August 2010

Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden:
Rare Collaborators

By Howard Mandel

Keith Jarrett is a grand romantic pianist. Trim and youthful at age 65, he’s one of the most popular and critically acclaimed international concert stars of the past 40 years. His audiences come from across all music genres to hear a man who shuns trends and gimmicks in pursuit of spontaneous, transcendent beauty.

Jarrett proudly makes this music himself. Since Facing You, his first album released in 1971 by ECM (which has issued his every legitimate recording thereafter), solo piano performance has been a focus of his attention, though not the only one. Over the decades he’s engaged in some highly creative relationships, but also pared these collaborative associations to a very few. Which makes the return of bassist Charlie Haden after 34 years to Jarrett’s side on a newly released recording—Jasmine, an extraordinary collection of duets recorded in 2007—one of the most gratifying surprises and significant reunions of the year.

Prior to Jasmine, the only musicians to have recorded with Jarrett since 1985 were bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, the stalwarts of his Standards Trio. But Jarrett and Haden share a long history. The pianist famously emerged in the late ’60s from Charles Lloyd’s quartet to join Miles Davis during his halcyon Bitches Brew–Live/Evil era. He recorded his debut as a leader, Life Between The Exit Signs, in 1967—and Haden was there at the start, bassist with drummer Paul Motian in Jarrett’s trio.

Those three recorded live at Shelley’s Manne-Hole in 1968, and again with saxophonist Dewey Redman in 1971, initiating Jarrett’s American Quartet. That ensemble exemplified the rugged, experimental nature of its era. Jarrett dabbled with soprano saxophone, steel drum, conga and Pakistani flute besides piano; Redman sometimes played clarinet or musette instead of tenor, and Haden once (only once!) hooked his upright instrument up to a wah-wah pedal, for “Mortgage On My Soul.”

The American Quartet performed and recorded together until 1977, Haden also cutting a date with the Lee Konitz–Chet Baker–Keith Jarrett Quintet. Haden had Jarrett on Closeness, his own duets album in 1976, including their ballad “Ellen David.” He accompanied Jarrett and the Radio Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart, on Arbour Zena, which also featured Jan Gabarek, the Norwegian saxophonist with whom Jarrett formed his European Quartet in 1977. The American foursome had come to its end. Jarrett recorded in ’77 under the auspices of the Gary Peacock Trio, with Jack DeJohnette, for release by ECM.

From then to now, Jarrett and Haden shared no public profile. The two remained in touch but followed divergent paths. Their first steps towards getting together were not about performing or recording: Jarrett asked Haden to be interviewed for the 2005 documentary film Keith Jarrett: The Art of Improvisation, and Haden asked Jarrett to do the same for Charlie Haden: Rambling Boy, the bio-doc released in 2009. That movie’s climax is a sequence shot in Jarrett’s home studio of the two musicians making music, impromptu.

“I told Charlie I’d talk, not play,” Jarrett recalled of that meeting during a recent phone call.

“I went with the film crew and my wife, Ruth, to see Keith interviewed,” Haden remembered, speaking from California, “and Ruth said, ‘Put your bass in the car.’ After the interview, Keith asked me, ‘Do you have your bass in the car? Bring it in!’ We started playing and it was unreal. They started filming it. After we finished, Keith hugged me and said, ‘This was magical. You’ve got to come back. We’re going to record.’”

The episode in Rambling Boy is uniquely free-flowing and close-up. At points the camera seems to be in Jarrett’s lap. “We were having enough fun playing that it didn’t matter what they did,” said the pianist, who has a reputation for being sensitive about disturbances during performances. “I hadn’t played with Charlie or thought about playing with him for 33 years. Charlie wasn’t clean most of the time I had the American Quartet. This was the first time we worked together when he was cool, when everything was all right for him. It made a big difference.”

Haden’s past struggles with substance abuse are well known. So is his devotion to his art. “I felt we took up where we left off,” the bassist said about the day they were filmed. “We both have the same musical values.”

