Ladies and gentlemen, meet Keith Jarrett. You say you already know all there is to know about the pianist/composer/improviser? You’ve followed him through his reputation-building term with Charles Lloyd in the &rsquo:60s heyday of flower power; his subsequent electric excursions into Fillmore rock psychedelia alongside Miles Davis; his trend-setting solo piano extravaganzas stretching back over a decade; his two distinct yet decisive quartets, one American (Dewy Redman, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian), one Scandinavian (Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson, John Christensen); his chamber music experiments from In The Light; his spontaneous hymns coaxed from a baroque organ; his composed “concertos” for (variously) piano, flute, saxophone, bass plus orchestra; even his recent return to a stripped-down trio (Jack DeJohnette, Gary Peacock)—and you know just how to categorize him: Jarrett the mystic, Jarrett the Romantic, Jarrett the poseur, Jarrett the pianist?
You may know all that, but I humbly submit that if you know Keith Jarrett through his music, you know him not at all, for music is sound solely, and sounds can be deceiving. A note reveals nothing about the intent behind it—to discern that, you’ve got to open yourself. If nothing else, the encyclopedic list of activities above suggests a musician of more than a single mind; in fact, Jarrett is a man of contradictions. Some small sense of this can be heard in the range of emotions within his music—from the ruthless, slashing, Ornette-ish abandon of the American quartet to the simple, solitary, sweet and sentimental ballad moments solo; from the gotta testify gospel chord changes to the meditational abstractions focusing on the beauty behind a single sound…
But contradiction goes beyond sound. Though identified closest with spontaneously conceived solo piano concerts, where he seems to go one-on-one with the Muse, Jarrett’s still concerned with the well-being of his audience. For the supposed egoist, he’s insecure about his technique—so that his switch from solo concerts to classical concertos is a test not only for his audience, but for himself as well.
“Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict my-self/(I am large, I contain multitudes),” Walt Whitman wrote, suggesting that life is based on contradictions. Contradiction inspires concern and abandon—both necessary for a creative artist. Contradiction implies change and growth, not stasis. Contradiction allows for failures and successes. And contradiction acknowledged admits a struggle with forces possibly larger and more important than we casually care to recognize. Keith Jarrett, in his music and philosophies, is a contradiction. Good for him. Good for us.
Art Lange: I understand that you are concentrating on performing classing concertos these days, though you’ve been involved with classical music all your life…
Keith Jarrett: In the beginning I was trained to become a classical pianist, but it’s just now becoming a public focus—actually it’s not all that public yet. To develop repertoire takes a lot of years, and I’m mostly working on that now.
AL: Why have you decided to start performing concertos at this time?
KJ:It’s a complex question. It’s not a decision as much as a pulling back from a kind of expectancy of freedom in what I’ve been doing up to now—and I don’t mean my own expectancy, I mean the audience’s. Their definition of freedom is becoming as limited as it was when, let’s say, a solo concert would have been a revolutionary thing to do. So now the audience is thinking that unless it’s an improvised solo concert, it isn’t as much music making as it is in, say, a Mozart piano concerto. I would like to direct them slightly away from that focus—including the fact that solo improvised concerts can go on forever. There’s no reason for them to stop, which is a good reason to stop.
In order to hear the recent solo concerts, a listener has had to hear how I’m playing the piano, much more than they did during the Köln Concert years. Then it was a flurry of ideas coming up within a limited dynamic range; now the dynamic range and how to play the instrument is so much more important in order to hear the concert. So maybe I can direct a classical audience to improvising and direct a jazz audience to trying to gain a little bit of interest, let’s say, to come to grips with what that person is doing with his instrument.
AL:How do you prepare for a notated classical piece? Is it different from the way you prepare for your own music?
