May 1992

Maintaining Standards: Keith Jarrett and Dave Grusin

By Becca Pulliam

What could be more intriguing than a conversation between the prickly Keith Jarrett and the smooth Dave Grusin? They both play the piano and compose in and out of jazz, although Grusin’s ventured into the keyboards and computers while Jarrett is a self-described Luddite (with a smile) whose artistic tools are his Steinway and a pencil. Perhaps their sharpest disagreement was about instruments. Grusin tried to posit that synthesizers are made musical by the nuances applied to the electronics. For Jarrett music is food, synthesizers are plastic broccoli. And they sound like cigarette smoke.

But these men hold a lot in common. They’re smart. They’re aware of each other. They seem to enjoy the high-quality conversation. They talk about details and envision the bigger picture. They have fun with it. They’re concerned about the world, and they care about music. Invite either one of them to your campus not just to perform but to lecture!

Both have recently released collections of American standards. Grusin’s The Gershwin Connection—a dozen 1991 arrangements featuring appearances by sidemen and soloists from the GRP family—just won him a Grammy for arranging. Jarrett’s The Cure—with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette—is a 1990 performance at Town Hall. For these two individualists, the return to standard material became the focus of a wide-ranging discussion that took place at the GRP offices overlooking Manhattan—a high perch from which Jarrett introduced his “flatland” perspective on the two-dimensionality of most music today. Both had a lot to say. Here is the essence of their conversation.

Becca Pulliam: Does the world really need another “All The Things You Are”?

Keith Jarrett: The world needs more than that.

BP: Please elaborate.

KJ: I can say for myself why standard tunes have played a big role recently was because I found the music world going too far to “possessiveness.” Everyone had to be doing their own thing. So the standard tune format freed the trio from any responsibility other than making music.

Dave Grusin: Well, I started out as an arranger of standard material, and I went from that to writing “original” music for film. I can say that the relief that Keith describes about doing your version of material that already exists is a real relief.

KJ: You’ve heard of Dixieland. I think that most of jazz now is Disneyland! Meaning that it’s 3/4 scale, its streets are clean, and the buildings are empty. The reality’s smaller, the advertising’s bigger. I heard an early Ornette record that I hadn’t heard in a long time, and it’s so willfully creative. To me that’s not Disneyland music. But one reason everybody’s coming out with things that say “standards” all over them is because melodists are disappearing. Song is disappearing. And I think song is disappearing because the soul of the planet is also not so strong. I think melody is the soul.

DG: I don’t think a lot that we’ve known and loved, I don’t think it could be written now. I miss whatever it was in our society that gave us The George White Scandals, gave us a possibility of Rodgers and Hart songs stepping out of those shows. They weren’t all wonderful, but there were always these little gems that stepped out.

KJ: They’re more precious if they’re not being done now, too. I think our perceptions—if we aren’t careful—start reducing along with what’s missing in the world. It won’t take much, just a little let-go, and then we’ll say, “Hey, that’s not so bad. I heard something that was worse than that the other day.” Right?

DG: [Laughs] Absolutely.

KJ: When I think of a “song” [I think of] fluid or roundness. But what you’re hearing more and more [today] are edged textures. They go along with digital watches; and that goes with the information age, because in the information age how do you know what is valuable information and what isn’t? It’s all information.

BP: When a young player comes along and plays a tune wrong, is that evolutionary or is that not doing one’s research?

KJ: Depends on the tune. Some of those original things are so terrible! One chord change could make the tune good.

DG: Incidentally, my perception of Gershwin is that he already figured out what the best substitution changes were going to be.

KJ: I think that’s true of Gershwin because, contrary to many of the standard tune writers, he’s not writing vertically. He’s writing how a line moves in harmony under…

DG: The “thumb lines”…[counter-melodies played by a pianist’s left thumb]

KJ: It’s all counterpoint. “My Man’s Gone Now” is one of the tunes that—if you had to analyze it in blocks—you’d come to places in the tune where you’d say, “What?!” But if you know Gershwin’s actual original score notes, and see that there’s a moving line from [point] A to [point] B, and in between is a voice-leading note, you’d go, “Ah!” [satisfaction and relief.] DG: Particularly the bridge. There are chord progressions as amazing as anything you could think of using today with traditional harmony.

