+ HIS FIRST FEATURE IN DOWNBEAT +
Mr. and Mrs. Keith Jarrett, their son Gabriel, a dog and several cats live in a comfortable two-story home in western New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border. New York is two hours away. There’s a lake nearby, the roads are gravel, the air is clean and the loudest sound is that made by the crickets. Upstairs there’s a Steinway with a full, magnificent sound and a small upright for Gabriel. The record collection includes plenty of classical music, from Bach to Penderecki, some pop, and almost no jazz. Scores are stacked on a rosewood desk, some original, others sonatas by Hindemith.
Keith is now enjoying at least two distinct recording careers. His Impulse albums are essentially small group jazz, while his ECM projects include solo playing and orchestral music. His style is so difficult to pin down, impossible to categorize. Like Ornette Coleman he is influential but rarely intimidated, perhaps because his constantly-changing approaches comprise a moving target. He was a key player in two of the most influential bands of the ’60s, the Charles Lloyd quartet and Miles Davis’ Fillmore group, but he avoids electric instruments and goes his own way, apparently oblivious to current trends.
We sat down in a study upstairs. The dog was barking outside. It occurred to me that I knew almost nothing about his early life and his career prior to joining Charles Lloyd, and that his background could hardly have been that of a “typical” jazz pianist, so I began by asking him for a capsule biography.
Jarrett: Well, I started taking piano lessons when I was three because it was discovered that I had perfect pitch; I would play with radio melodies on an old upright that we had. This was Allentown, Pennsylvania, not far from here. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who would take me that young. After that, I played piano. My first experience composing was adding a note to the last chord of a Mozart concerto; I’d play it right at the teacher’s house and the other way at home. I think I started writing melodies and improvising on them when I was six or seven.
Palmer: When did you start playing in public?
Jarrett: Around the same time, meaning my first solo recital, a full program. I would play for the Allentown Women’s Club, in Philadelphia occasionally. I was actually making a living then, I bought my own first piano.
Palmer: These were strictly classical recitals?
Jarrett: Occasionally I would include a piece or two that I wrote. I mean, I hadn’t been writing them down but I would construct melodies and rhythmic patterns. As a matter of fact, what I’m doing now is closer to what I was doing in the very beginning than anything I did in between, sitting down at the piano and playing without telling myself it has to be like this or like that. I know I was doing that when I was eight. If I did a piece called “The Zoo” there would be certain fragments for particular animals. Program music, more or less. Outside of playing, my life was very much like everyone else’s. I had to be pushed into that music room to practice, but the one argument I never had a comeback for was, “If you don’t want to practice we’ll sell the piano.” I knew they needed money and I could never be sure they weren’t serious. I really did want to play, but I had a few teachers who were not necessarily inspiring. If I hadn’t had that deeper relationship with the piano by that time, I might have stopped.
Palmer: Didn’t I read somewhere that you worked with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians?
Jarrett: Yes, it’s true. I was playing with a Dixieland band at his inn, and one season I went on tour with him and did some solo playing.
Palmer: Do you remember any one point at which you reacted against that, or against your classical training, and decided you were going to play jazz?
Jarrett: No, it was a very smooth transition. I think of my evolution from the very beginning to now as being completely straightforward, and my music falling into categories at various times when those categories seemed to be the closest thing to it.
So I spent a year in Boston, at Berklee, and then I moved to New York and starved for about five months. At first, nobody knew me there except the wrong people, who’d heard I’d played in Boston with a booking agency and wanted me to do jingles. But I just wouldn’t do those things; I’d spent a year in Boston trying to get rid of those things I’d been conditioned to do, talking to my hands. It was like pulling my own teeth or something. Then in New York I was sitting at home twiddling my thumbs and playing the drums and getting all the neighbors mad. Finally I got to play for about ten minutes at the Vanguard; it was a jam session thing. Tony Scott and Art Blakey were both there. So I worked with Tony a few times at the Dom and then Art got in touch with me. I was with him for four months.