KJ:It’s exactly the same as if I were performing my own written music. But if I were going to improvise, then the preparation is reversed. Whatever you know about how to prepare for a written piece, you would have to reverse all the instructions for solo concerts. So you can understand why I cannot do both at the same time for very long periods of time. I’d go insane. “What am I doing tonight? Do I have the music? Do I have the music?” I have to sit down, for example, in order to play Mozart. Playing Mozart standing up is a contradiction in language. Also it’s important for any player to know a lot about that composer, not just look at the notes. That’s another parallel to knowing your instrument: knowing about the composer. “We don’t want to worry about the composer, let’s just play these notes.” Well, that doesn’t work.
At any rate, the way I prepare for a concerto is the way any concerto player prepares; I think perhaps I’m more fanatical than most because I have much more to lose by not succeeding. Not matter what I do, it will probably get written up whereas in a debut of someone in New York, no one’s going to get all upset if he has a bad concert. If I have a bad concert, it’s known all over the world.
AL: So, technically, you practice, whereas in getting set for improvising, you don’t want to practice because you don’t want preconceived things going in.
KJ:Well, when improvising, you don’t know what language you might have to use, or what language might come out that you’d have to be involved with. In other words, you shouldn’t even hear pianos or be near pianos for a while. It should all be, again, a new sound, from almost a primitive beginning. But with, let’s just take Mozart for an example, to even get past what is banal about Mozart’s music means you have to understand the language he speaks. To understand that language means you have to know about fortepianos and harpsichords to hear the sound he heard. Once you get into all these things, you start to realize how few people play Mozart, you know? Most people play themselves playing Mozart, and the more they ignore that side of things, the more they would be playing their own natural tendencies rather than Mozart’s music.
AL:You’re actually talking about another contradiction, because you’re immersing yourself—or at least becoming comfortable—with certain aspects of Mozart’s style, and “style” is a word you want to avoid when you improvise.
KJ:That’s right. Well, many improvisers might not think that way. The way I relate to it is that improvisation is really the deepest way to deal with moment-to-moment reality in music. There is no deeper way, personally deeper. But there is not less depth in working with someone else’s music—having found his depth becomes exactly the same. And the people who think the two things are different are going to lose out when they come to listen to on or the other.
AL:Of the concertos you’ve played so far, Mozart is the only non-20th century composer. Is that because it’s harder to get close to Mozart’s style because you’re so chronologically so far removed from it?
KJ:This choice of how to start the ball rolling was more to do with the audience being able to accept my playing Bartok first, rather than my wanting to play Bartok first. I would have wanted to play Bach, Beethoven first. If it was just like, “What do you want to play today?” I wouldn’t say, “Hey, Bartok, man.” I would say, “Well, in the situation I’m in what would be the way to open this door?” Number one, the concerto I chose of Bartok’s [Concerto #2] is one of the hardest piano concertos there is, so from the technical point of view, if I succeed at that, no one’s going to fret anymore about whether I can play and such a piece or not—including me. I mean I have to prove to myself that I can do it. Secondly, from the point of view of the material and how it relates to what I’ve done up to that time, the shock is less great for the audience. I mean, to go straight into Mozart would have been very difficult.
AL: Bartok, Barber, Stravinsky, who you’ve played, all have rhythmic elements that are closer to what a jazz audience is used to hearing than Mozart or Beethoven.
KJ: That’s right, they can be digested. Their language is not that distance from what a jazz listener has heard. In fact, in Stravinsky’s case, in Barber’s case, they were influenced by a lot of jazz, wrote a lot of seemingly jazz-oriented things. Although in one of his interviews, Stravinsky—of all the people to choose as an example of an influential jazz player—chose Shorty Rogers: “If you listen to Shorty Rogers’ phrasing you would find such-and-such a thing.”
AL: If left to your own devices, your choice, you would have wanted to initially play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven…
KJ: Well, I only say that because I don’t play those pieces in public because they’re so far divorced from jazz, so you’d personally want to go as far as you can in the other direction?
AL: Do you think you’d like to play those pieces in public because they’re so far divorced from jazz, so you’d personally want to go as far as you can in the other direction?
