September 2003

The Free Spirit, Inside Out

By Zbigniew Granat

Last year’s Keith Jarrett Trio double album Always Let Me Go (ECM) is accompanied by a short narrative that the pianist wrote for the liner notes. It describes an extraordinary moment that is experienced by Ludovico, a visionary who looks at the mountains and sees an unreal scene—“a scene that could only be real in black and white”—with the sun beaming through the clouds and transfiguring trees into glittering jewelry amidst a translucent gray.

Wondering about his own place in relation to this scene, Ludovico realizes that this image could only have formed in his own eyes, and so he closes them. When he reopens his eyes, he sees the trees back in full color, but the memory of that extraordinary moment remains. “This was no ordinary moment. Nor were any of the preceding ones going back as far as he could remember, now that he thought about it. Was there any such thing as an ordinary moment? Perhaps only when you weren’t looking, he thought.”

When visiting Jarrett in his secluded home in western New Jersey, it was a gloomy and somewhat disheartening afternoon, but Jarrett appeared relaxed, comfortable and open to talk about his music, creativity, artistic freedom and the spirit of jazz. Jarrett elaborated on his narrative.

“It’s a metaphor for things that don’t always happen externally,” he said. “I honestly don’t know how I do what I do, but I don’t want to change anything. Although I don’t know where I get what I get, if I know it will be there, perhaps it comes from the confidence itself. Perhaps the confidence that something is there waiting is the landscape that he sees, but the color is just missing. If someone said to me, ‘Why do you play Mozart sometimes and improvise other times?’ It’s a change of landscape, it’s not a change of an entire language, nor is it even a change of what inspires me and what doesn’t. It’s a different landscape, doing the other thing for a while.”

Each of the musical landscapes that Jarrett has explored in his career—including solo concerts, jazz trio projects with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, and classical performances—seems to have contributed in equal degree to the pianist’s popularity and his demand at concert venues all over the world. That’s because Jarrett’s audiences know that his sensitivity to sound and his commitment to the music he plays will always generate a wealth of moments that are everything but ordinary. Indeed, he has an ability to make old and familiar landscapes seem like impossible scenes from an imaginary world that is accessible only through the eyes of Ludovico.

It’s been an exciting year for Jarrett. In May, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music made him the main recipient of the Polar Music Prize, which has been awarded to personalities in classical and popular music every year since 1992. Some of the past winners include Pierre Boulez, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Iannis Xenakis, Joni Mitchell, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul McCartney and Isaac Stern. This year, however, Jarrett is the sole winner of the award, as the Polar jury decided to set aside its usual “popular” and “serious” categories and justified this decision by emphasizing Jarrett’s “ability to effortlessly cross boundaries in the world of music.”

This year, too, Jarrett’s trio with Peacock and DeJohnette, which he has led since 1983, celebrates its 20th anniversary. This is also the main reason for the group’s extensive engagements: a spring European tour, another summer tour to Europe, and a number of performances throughout the United States in venues ranging from New York to San Francisco.

ECM, Jarrett’s long-time label, commemorated this anniversary with the release of Up For It, the trio’s inspired performance that took place in uninspiring circumstances—on a rainy day at last year’s Antibes Jazz Festival. The demonstrates what Jarrett’s trio has always been about: the freshness, subtlety and depth that the three imaginative and attuned musicians bring to the Great American Songbook. They offer some extraordinary moments: an almost free-jazz intensity that permeates Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From The Apple,” a novel palette of colors skillfully applied to old tunes such as “If I Were A Bell” or “My Funny Valentine,” or the totally unexpected sonic universe of the title track that opens up from the final cadence of “Autumn Leaves.”

While all of Jarrett’s concerts this year are going to be in the trio format, the actual program of these performances is uncertain. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, sitting in his study filled with CDs and sound equipment. “We don’t work like other bands. We don’t know what we are going to play. It’s always been the way I work.”

One thing that is certain, however, is that the name “Standards,” with which the group has been associated for the last 20 years, is no longer in sync with some of the trio’s most current musical ventures. As Jarrett explained, “Recently, we’ve become somehow mutated into a free music trio sometimes,” a mutation already reflected on Inside Out (ECM) and Always Let Me Go.

Behind this turn toward the less restricted format is Jarrett’s strong belief that the free idiom is still a valid form of expression for today’s musicians. But “free” for Jarrett means a number of things, not merely a style unrestricted by tonal and formal constraints that listeners associate with the work of Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor. More importantly, the term epitomizes the trio’s principal modus operandi, which has governed its status quo for 20 years: more a state of mind than a stylistic option, more an approach or an attitude to the material than the material itself.

When understood in such broad terms, the free element comes into play whenever the musicians commit themselves entirely to the music, or, as Jarrett said, when “the intent of what we are playing is manifested in the music. And usually the great thing about this trio is that all three of us know all the time whether that’s happening or whether that’s not happening.”

Such a manifestation of intention need not happen in a “free” context, stylistically speaking. It may, for instance, come forth during a rendition of a ballad melody. “So, when it is happening,” Jarrett continued, “it’s free, because something that we just played meant as much as it could mean in any other format, with or without soloing, with or without improvising. It depends on how much the desire and the manifestation of the music match each other. So, in the bigger sense, I’m already free, because if I am free to choose a ballad and I’m free to play a melody that way, then that’s being free.”