Palmer: Who else was in the band?
Jarrett: Chuck Mangione, Frank Mitchell and Reggie Johnson. At the time, the management of that band was in complete shambles, but there were other things, all through the period, like nearly crashing on a drive out to the West Coast. It was one of the most nerve-wracking trips anybody has ever taken; Chuck got out of the car in Oklahoma and took a plane the rest of the way. At any rate, I decided to leave and our last job was in Boston. I had met Charles Lloyd there earlier. He’d heard me working in a cocktail lounge with a singer, and I was using a lot of the so-called effects that I’ve been known for even then. They didn’t seem novel; they worked very well, which has always been the reason I’d do anything. We’d do ballads and I’d use the strings a lot, and sometimes if there was a key not working it would be a drum. So Charles heard that and I heard him with Cannonball the same night and we decided we would work together as soon as possible.
Now, when I decided I was leaving Art’s group, I looked at the club’s schedule and Charles was coming in the following week, so off the top of my head I called him up. He had already asked Steve Kuhn but somehow he go out of that or Steve had to do something else. From then on the history is pretty evident, I guess. There are lots of records of that band and it was an obvious band, not as mysterious as Miles’ band. We were too young to be mysterious. After Charles, I toured with my trio, not with Paul and Charlie at first; that was the only time in history of my group that I didn’t use them, and I’m sorry I didn’t, but there wasn’t enough money.
Palmer: How much direction did Miles exercise on his band? I sounded very loose.
Jarrett: It was, depending on who was in it. That’s the secret of Miles. Well, not the secret, because you can tell someone the secret and it won’t work for them. But it is the thing that makes it obvious that Miles is always thinking about his music. He’s aware of the psych of the people in his band and what they’re capable of and what they’re not. If a guy’s only capable of playing two notes, Miles will not let him play more. But if he likes the way those two notes feel and he knows of no other player who can play those two notes with a better feeling, Miles will hire him and write music around those two notes. Until he’s tired of them.
The main reason I joined the band was that I didn’t like the band. I liked what Miles was playing very much and hated the rest of the band playing together. It was Chick (Corea) and Dave (Holland) and Tony Williams and Wayne (Shorter), and I heard what sounded to me like four ego trips, like each one was trying to not play what the others were playing. Maybe everyone was going through changes; everyone does. But it was like seeing a diseased organism on the stage. Miles had been talking to me for a while, but I was always in the middle of a tour with my trio. Then I heard Jack (DeJohnette) had started playing with Miles and it occurred to me that since I wasn’t doing anything earthshaking, and since I knew what Jack could do, having played with him in Charles’ band, that was the right time for me to join. At that time, Jack had a more open feeling as a player than Tony, and I thought that perhaps Jack and I going into the band would completely alter it. I actually think that did happen, though very few people heard the music.
Palmer: What about Live-Evil and Live at Fillmore East?
Jarrett: Those weren’t really… telling. There was a period between those, not very long assuredly, when the band should have been recorded. There was a week in Boston when everyone was so happy about the music; the band and the audience were just glittering. I remember asking if we couldn’t get Columbia up to record the rest of the week and Miles said they wouldn’t be able to get up here feast enough—he had already thought of it.
Palmer: How did you happen to start working with Paul Motain and Charlie Haden? When I first heard you I thought the personnel was curious, in a way, and it’s still singular. Just the fact that you’ve stayed together so long is singular.