KJ: Good question. Right, except I have no intention of divorcing myself from jazz, and that’s an interesting way of putting that question. I have absolutely no strings that have been untied from anything I have done; I’m just adding maybe a thicker rope, in a way, to all music that I consider, through certain subjective and objective processes, to be important to me. So the question about would I play Bach or Beethoven because of the difference—it’s really the opposite. I feel that Bach and what I do myself are much closer than Bartok is to what I do in the solo concerts. It’s the way the music sounds to the listener that makes it seem different. When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, Bach and I are friends, Beethoven and I are friends, Mozart and I are friends sometimes, Bartok and I are friends because we’re Hungarian, you know? And on and on. But I know if I went to jail and was allowed to take only one composer’s music, I would probably take Bach’s music.
AL: Do you think you feel an affinity for the three you mentioned—Bach, Beethoven, and to a degree, Mozart…
KJ: I should probably add Handel in there too…
AL:…because they were the improvising keyboard artists of their time?
KJ: I think the music is better because their relationship to improvising was so strong. I wouldn’t say I like their music because they were all improvisers, but there was something in the music, and I would say it is the ecstatic knowledge that comes through in Bach’s music and in Beethoven’s music. It’s the knowledge of the ecstatic state—which means that’s why their music conveys so much. [With Bach] almost every time and no matter what state you’re in—at least I should speak for myself—there is something coming through, whereas with almost every other composer’s music, I need to be in a certain mood to listen to it. So to me that means there’s less being communicated. I know that when you’re an improviser, a true improviser, you have to be familiar with ecstasy, otherwise you can’t connect with music. When you’re a composer, you can wait for those moments, you know, whenever. They might no be here today. But when you’re an improviser, at 8 o’clock tonight, for example, you have to be so familiar with that state that you can almost bring it on.
AL: So you do that—you bring the state on, but you don’t bring on the music that that state leads to.
KJ: And this is what I can give back to all the composers I play, who I believe were familiar with that state. Within their own language I might be able to give them just a little gift of having understood how tremendous their struggle was with a particular note. Classical players are aware of this process because they’re usually studious about everything the do—if they’re good—but that doesn’t mean they’re aware of the state as much as, “Oh yes, this phrase means this.” If you don’t have a relationship with the state that produced the phrase, you can’t be as good a player of the music. That’s what I hope I can bring.
AL: So far you’ve only performed concertos in public. Do you see yourself doing solo classical recitals?
KJ: Yes I do, but I’m not sure when.
AL: Do you have any idea yet what music?
KJ: Not really. I’ve been working on the Beethoven sonatas for about 13 years now, fairly regularly. I didn’t have this studio until several years ago, and before that I didn’t practice a hell of a lot because improvising and practicing don’t work well together.
AL: I take it you wouldn’t consider doing a program of a Bach toccata, a Beethoven sonata, and a Jarrett improvisation.
KJ: No, probably not. The subject has come up, as you can imagine. An orchestra says, “Would you do this concerto with us and would you improvise in the second half?” No. I feel that is using my music as a means of filling out the program.
AL: You don’t feel that it might highlight some of those connections to the audience—you’ve played Bach and then you play your music so that they could hear some of the things you hear?
KJ: It certainly would be possible, but it would be too easy. For them and me. Already we’re at the point where they want to hear rich ideas related to their favorite solo recordings. They do not want to see that next step, and they won’t accept that next step within the context of a solo improvised concert.