Still, not every format or context provides the same opportunities for freedom of choice. “When I used to play classical recitals and then concerts and then recordings,” Jarrett recalled, “I noticed backstage that I was missing some important feeling before the concert. I couldn’t figure out what it was, and then I thought about it and I realized it’s the fact that I already know everything that might happen. It’s either going to be good or not good, great or terrible, but I know all the notes that are supposed to happen—and I’m not even on stage yet. So I want to be free to choose what to do and the moment I do it.”

One area in which this desire for freedom manifests itself with particular force is the solo concert. Jarrett took the genre to a new level when he played three such concerts in Tokyo last summer, his first since 1996. He attempted to change his language completely—“my previous way of playing I don’t feel so perfectly close to anymore”—and create music so free as to be almost formless.

Attaining such a level of freedom in performance requires an unusual amount of preparation, though not preparation in the traditional sense of the word. “I was preparing for those concerts since February last year,” Jarrett said, “and when I say ‘prepare,’ I was trying to get rid of all the way of playing that was normal, and just leave a giant hole to jump into when I finally went there.

“Preparing for these concerts was the hardest work I ever did, because I knew what I didn’t want and I had to get rid of all those things meticulously and then try to form something new. This is hard work. It’s much easier to come up with some form that you then rely on. And even in my previous solo concerts there is no form ahead of time, but in the concerts themselves forms sort of get there and then they stay there for a while. And in these recent things in Tokyo I was committed to keeping those forms out of the picture completely, so I was always sweeping the carpets from under my feet.”

The idea to invent music that transcends its own form may seem like a very unusual approach, but for Jarrett, it’s hardly unusual. It merely represents an extension, or perhaps an extreme instance of, his theory of non-possessiveness of the music, which goes back to the time when his trio with Peacock and DeJohnette was formed.

“The constitution of the trio from the beginning was not to possess the music we play. We were playing standards because if we didn’t play standards, we would have to play something of ours or something we would learn and then rehearse. And while we were rehearsing, we would be dictating what belongs where: Jack should play brushes, then he should play sticks; or, this is my solo, then it’s Gary’s solo, and this is how we do this arrangement. So the way you get out of that is to play music we already knew so well that nobody had to say a word.”

This is exactly the conception that Jarrett introduced to Peacock and DeJohnette at a dinner in New York City, just before their first recording as a trio, Standards Volume 1 (ECM). Both musicians, though at first somewhat unclear about the full implications of Jarrett’s idea, accepted it, simply because they trusted him. They still do.

“Then we did our recording without doing any preparation for it, and it’s what we’ve done all along. But the funny thing is that when we do the free things with no material, it’s exactly the same as far as the constitution is concerned. We don’t own anything, we are not playing anything we rehearsed, nothing has been dictated to anybody, and so those two things—standards and free playing—are intimately connected.”

It is what Jarrett calls a “tribal language,” something that all three members of the group have absorbed over their lifetimes, that allows them to experience such a level of freedom and honesty in their playing, even if the vehicle they are using happens to be an old and familiar song.

“If Gary and Jack are such good listeners, as I’m sure I am, we are hearing whether what we are playing is what we intend. So if it is, we have no doubt about this. There is no doubt that we should stick with this tune, [as] this is what we intend, this is what we feel. So even though it’s this old song that somehow is sitting inside our heads for a long time, it’s now free. The song is now free. So we are now freeing the songs along with being free ourselves. That’s a rare technique.”

Jarrett’s obsession with freedom of musical expression has to do with his romantic sensibility, which, however, does not appear to be popular among contemporary artists. This attitude makes Jarrett almost politically incorrect.

“We are an underground band that has, just by accident, a large audience. I don’t mean literally ‘by accident,’ but it is in some way beside the point that we have this audience,” he said. “Because we are never conformists, we are always radical, even though we may be playing what people think they know, and therefore they are comfortable momentarily or maybe even during the whole piece. But what we are doing in those pieces is a non-conforming thing.

“When the trio started to play standards, nobody was thinking it was the right thing to do, everybody had to have their own material. If you have a new band, you are playing your stuff, and when I talked to Gary, it even shocked him. It was radical: As classic and traditional as it is, it was radical. At the moment, when everybody is saying, ‘Oh, the trio can’t go anywhere from here, they can’t keep playing standards,’ Inside Out comes out, and Always Let Me Go comes out. There are subversive, subliminal messages in this that have to do with retaining our integrity and retaining our freedom under all circumstances. So that’s politically incorrect.”

For some time now, Jarrett has been politically incorrect in a more literal sense of the word. He has frequently reached for the pen in order to express views that did not always agree with mainstream viewpoints. As a result, he has become a spokesman for all those who felt similarly but who were afraid to speak out about the music played at Jazz at Lincoln Center, decry the loss of personality in contemporary jazz or criticize Ken Burns’ view of jazz history. Jarrett did it all and more, simply because he felt he had nothing to lose, and his reputation was, “just exactly perfect for this, a reputation for being difficult and egotistical and self-indulgent and a prima donna and all that stuff.”