Jarrett: It was actually magic. I heard a short tape of Paul playing with a piano player from Boston, Lowell Davidson, and it completely knocked me out. I knew he had been the drummer with Bill Evans and all I’d heard of him was very tasty and very musical but rather… stiff playing, I thought. Later I found out it was because he was asked to play that way. But that’s all I’d heard of him and I hadn’t really heard Charlie’s playing at all. Those names were just out there. I’ve always felt that if you have a genuine reaction to something in the air, even if it’s just a name, you don’t hide it in the face of hipness. There’s always a drummer who’s the hip drummer, now maybe it’s Aiphonse Mouzon. Jack used to be, Tony, I don’t think would’ve ever used anybody in that category. There’s something missing if you get in that category, you’re always in a corner then, and if you allow yourself to get in a corner you’re not strong enough to go long enough and keep creating music. Which is why I think Charlie and Paul have been able to stay, because they’re both concentrating so intensely on the music while they’re playing. And that’s what I’m after. I’m not interested in having people who believe exactly what I believe; I only care about how much they hear when they’re playing. The group has always been healthy because everybody says if they don’t like something, why would I have to do that? And I think there’s an important reasons I’ll say so. We check each other out very well that way; they’re very strong people and if something is offensive to the they’ll leave. We all know that we’re still changing if we’re still able to play together.
Palmer: What music do you like to listen to? Over there on the shelf I see Bach, Stravinsky, Ives, Xenakis, hardly any jazz.
Jarrett: Lately I’ve been recording so much that I mostly listen to the latest mixes… I haven’t been listening to any jazz, not because I’m turning it off but because I haven’t heard anything that I thought was more valuable than some of these other things.
One thing I can say is that Coltrane’s influence after he died was very negative, mostly because he couldn’t control it anymore. He didn’t intend there to be a big gap, he intended that there be more space for everyone to do what they should do. That’s what his music represents to me, that there is a much greater potential than anyone thought before for a human being and an instrument. That and the fact that people are so attached to Miles is very unhealthy. It seems like people don’t know anymore what’s good in their own playing and they’re wandering off into far reaches where they have less knowledge of what they’re doing than if they were playing what they played years before.
Palmer: In your liner notes to the Solo-Concerts on ECM you were very negative about electric music. Do you still feel the same way?
Jarrett: It’s not a feeling. It’s a crystallization of an idea that I wondered about for a long time. It’s not going to change because for me it’s the answer. It may not apply to somebody else, although I could go into the philosophical aspects of it and make it almost and objective argument whereby playing electric music is bad for you and bad for people listening, which I do believe. I don’t feel any strong emotional thing about electric music being offensive, and I am certainly not afraid of electric instruments because there’s something unknown and vast about them. I don’t think they’re any more vast than a flute, but they give you the feeling that you’re dealing with something vast. The flute gives you the feeling that if you don’t like what you play the first two seconds you’ll put it down. But a synthesizer can give you an unlimited number of tricks to knock yourself out with.
Palmer: I’ve never heard a synthesizer that didn’t sound like a synthesizer. They really don’t sound like flutes, or orchestras…
Jarrett: If they did, that would be sacrilegious to me. If they did, then why all this history—we might as well erase the violin and have one guy to play everybody’s music. Now if they keep building pianos worse I may have to… no, I’ll find a way. I think it’s best just to say that I do not wish to deal with electric instruments.
Palmer: I’m curious as to the difference between your ECM and Impulse recordings. On ECM we have In The Light, which is composed pieces for strings and brass and piano, and the solo albums, and, on Impulse, the quartet things. Why no solo albums on Impulse, or before that on Columbia and Atlantic? Did it take ECM to show people that those things could be done?
Jarrett: It took Manfred Eicher. If I hadn’t found him there would be no solo albums, no Facing You, let alone a successful triple album. I would have a desk full of scores that have never been rehearsed, not to mention played or recorded. There’s no way I can repay that possibility having come to me so early and at such a good time except to produce more music for ECM. They took the risk and the expense, or Manfred did.
Palmer: Do you think you’ll be doing some things for Impulse that will be more like ECM things?
Jarrett: Yes, but I’m being very careful about it, more careful than the people at Impulse might want me to be. The first thing I said to them when they called me was that I was willing to have a contract but that I wouldn’t stop recording for ECM.
Palmer: How does Manfred get that clarity on tape? Everybody thought it was the studio and the piano in Oslo, but he gets the same kind of clarity at Generation Sound and the Hit Factory in New York.