I had an interesting interview with the Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu, recently. He decided he wanted to interview me for their classical music magazine. He was asking me why my solo concerts were slowing down and stopping, and he said something about, “Is it because you don’t want to possess the music anymore?” And that was precisely right. The only reason I bring this up is because I don’t feel like a composer at this moment at all. And I talk to people about stopping the solo concerts, and they say, “Oh my god,” or “Well maybe you’ll be writing something soon.” And I tell them, “Wait a minute, you don’t understand. This is a positive thing that is happening to me.” It really is positive, in a sense that anyone who wants to listen to what I’m doing this year has to listen to other people’s music, who they may don’t have a relationship with, and come to terms with whether they can deal with my relationship to those people or not. Which is exactly what you do when you’re listening, you know? “What did I like or what didn’t I like about it? Was it the piece, or was it the way they played the piece? Or maybe I just don’t think he can do this; he shouldn’t be doing this.” All those things have no application to this point somewhere, he’s going to play his own music. Even now if I play a concerto and the audience wants an encore, they want me to improvise.
AL: So in addition to broadening your own musical expertise, you’re trying to broaden the listener’s range of musical experience as well.
KJ: My experience has been that when you risk losing a listener, you’re either doing something terrible or something very important. I’ve come to terms with when I’m doing something terrible—I’m the first person to know it’s bad. If I continue that, then all I have to do is put those pieces together, and if I’m still risking the listening public, it’s got to be a right step, you know? With the exception of pure shock value—anyway, there’s no shock left.
AL: Let’s talk about the difference between writing for orchestra and writing for a “jazz” quartet. You’ve had two well-known quartets that you’ve written for…
KJ: The hard part of writing for an orchestra is writing for an orchestra. The hard part of the quartet situation is not the writing at all—it’s the question of how to make it a personal statement for everyone in the band. So that’s the separate thing. In other words, if you take these four people and subtract even one and put a different person in it, the music I would write for that group should be different. And if anyone ever does a study on it, they’ll see that the American quartet and the Scandinavian group and even the music I wrote for the trio at the Vanguard—I don’t know if it will ever get recorded—but you could put them beside each other—and even the string music for Jan—and see how much consideration went into who was playing.
AL: I think they sound very different…
KJ: Yeah, but a lot of people attribute that to the players. Like they’ll say positive or negative things about “The Swedish band doesn’t exert enough.” Or, “Charlie Haden and Paul Motian were always pulling and stretching things, and we think that challenged Jarrett’s creativity.” But what they’re really hearing isn’t quite what they’re saying. What they’re saying is true, but what they’re hearing is how considerate I had to be to write for each of those bands. If I wrote the Belonging music with Charlie and Paul in the band they couldn’t be pulling in that way. The language wouldn’t work. I’d have to stop and say, “Listen, Charlie, you gotta come down on ‘one’ here.” If I wrote chords in a certain manner for Dewey, for example, and he was playing on changes, it would be a whole different sound. By Jan somehow changing his language, and the way the four of us played together, that worked. Someday I’m pretty sure that there’ll be some serious studies of a lot of things, and I hope to be alive to see a few of them [laughs]. Just for fun, to see if it ever really happens.
AL: So whenever you’ve composed something, it’s been for very specific reasons or a specific situation. If you had to compose quartet music, it was for a particular group of jazz players…
KJ: In jazz, yeah…
AL: …and if it was an orchestral piece it was because you were commissioned or…
KJ: Well, no, actually In The Light was a collection of pieces I wrote with no outlet at all. But we all have youthful flows of ideas at a certain stage of our lives, and whatever happens, happens in that period of time. What happened in that period for me was I was not working, I didn’t have a good instrument, I didn’t have a suitable place to live, and writing certainly made some sense. It was a way of expressing something.
AL: You’ve titled a lot of pieces “Hymn,” even though they’re different sounding pieces in different contexts. Why “Hymn”?
KJ: Well, in the sense that Bach always ended pieces with a dedication to God. It’s the same thing. If I could call everything I did Hymn, it would be appropriate, because that’s what they are when they’re correct. I connect every music-making experience I have, including every day here in the studio with a great [long pause] power, and if I do not surrender to it, nothing happens. In that sense everything feels like a hymn, because I don’t have access to this just by the fact of being Keith Jarrett and having recorded all the time. There’s no reason why I should have this experience ever. Every time it’s a gift. So if I want to acknowledge this gift, I would have to call it a hymn. Ritual was, in a way, just another word about something perhaps surrounding a state of prayer.