Did he find Jarrett’s music changed after 33 years? “It’s just gotten deeper,” Haden claimed. “We feel the same way about improvisation: It’s like your whole being is concentrating, and you want to play something that’s never been played before, to put your life on the line. That’s the way he plays. And he really put a lot of thought into everything that had to do with this record. He did that when we had the quartet, too.”

The Jarrett-Haden session occurred just as in Rambling Boy, at Jarrett’s place. According to Jarrett, “I called Charlie and said, ‘We’ve got to do this, record, but without worrying about whether or when it will be released.’” He didn’t tell Manfred Eicher, his ECM producer, of the session for two years.

“I thought this is something that very likely would not come out,” Jarrett explained. “My studio is not meant for this kind of recording, it’s too small. But I brought in Martin Weiland, my favorite sound engineer, from Switzerland. He took out the problematic things about the piano and brought out the good things about the piano very slightly, with just a tiny, tiny bit of echo. At first he had added more, but I said, ‘No, we want it dry, just the way it is.’ Martin made it work.

“Charlie and I were there with the same intention. We wanted to hear exactly what we heard when we played. I had to play to the dynamics presented. With a drummer there’s a whole different set of dynamics. Usually I’m the one who’s hard to hear, but in this case I used the soft pedal a lot, to play the volume down to Charlie’s level. And Charlie tried to blend his dynamics up to mine.

“You know when you’re playing in a certain room why you play a phrase with a certain dynamic, because you’re actually in the room with it and you can hear the room. But when you leave the room and the dynamic is messed with in a mix, you can lose reality. You wonder, ‘Why would I play that loud or that soft there?’ On Jasmine, you hear it as it was in the room’s ambiance, and it makes sense. “Listen to the sound of Charlie’s bass on the record, for example. It has his depth without heaviness. That’s Charlie’s sound,” Jarrett announced with satisfaction. “I think he felt it was the best he’d been recorded.”

Haden concurred. “When I sat and listened, heard the clarity and brilliance of the sound—I mean, you can hear Keith’s fingers on the keys, the mallets hitting the strings of the piano, my fingers on the neckboard!”

Jarrett resumed: “I don’t like to mess with purity when it’s already there. Charlie and I knew what we felt when we worked on the film, and we didn’t want to mess with that. I was not going to say, ‘Let’s play free,’ or something like that. I don’t really like duos and I don’t like chamber music in general, so I had to find my way into this such that it would have everything jazz has, the essence of it, but without a drummer. I think what we did was manage to make a statement not about how to play in duo without a drummer, but how to play music as though there are no drummers. It takes two people who have incredible time not to rely on somebody hitting things, making cymbal sounds.

“Charlie’s virtue is the quality of his listening while he plays. He’s developed the center, the core, from the listener’s point of view. Even if he’s not given chords, he still knows how to move along with the soloist.”

How does playing with Haden compare to playing with Gary Peacock?

“It’s apples and oranges,” Jarrett said quickly. “They haven’t had the same kind of musical education, for one thing. Gary’s contribution to music has been very technical; he raised the bar back in the ’60s by attacking the challenges with passion, and taking risks.

“He’s a hero for me, in part because he’s gone through so much physical craziness [a bout of cancer, a serious operation, hearing loss] and he’s a decade older than I am. But Gary and I have never played duos. One thing about him is that he is not attuned to lyrics. A couple of years ago he asked me, ‘Keith, do you know the lyrics to all these ballads?’ He had finally figured out how I could be phrasing the way I do. “Charlie listens to singers, and so do I. He’s very aware of lyrics, maybe because he started out as a singer. Due to that, I thought ballads would be good for both of us, because we know what they’re about. If you know the thrust of the message of a piece, it really helps.

“I wouldn’t call Charlie a technician, but he’s so good at what he does he has to be a technician,” Jarrett asserted. “At one point he looked over at me and said, ‘Keith, I had no idea you have such good time, I don’t remember that about you.’ To which I answered, ‘You and I have impeccable time.’ It’s easier to know that about a bassist than a pianist, because a pianist can phrase outside the beat while the bassist has to stay with it. You might notice on the record that Charlie and I always know where the ‘one’ is. Whatever we’re doing, we come in together almost as if someone’s conducting. Even after the double-time parts.”

