarrett's newest release, "La Scala," is a major disappointment for it has now real soaring peaks, no evolved drama and little mystery, all common ingredients in the Jarrett book. The first part is slow, tentative and too long and the second part gets off to a faster start in more of a funky jazz style, but it is almost an hour before his lyricism comes through. The CD ends with a short rendition of "Mon Enfant," that is pleasant in an almost triumphant Bill Evans lullaby manner.

In the disk's notes, Jarrett recalls being approached immediately after the Feb. 13, 1995 concert who turned out to be the assistant to the conductors at La Scala for the past 25 years. "With tears in his eyes at times and gesturing towards his heart to try to convey that his feelings were stronger than words, he told me that he had all of my albums…, but that nothing had prepared him for the experience of this live solo concert….He said it was the strongest, most moving…musical experience he ever had," Jarrett wrote.

Well, not to these ears.

If one has not heard his best solo concerts, one might not be so disappointed. The first, "Bremen Lausanne," was released in 1973. Bremen, which was actually recorded later than Lausanne is on the first disk and consists of two parts that have good sections, but Lausanne, a 64 minute and 53 second tour de force on the second disk is transcendental and heart-clutching with an incredible passage in which he forsakes the piano keys and goes inside the instrument with great results.

The Koln concert, which is one of the all-time jazz best-selling albums, is a more lushly recorded concert, with considerable more reverberation and therefore softness. It begins wonderfully and grows more stately with a ringing, natural flow that jumps to anthemic proportions. About two-thirds of the way through it, Jarrett changes tempos and moves into a more contemplative mode. The rest of the album is full of surprises and great crests.

As fine as Koln is, "Staircase" (ECM 1090/91, released in 1977) is even better. The two-disk set, performed at the Davout Studio in Paris in May, 1976, is comprised of four pieces, "Staircase," "Sundial," "Hourglass," and "Sand." "Hourglass" is Jarrett's masterwork, an obsessed rhapsody and very great beauty. "Sand" is a disappointment only in comparison with the quality of the other three.

Other major solo recordings include concerts in Bregenz and Munchen, Paris, and Vienna and a series of concerts in Japan.

No brief discussion of Jarrett's artistry can not include two other remarkable albums, "Arbour Zena," (ECM 1070), and "Eyes of The Heart," (ECM 1150). The former is a suite of three works that feature solo work by Jarrett, Jan Garbarek on soprano and tenor sax and Charlie Haden on bass with members of the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart, and the latter is a quartet with Jarrett and Haden and Dewey Redman on tenor sax and Paul Motian on drums. The former is exquisite and the latter is titanic, especially Jarrett's opening soprano sax solo and Haden's insistent and powerful bass.

A good "sketch" of Jarrett's life and work by Lynn D. Newton can be found at and it runs to about a 12-page print-out on an ink-jet printer. This long essay includes a good discussion of such important releases as "Hymns Spheres," "Invocations/The Moth and the Flame," "Spirits," "Book of Ways," "The Celestial Hawk," "Personal Mountains," "Belonging," "In the Light," and his fine renditions of hymns by George Gurdjieff.

The Rough Guide to Jazz on CD has a fine website devoted to Keith Jarrett at and it runs to about a 7-page print-out on an ink-jet printer.

Newton cites a book, "Keith Jarrett - The Man and His Music," by Ian Carr, Da Capo Press, 1992.

Jarrett's formidable talent overcomes his occasional pomposity. Indeed, it makes us long for more and easily excuse any overindulgences.


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