AL: When trying to describe your solo concerts, a lot of people say they hear traces of all different kinds of music: Oriental music, Russian music, Mideastern music, Scottish bagpipe drones, English folk tunes, Indian folk music and all this other stuff. I don’t know if they think you’ve digested all this stuff, and are consciously or subconsciously throwing it in there. Why do you think that is?
KJ: If I were a “stylist,” it wouldn’t happen. If I were a self-conscious artist the way most people think an artist is supposed to be for some reason—and mostly critics seem to think that — I would be saying something only I could say, and I would always be avoiding saying anything anyone else has ever said, and I would be somehow unique. Where to me—I’ve said this before—that’s step number one: you finally have your sound and what you like; you have a way of making your music. Now, throw that away, and that’s the beginning of being an artist. People want to stop at step one and say, “Listen, man, this sounds like everything; it’s electric!” Call it anything you want; all I know is that step two is that you have to throw that away. And if you throw it away, then at any moment you can sound like anything, except it won’t be that other thing.
AL: Does it bother you when people use those “influences” to latch on to?
KJ: It bothers me how easy it is to do it, and that they choose listening to it that way because it’s easier to do that. Associative listening, I guess I would call it.
AL: Listening for recognizable events.
KJ: If they come to hear me, they want to hear my music, and if I come out with the attitude that none of it’s mine, something’s gonna go wrong. You can see how directly it leads, from improvising and not wanting to possess the music I improvise, to playing other people’s music. Really, I’ve been feeling in the last few years, even while improvising, I am playing other people’s music, or other music. It isn’t mine.
AL: So this is the reason for getting involved not only in public performances of concertos, but also the LP of standards with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock.
KJ: Yes. Standards was, believe it or not, the opening to the classical thing, like a stop-off in American Songwriterville, trying to pay back some of my debt to the kind of debt to the kind of music I felt Gary and Jack and I had as a kind of tribal language that we all grew up with. We had a very serious dinner the night before we recorded. I prepared in advance of this dinner to talk about non-possessivness, about how I didn’t have any arrangements, how there was not going to be any idea of how to do these things. Just, “Do you like this song?” I had a list of songs, and we’d decided to try one, and almost without exception that was a take. Including what everyone thinks was made for the mass market—God Bless The Child. It was absolutely nothing except that bass octave, and then Jack started to play the thing and that was it.
AL: When you’re playing standards like that, the American popular song, do you hear the lyrics when you’re playing?
KJ: Yes. That was the other thing I talked about the evening, although it was mainly for my benefit. I wasn’t going to play a melody that was nothing but notes; I was going to play only melodies that I was familiar with verbally.
AL: So they lyrics are part of what you relate to…
KJ: Well, I thought the these pieces have been played in trio contexts before but not in trio contexts with utter respect for the song above everything else—above how the solos are, above anything. Just respect for the song. So when we went in there the next day, I could tell we were all thinking the same thing. I would think of a song, and Jack might start singing the bridge and the lyrics and say, “Yeah, okay.” The second volume has a ballad on it that I think—not trying to sound too identified with the record since it’s mine—but I think it’s the best melody playing by a trio of a ballad I’ve ever heard. We’ll see. Most likely what I’ll hear is, “He’s singing too much on this.” [Laughs.]
AL: Since so much of your creativity is concerned with the process rather than the end result, how important is the piano to you, specifically? Is it just a tool that, if you could get that source without the piano, you’d be willing to give up?
KJ: Well, I’ve created a history, you know? A kind of architecture that includes the piano, and I’ve created and audience who, no matter what I say about them at any time, wouldn’t exist at this moment without my piano music. If I didn’t feel responsibility for them, then the piano wouldn’t be a necessary tool for anything—anyway, for getting into the state I spoke of previously. The other main reason it’s important is if I want to interpret other people’s music, the piano is becoming more important than it was a before. I have become a better pianist in the last year—probably three times better in the last year—than I was before by virtue of practicing and diligent discipline. But that doesn’t mean I need the piano. Actually, my favorite instrument is probably the tabla drums.