KJ: Somehow I associate the counterpoint, the lines moving under other lines, as an awareness of the roundness of time. And so on the “flatland,” Gershwin’s poking up through there, which is why those things remain unable-to-be-made-better. He not only had the inspiration for the discrete components of these pieces, but he had the inspiration for the glue between those components.

DG: I think what George Gershwin was trying to do, particularly at the end, was consciously synthesize jazz and classical music.

KJ: Because of that, the other writers ended up being much better to play as an improviser. They gave you some very inspired things, but there’s a fill-in-the-blanks process. You are not stuck with an already-existing best-possible method.

BP: About the lyrical aspect of this, as pianists, improvisers, and performers, is the lyric in your mind as you play?

DG: As an accompanist, I know a lot of songs from having learned them to play for a singer, so lyrics are kind of married at that point.

KJ: Accompanying is a subject all to itself, very unmentioned, but it’s another art form.

BP: Neither of you is particularly an accompanist. KJ: Well, I feel like I am.

DG: Yeah, me too.

KJ: I’m always accompanying Gary [Peacock] and Jack [DeJohnette]! [laughter] I played for numerous vocalists in the early stages of pianism and I wouldn’t know what to trade it [for]. There’s something about doing that, especially with a voice, with words. You’re dealing with pauses that would never exist in an instrumental—elasticity and dynamics.

DG: That’s been my life. I’m not a slob pianist. I don’t perform. I like to play on records, and I like to play in the studio, and I like to work with other musicians. But I started out being in demand in college because I was a good accompanist. I always had a feel for it, a sensitivity and an attempt to support it, and I think that’s why I became and arranger.

KJ: That’s perfect. That describes, I mean it explains what he does! DG: Yeah, that’s why I became an arranger. That’s why I became a film composer, because I’m supporting something else.

KJ: In other words, he’s good at relating and I’m not! [they both laugh] Just kidding.

BP: Is there a lost opportunity because film music doesn’t generate standards anymore?

DG: Oh my god, please don’t let songs come from the medium [laughs], or we’re all in trouble forever.

KJ: I’m glad you said that!

DG: Usually what happens in a film project is that there’s some kind of thematic things that hopefully shows up, and I can say, “Yeah, this feels good to me.” Then, if there’s a chance anywhere in the film for a reading of that and it makes sense musically, then somebody says, “That should really be a nice song.” And then the lyric comes out to be one of those wonderful lyrics that also could make sense on its own. Those are a lot of “if’s” and the number of times that happens are few.

KJ: DownBeat is a jazz-tinted magazine at least. Right?

BP: “Jazz, Blues & Beyond” is on the cover.

DG: We’re not sure what the beyond is but…

KJ: Today you’re speaking to someone who is considered by some people to be a jazz musician, so I’ll take this opportunity to say that jazz is risk, and without the risk there’s no reward either for the player or for the audience. And when I see the classical music world—which I’ve been seeing very much of recently—I’m beginning to realize how precious that really is. Classical players shake their heads at allegro, their hair flies around the audience wakes up and applauds. The notes are what they are, and it can only be the best of those notes. A jazz player on a certain night, something can happen and from that point he is not the same. He’ll be playing the rest of his life, and he’ll have that as a part of him.

DG: I think you treasure those moments. If you’re realistic you don’t expect them to happen every bar of every chorus.

KJ: The risk is that it won’t; and most of the time, it won’t! [laughs]

DG: But the challenge is that you try to stay on the edge. You put yourself on the edge so that if it’s available to happen you’re ready for it to happen. I don’t do that. Keith does that more with more fluidity and more constant putting himself out on the edge.

KJ: I put myself there, but what happens is never as good as it could be. People come and say, “How did you do that?” They think that they’re hearing the best it could be, and I’m saying to myself, “Next time…”

DG: But if you didn’t feel that way, they might not have that opinion even of what they think you were going for. The standard would have been somewhere else.