Jasmine has an intense yet understated sway that Jarrett suggests will have couples dancing intimately in their living rooms. Its mood is reflective and tender, reminiscent of The Melody, At Night, With You, the solo album he recorded in his home in 1999 after recovering sufficiently from myalgic encephalomyelitis (aka, chronic fatigue syndrome), which had stricken him in 1996. As such, Jasmine is a far cry from Testament, his previous double album of solo Paris and London concerts from Nov. 26 and Dec. 1, 2008, respectively. Those were his first public performances after being left by his wife of 20 years. Like all of Jarrett’s solo concerts, they are models of transparency, of virtually unmediated expression. In London, he was inspired to conjure unusual atonal stretches. But he tries not to edit himself in solo performance—spontaneity is his whole point.

“This is what I do. This is who I am,” he had said during an interview conducted in autumn 2009 at his home in the New Jersey woodlands, about 50 miles from New York City. “It’s a ritual that I sort of invented, and also a bio-feedback mechanism for me. I don’t actually know how I’m doing sometimes until I hear what just came out from my hands.”

If such description makes Jarrett’s solo discipline seem self-absorbed, his duos with Haden are explicitly a gift intended to be people-pleasing. In liner notes to Jasmine Jarrett wrote, “It [the album] is not for us alone; it is also made for you, the listener, to feel these same feelings along with us, to participate and to also be uplifted by it. … Here is some music for you. Take it and it’s yours.” So why surround the project with secrecy? Why did it wait three years to be released? Jarrett wanted to get it just right.

“I was responsible for the first year-and-a-half,” he acknowledged. “I think Charlie simply wanted to get the album out, then I think he realized, ‘Keith does these things methodically; I’ll trust him,’ and he became a great ally working on this. I don’t think I’ll ever have a better partner choosing tracks.

“Usually a jazz player will say, ‘I didn’t like how I played on this one, let’s use the other take.’ But in the end we chose the music that kept its integrity throughout the entire track, and the virtuosic or solo concept became secondary.”

Haden had never played “Where Could I Go Without You,” “One Day I’ll Fly Away” and “Don’t Ever Leave Me” prior to the sessions. “We didn’t rehearse,” he said. “Keith wrote down some chords for me, and turned on the machine. These tracks, we agreed, were our most consistently perfect.” He laughed. “We accepted the imperfection of perfection.”

“Over three years,” Jarrett said, “we spent nighttime after nighttime listening to the songs. I’m sure I listened to them hundreds of times. I never got tired of them. Charlie’s told me he did the same thing. He’d do a session, or teach, then come home, get ready for bed and put on our duo thing. It was a kind of grounding for him.

“After two years we told Manfred about the tapes and let him hear them. Then he and Charlie and I had arguments about the takes. OK, so we’d listen and investigate some more. I’d say, ‘We’re talking about the overall feeling of the track, not one moment of the track. Does it actually speak with continual integrity?’ In the end, everybody agreed with everybody. Luckily, the final selections were the ones I chose. I’m good at that.”

He’s also expert at sequencing songs—a challenge in this case because the pieces were in similar tempos and the same keys, yet of varying lengths. “The way it finally popped out, after all the trial versions I made, was completely irrational, but just right,” Jarrett said. “It was like going nuts for three years, then going very sane. “That first E-flat chord after the B-flat pickup, where we come in together on ‘For All We Know,’ that’s the beginning of something. It had to be first. From there, ‘Where Can I Go Without You’ is almost the same tempo, almost the same length. Then there are two shorter pieces [the uptempo ‘No Moon At All’ and ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’], two longer tracks side by side [including a definitive ‘Body And Soul’], a medium-long version of ‘Goodbye’ and a short ‘Don’t Ever Leave Me.’ When I arrived at that, I knew there was no way it could be better.”

“When Keith sent me the order of the songs, then called me, I said, ‘Man, how did you ever figure this out?’” Haden enthused. “It’s really perfect!”

“An incredible amount of work went into the sequencing,” Jarrett sighed. “People have no idea what I put into every release. They really don’t.”

Charlie Haden does. DB

For more information, go to ECM Records