AL: That’s interesting. Why’s that?
KJ: I just think that the tablas have everything in them that you need to make music. And nothing more. 2008 Yokohama concert, which is most successful of the kind of abstract thing we are talking about. They didn’t applaud between movements; it was a real workshop atmosphere. That is on my Top 3 list of solo concerts I want to release someday.
Let’s talk about the tunes on Somewhere.
There’s a story in the names of the title. I totally did not intend this, but someone else pointed it out. It begins in “Deep Space,” then “Solar,” “Stars” [“Stars Fell On Alabama”] and “Sea” [“Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”], then “Somewhere” or “Everywhere.” Finally it is “Tonight,” like, take all those things and think about them, and then: “I Thought About You.” It is kind of like the story of how a concert happens. I look at this CD as representative of almost everything we do, but in small pieces. It was also a single set concert. When we have only one set, we know we have to be expansive, because we know we aren’t going back out there.
I don’t recall you playing Leonard Bernstein before. Why don’t jazz cats play Bernstein more often?
I would guess that Bernstein’s way of writing is more like a classical composer. You can’t just get away with playing the block chords, or if you do that, you have to change the voicings so they make some kind of jazz sense without destroying the tune. You put some jazz ii/Vs in there that aren’t from Bernstein. You must have thought about what would be your “changes” on those pieces.
Especially on “Somewhere.” On “Tonight” they are not so hard to get to. We play them differently every time, though. And there was never a vamp on a ballad before. And that really sounds like it is going “Everywhere.” It is stopping, and starting, and going out, and coming back. It’s very involving. When I first heard the tape I thought, “There’s no way we can avoid using that one!”
“Somewhere” is such a delicate piece. If you get anything wrong, it’s obvious. In fact, I played the melody really well someplace else, not on this recording. I like what I do with it here, but there was another gig that was better. Jack said afterward, “Could you play those voicings again?” and I said, “No, sorry!”
On the other hand, the ending of “I Thought About You” here is really good, probably the best we’ve played it. It is so heartfelt and powerful.
Does that tune have a Miles Davis association for you?
Sure. Having him play any song so many times is a good signal that there’s something there … and you can hear what’s there!
“Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” is an older tune, like a stride pianist might play. Do you think of it that way, as connecting to stride?
A little, but more like: If you can find the groove, it’s a good melody. You can get jocular with it, and let it jump. Jack DeJohnette and I are playing games with the rhythm. We never know what we are going to play, nor do we know why we are playing it.
So you never hand Gary Peacock a chart?
Sometimes he has some music. We both have a fuzzy way of going about it. I have a big list of tunes on the piano. If nothing pops into my head, I check out the list. But Gary and I are both extremely cool with my starting something he’s not prepared for.
The trio’s language has been very influential, especially the idea of total spontaneity: Everywhere in the world there are trios that don’t use tight arrangements in the older mold of Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson. And drummers, in particular, love your trio because of Jack. He’s famous for playing very convoluted rhythms, breaking up the time. But on “Deep Blue Sea,” especially, I was once again struck by the depth of his ride cymbal beat.
When the rough mixes of the record started coming, I would usually start with that tune because I wanted to hear Jack. There’s a couple places where he double-times, but the rest of it is pretty simple. But being a drummer myself, I know there’s nothing simple or commonplace about swinging.
You’ve been interviewed so often about the trio. I couldn’t think of anything new to ask, except perhaps a backwards question: You could play with anybody, anywhere, anytime. Why stay with the same two guys? And only those two guys?
A lot of it is about magic. If you don’t choose the right guys, magic will never happen. A big part of my work is intuition. You don’t need much information or many clues to know if you want to play with someone. If it is really right, then clues are right in your face.