Jarrett: Well, I imagine I’m much more demanding in the studio than the average group leader, and compared to me, Manfred is a fanatic. When we were recording the solo piano pieces for In The Light, he spent an hour and a half moving the microphone millimeters in different directions. Manfred knows what he wants to hear and he will spend hours, days fixing a microphone, or go out and buy a new one. When we were doing In The Light, he went out and bought some small home speakers and put them in the next room, and during playbacks we individually would go in the other room to see how it would sound on somebody’s home record player. Plus, he’s working with Deutsche Grammophon engineers who… you heard the brass quintet on that album? There are over a hundred splices in that, all of them done just once, and you can’t hear any splices.
Palmer: What about your solo concerts? How prepared are you, not in terms of your whole life but in terms of working things out in advance? Do you know you’re going to use themes you played before?
Jarrett: The last thing happens if I discover a fairly strong melody or fragment. It might return, but later in the concert, never at the beginning. At the beginning I am completely empty of any musical thought. If I’m not able to empty myself, I almost invariably have a concert that isn’t as good.
Palmer: Would you describe the process? Where does it come from?
Jarrett: Now I’m at the point of knowing it’s there. I’m not in a position to describe in words where it comes from. I’ve been letting it happen all by itself so much that I’m looking at it as something completely independent of me, which it really is. I’m just transmitting it. But recently I did eight solo concerts in Italy and I realized I was playing almost the same thing through the whole concerts. I started to think I was boring the audience. Before the trip to Italy I had the experience of playing in a small room and I was playing one note I played for… several minutes. I think I was getting harmonics out of it and I thought I was getting different intensities that would definitely affect people if they were listening. But suddenly I had the thought, I’m sure they’re not listening the way I’m listening. So I went on to something else. When the concert was half over, someone came backstage, and I was very curious and about to ask about that part of the concert, but he said, “You know that part where you were playing one note? I heard all kinds of things in there.”
I said, “Really? Do you know anybody else that felt that way?”
He said, “I was able to see the whole audience and everybody else was obviously hearing the same thing.”
Then when I went to Italy and that thing occurred to me I said to myself, you’ve been letting it go for so long and it’s worked every time; you have to let this go, you can’t change it because it sounds too much the same, that’s conditioning the music. It turned out that people were attracted to the music in a way they’d never been attracted before, even people who’d heard my solo concerts. And I wasn’t playing anything that was obviously attractive, it was maybe boring.
Palmer: Well, repetition can lead to trance. What you’re describing sounds almost like Indian music, where you being appreciating the harmonics and end by appreciating harmonics that aren’t even there. There’s a Sufi quote having to do with climbing harmonics as if they were Jacob’s ladder, up and up and up.
Jarrett: Also from the Sufis is the theory of inner octaves, which fits perfectly what I hear when that’s happening. Like a certain thing meets another thing until it isn’t really notes anymore. I don’t really know what it is, but it’s in there. But it’s only in there in certain pianos. Therefore, I need my knowledge of the other realms of playing.
Palmer: Perhaps you’d like to end this with something you’d particularly like to get across.
Jarrett: The one thing that has governed what I’ve done, throughout my musical career, has been not to identify with something I did. That may be the most important thing, not just in art but in your whole life. If you’re a young player and you identify with what you’re playing, and you’re not playing very well, you could stay right at the point for the rest of your life. The minute I would identify with what I’m playing I wouldn’t hear the next thing, that’s particularly true of solo playing. You cannot go and improvise music if you’re hearing what you do and considering it to be yours. Because then everything you play you want to put in your pocket, you say, “Oh, that’s great, I better play it again.” The music is so much stronger than the person who’s playing it that you have to be very, very careful. It can destroy you or it can enrich you, and if it enriches you and you get stronger, it gets that much stronger. So you’re never in a secure position, you’re never at a point where you have it all sewed up. You have to choose to be secure and like stone, or insecure but able to flow.