Oftentimes the main blade of his critique was directed at Wynton Marsalis. “No, I don’t know him; I can’t say I personally dislike him,” he said. “I know we agree about some things: We agree that fusion was a mistake; in general, that most so-called fusion was terrible. I agree with him that there has to be some concept of purity, but his way of looking at purity as a historical thing is what’s wrong. As an improviser you can use the past, but you can’t live in it.”

Jarrett’s disagreement with Marsalis on this issue has to do with his belief that “jazz is a player’s art; it’s not a writer’s art.” Therefore, he views Marsalis’ attempts at reviving older music, such as that of Duke Ellington, as misguided.

In one of his letters to the editor of The New York Times several years ago, Jarrett asked a question about how Ellington’s written music sounds today when it is reinterpreted by other bands, though obviously without those master soloists that were part of Ellington’s band. His answer was: “Dry, lifeless, institutional.” That is because jazz is not concerned with performance practice, with attempts to reproduce somebody else’s sound or with using the past tense to speak about the present. On the contrary, he says, in jazz, “the player is being asked to express some personal, maybe momentary, maybe permanent to him, truths, whether they are fleeting, whether they are coming through his blood stream, or whether they are coming through his cell structure, which changes every couple of days.

“The thing that makes jazz so special is that it cannot be pinned down. And as soon as you pin it down, it vanishes. It’s really like quantum physics: It’s there until you are looking at it the way he is looking at it, and then it turns into a particle. It’s actually a [wave], but when he tries to play, it’s a particle, because when he plays he tries to play as other people. That’s why he is seemingly so good as an educator: ‘This is how so and so plays, this is Louis Armstrong.’ Well, anybody that can do that has lost the ability to be himself after a while. At some point he might have been able to still be a great player. But if you do this demonstrating stuff enough, and if you believe in it, you are hammering nails into your own coffin, as far as jazz is concerned, because jazz wants to be completely out of that imitation, doesn’t want to have anything to do with this demonstrating how somebody plays.”

Thus, the musician’s road to self-discovery, according to Jarrett, is not based on imitation, but rather on inspiration. “Music itself came from inspiration,” he said. “If it’s good music, it didn’t come from music. Music is a result of an inspired state or a desire for something, and if you are a musician, what you do is you translate that desire into sound. But you are not translating some music you heard into great music now. Doesn’t work like that.

“People ask me, ‘Who do I like, what musicians did I like in the past?’ I could list many names, but I never thought of sounding anything like any of them, because that’s not what I got from them. The thing I got from them was not the sounds of the music they made. It was what must have been their inspiration to make those sounds.”

Jarrett never shies away from an explanation, especially when he feels that there might be some ambiguity about what he means. He sensed that the word “inspiration” that he used did not fully express what he was trying to convey. “I wish I could think of a better word than inspiration,” he said. “It’s more a state of being than a flash of inspiration. So, a state of being isn’t an inspiration, but you attain a certain state of being by wanting more than the average state of being, so in some way you are inspired to want that.”

He continued with an illustration: “When the trio is playing and we don’t know what’s coming next—what key we are in, or who is playing what next, or what tempo is coming up, whether we are going to be suddenly playing alone or playing together—that requires a state of being; that is what I am referring to when I say ‘inspiration.’ And that is a continual thing. It’s not dependent on getting something from nature or getting something from a certain experience. It’s something you can tap into at will when you are aware where that place is. But you have to stay pure to do that.”

What he means by “pure” is that “an artist—although I also hate that word—has to live in a state of constant preparedness, and that preparedness is the state of being that one would call inspiration. So if I were to go to the studio now, I’d be able to play something of great importance, anytime.”

Still, creativity is a phenomenon that escapes any attempt at rationalization. “Even though I am the one in the trio who should know the answer, neither Gary nor I, when we spoke about this recently, know this: How can we be so prepared, so attuned to play at exactly the same time on exactly the same night? What must we be doing with our bodies and our heads to keep that chemistry? It’s like I draw an arrow not yet going on tour, and on the plane, in the car, in the hotel the arrow is still flying until it’s eight o’clock and it comes up somewhere else in the world, in a different time zone, and we are all ready to focus on the same thing. To me that’s miraculous. But that is what jazz is about. If you take away the drugs and you take away the alcohol problems, if you take away the different eras in jazz and the technical differences between bebop and mainstream and traditional and dixieland and all that stuff, it’s really about: How can you be ready?”

Part of the answer to this question has to do with the enormous amount of work and sacrifice that is involved in the process. But there is also another, more important part. Jarrett has resisted the desire to catch up with the speed of light and fly, not in supersonic planes, but in the realm of creativity governed by the spirit. There is simply no other way:

“If I don’t manage to fly, someone else will. The spirit wants only that there be flying. As for who happens to do it, in that he has only a passing interest.”

After recalling this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, which he used in the liner notes for Changes, Jarrett added: “Jazz can’t die. There will always be somebody willing to take that responsibility.” DB

For more information, go to ECM Records