The first time we did a record, we had dinner the night before. And Gary was worried about playing “All The Things You Are” again because he had done it so much already. I told him he didn’t have to play it like he had ever done it before, and in fact, I didn’t want him to.
There was no intention to be a working band. But if you find the right guys and the magic happens, then, well: Let’s play a gig. Not in a concert hall, but in a club, because “All The Things You Are” in a concert seems wrong. But maybe the magic deepens so you try a small hall in Japan, then finally major halls everywhere. And you feel freer and freer within this context. If you decide to be like peanut butter and spread yourself all over the place, you might never have the experience of what happens next with those same guys. In 30 years we never had an argument about music. We never had a dispute of any major consequence. We just show up and play. One of the concepts, if not the basic concept, is that we are all sidemen to the music.
At this point, anything else I would do would be an event. And what if it was horrible and lasted only a very short time? I’d happily go out of my career knowing I had never made that kind of mistake.
A lot of the trio’s repertoire comes from musicals, like these two songs from West Side Story. Have you watched a lot of musicals?
Not really. I don’t love musicals, although I like the music from West Side Story a lot. And some of Leonard Bernstein’s other, more serious music I like, too.
You must be connected to the idea of “American music.”
Yeah, I don’t think there’s European jazz, although there are lots of people trying to get the spirit. My quartet with Scandinavians was great. I love Sleeper, the recent discovery from that band.
But jazz is the sound of lone self-expression, of your own self. You can’t disguise yourself—you speak from who you are.
I don’t know if there are influences in music, anyway. After you hear music, you either imitate it or just go on being yourself. Books can be a bigger influence. I don’t have as many as Umberto Eco, but I like what he said about having a big library: “You should always have more books than you can read, so you always know that you don’t know everything.”
What about Harold Arlen vs. George Gershwin vs. Irving Berlin: Do you think about the differences in their voices?
Not as much as I should, but at least I know the lyrics. Gary asked me, after years of playing, “Do you know the lyrics to all the songs?” and I said, “Sure.” He said, “That explains it.” I don’t know what he meant, exactly, but … American music. Well, I think Elliot Carter is American music, too.
I’m astonished you’ve brought up Carter twice in this interview!
He’s a recent discovery for me, somebody I learned about in the last decade. His music really gives me something. The content of his music doesn’t impose new things for me—I just like the experience. He worked hard at getting several meters to happen at once, and then the whole orchestra goes, “Brmmph!” together. How did they do that?
The two American composers I would guess you have really checked out are Aaron Copland and Charles Ives.
Of course. Copland was more original and more important than many people realize because he’s so popular. If there’s an American sound in classical music, he invented it. I went through a long Charles Ives phase, and gained a lot from him. The first time hearing him is revelatory, of course.
You worked with Lou Harrison.
Lou had something really special. One time after hearing a group play a Mozart symphony, he said, “They played it better than they could.”
I was having a bit of shoulder piano trouble when he wrote me the Piano Concerto, so I asked him not to write anything percussive. Then he turns around and gives me the “Stampede” movement, which is not just banging with the octave bar but putting it down and picking it up again. He said, “Don’t get muscle-bound.”
But like it is hard to be a European jazz player, I think it is hard to be an American composer. It’s not hard to be an American jazz player. But we didn’t invent composing, and it’s a tough country to draw a large-scale anything of, because everyone is so [much] themselves. In jazz, you are not expecting anybody to do anything they can’t do, and you aren’t expected to be able to analyze a symphony. In jazz, you don’t need much composition before you can express yourself. I was listening to the radio at Christmastime, and there were horrible jazz versions of horrible Christmas tunes. I was going to turn it off, but then Sonny Rollins came on with “Winter Wonderland.” I said to myself, “There’s no way I can turn it off now!”
Sonny put so much of himself into this piece. It was something that was only Sonny, and that something made the little tune transcendent. DB