KJ: Which is exactly why I used the word “standards” when we did Standards Volume 1 in ’83. Everyone thought it was standard tunes. That isn’t why. Standards. Basic standards. Standards for doing what we were about to do.

BP: You don’t play standards as solos. It sounds as though this is a communal thing, these standards.

KJ: You are communing with a cast stretch of time. You can change the past if you’re aware of it. I think you can communicate to previous eras by dealing with some of the material from those eras.

DG: When one is learning classical music, for instance, you’re really studying history. If you go back to the repertoire, why do you play the trill this way? When you play Mozart you’re playing it this way. Even though jazz is more compressed and newer, I think it’s a similar thing.

BP: I wonder why Stevie Wonder’s songs are not becoming standards. He’s prolific, they have a message, there’s a melody. Is jazz going a different direction from songwriting?

KJ: I think they’re too rich. There’s a richness in harmonies that you can’t escape from an improvising point of view. They’re beautiful things but I would leave them alone.

DG: I know some of the rhyme schemes that we’ve come to accept drive lyric writers crazy. Stevie is such a talent that when he performs his stuff he can make it happen. I think the marriage of the performance and the writer is too close to break. Marvin Gaye is a better example of that kind of songwriting that maybe has life outside of the original performance.

BP: Where else do you look?

DG: I tell you where I don’t look is [he gestures out the window to the southeast] Broadway.

KJ: Jazz depends on an individual person to make it happen even it’s trivial material, which it often should be ’cause it works nicely. But I don’t think we deserve standards. [long pause] Why should we expect there to be standards at this time? Why should we expect there to be something permanent when nothing else is that way? Why should there be music that will last forever now? And anyway, I think we have enough music.

DG: I think we need more music, but we don’t need standards. I know that there are people who feel that they are part of the tradition of songwriting, that they are as dedicated as they could be asked to be. I’m thinking of Marilyn and Alan Bergman, who write lyrics to Michel Legrand themes. They truly believe in the Tin Pan Alley tradition. Maybe those things will emerge as a continuation of the Rodgers and Hart songbook. I don’t know. I know that they’re not being written as reactions to contemporary life as we’ve come to know it, and I think what Keith’s saying is that contemporary life is not conducive to writing those things.

KJ: Not only am I saying that, but I just realized that I’m also saying [that] if we want to take advantage of this time now, we shouldn’t be thinking about writing standard tunes. I think it’s time to remember the first musicians. I think it’s time to imagine ourselves in as primitive a state as we really are; and if we can do that, the standards will eventually arise—if there are such things as standards.

DG: Also, you know, we limited this discussion to music.

BP: It’s pushing the boundaries.

DG: There are a lot of things that are so important when you stop to think about it. [Looking south form West 57th Street over a wide but smoggy panorama of midtown Manhattan and beyond, with the Hudson River and Jersey to the east, he seems to pull this example from thick air.] I have 65 heifers, and they’re all going to calf this spring. And if something happens in the middle of the night to one of those calves and there’s a difficultly in delivery, non of this matters to me. None of it. I think all of us have times in our lives when [music] is the be-all-and-end-all. It certainly was for me early on. But in the overall spectrum of things, we’ve got a lot of other problems in this country.

KJ: You’re out there as a musician, and meanwhile you’re realizing that it’s a drop in the bucket. But when everybody’s looking at the bucket as though it’s so important, when the whole music world is so blown up like a blimp, and when video—and we didn’t even get to this—video represents the flatland to me more than anything there is. We are a visual culture. We don’t know we’re using our ears and we’re using them. But we are choosing what to look at. That can only end up being a culture that gets manipulated by the images it sees. Image is nothing. Image turns on and off. But reality is the cows. Not a film of the cows. Not a film of someone playing music.

Ezra Pound said, “Nothing matters save the quality of affection.” As a soloist in jazz, you have the responsibility to have a strong quality of affection for what you’re doing every time you play. That’s a nice quote, especially in this computer age.

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