September 1999

Keith Jarrett Counts His Blessings

By Dan Ouellette

In an ego-driven culture, too much gets taken for granted. Too little is appreciated until it’s sorely missed.

Keith Jarrett can relate. Struck down by chronic fatigue syndrome in the fall of 1996 and confined to the sidelines by the debilitating bacterial disease, the pianist not only canceled all of his engagements but also seriously wondered whether he would ever be able to perform again. “Nobody learns to appreciate that time more than someone who was denied it,” he says about the short intervals of practice he’s only recently been able to handle. “Playing piano has been my entire life.”

It’s difficult to imagine the dynamo at the keys stilled. One of jazz’s most athletic pianists, Jarrett’s concerts are unforgettable visual experiences. Case in point: the latest Standards Trio video, Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette Tokyo 1996 (on RCA/BMG Video, a companion to last year’s scintillating ECM recording). Recorded a few months before Jarrett fell ill, the video captures him soaring in ecstasy, restlessly throwing his entire body into improvisational torrents. In sync with the music, he stands, he crouches, bends his knees, tucks his head close to the keys, swivels his hips and sprawls elastically across the keyboard.

“It’s hard for me to remember playing that way since I got sick,” Jarrett says with a laugh shortly before traveling to the West Coast to perform trio dates in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “I don’t have as much to throw into it. I have to limit myself to the keyboard a little more these days.” He pauses, then adds, “Well, if I’m not really active on one number, that means I’m saving the jumping for the next.”

Nearly four years since his last appearance in San Francisco, Jarrett took the stage at the sold-out Masonic Auditorium—only the third time he appeared in concert since contracting CFS—and it was quickly evident he was keeping the physicality of his performance in check. Instead of vigorously surrendering to the music as he did on his last visit, Jarrett, dressed head-to-toe in black, except for a white and black print vest, proceeded at a subdued pace, hunching over the keyboard, leaning back as if steering the notes into shape and a little later crouching as if ready to pounce. It was the first concert of the San Francisco Jazz Festival’s Swing into Spring series, and while Jarrett’s flamboyance was noticeably lacking, his engagement with the music was incandescent.

It was a textbook display of intuitive music-making, the kind of seamless improvisation only possible when bandmates are tuned into the same wavelength (Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette have ben playing together since 1983, making it one of the most stable—and popular—combos in jazz). Contorting his face and squinting his eyes at junctures of intensity, Jarrett uttered his trademarks “ahhhhs” of satisfaction. He embarked on mesmerizing journeys while the rhythm team offered up currents of support. It was a triumphant show, the strongest of Jarrett’s three shows thus far, according to his manager Stephen Cloud, and for more spirited than might expected given his near brush with retirement.

“It felt like forced cessation,” says the 53-year-old Jarrett in reflecting on the sickness that kept him largely bound to his rural New Jersey house for over two years. “I wasn’t on hiatus. That wasn’t the case, because I had come to terms with the prospect of never playing again. I was too sick to come to terms with anything else. A year and a half ago I’d go look at my pianos and think, yes, they’re still here. Then I’d leave the room. I thought if you can’t play, you can’t play. I was not going to try to compete with myself after my lobotomy.

Hyperbole? Jarrett’s not joking. “No one knows how debilitating this sickness is unless they have it. It’s like if you get migraines, someone may say, ‘Oh, I get headaches so I know what it’s like.’ But you can’t imagine how bad they are unless you’ve had a migraine yourself. But this is a much more horrible disease.” So, it’s more than just being tired or burned out, a common perception? “Are you kidding? I’ve met people who have had it for 10 years, 25 years. Some are bedridden, some can’t walk across the street. It’s stupid to call it chronic fatigue syndrome. It should be called the forever dead syndrome.”

Jarrett contracted the illness during a tour in Europe. He was suddenly overcome by such a profound sense of fatigue that he told his wife he felt like aliens had invaded his body. He realized several months later that’s precisely what happened, as CFS is cause by an airborne parasite. Back home, Jarrett heard about a doctor who was conducting a study, treating the disease aggressively as a bacterial infection and claiming to reverse the symptoms in a relatively short time—meaning a couple of years.

It’s significant that Peacock and DeJohnette were one stage with him when Jarrett made his first concert appearance in two years at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark last November. They’ve recorded more than a dozen projects together, including a six-CD set Keith Jarrett At The Blue Note: The Complete Recordings, which won the DownBeat Critics Poll as album of the year in 1996.

“I couldn’t have done it without Gary and Jack,” Jarrett said. “There are no better people to be on stage with. But knowing about my condition, they were both concerned I might push too hard. There’s a low ceiling as to what you can do. If you hit the ceiling, you can have a relapse. The problem is you don’t know where that ceiling is before it’s too late. That’s when you get hammered again.”

That’s what happened last summer when Jarrett and his trio mates met together for the first time in a couple years to rehearse for an October date in Chicago. It proved to be too taxing for him, so he was forced to cancel the engagement. As for the Newark concert, Jarrett expresses ambivalence. “The show came off really well considering I wasn’t fully ready to play. I wish more of me could have been at that concert, but the music itself was great.”

Even though Jarrett knew he wasn’t in his prime, he was chomping at the bit to get back in action. “I heard this story about a race car driver who had a bad accident. As he was recovering, people kept asking him when he was going to race again. He said not until he was 110 percent. For the last two years I’ve been mulling that over. I knew he was right, that I’d want to be in better shape, but I also realized I was getting older every year. That’s why I decided to jump back in prematurely. All the shows I have set up for the near future are based on the hope that I can do more each time. Nine months ago, there was no way I was even thinking about setting up concerts. Let’s just say right now I’m cautiously optimistic.”

In some ways, Jarrett’s forced sabbatical is similar to his self-imposed withdrawal from the music world in 1985. Back then, it was a crisis time that forced him to reflect more deeply on his musical vision. Jarrett returned to action with the cathartic recording of Spirits. Is there anything in his CFS experience that sheds such a positive light? “A lot of good things have come out of having this disease, but none that are expressible in art. Basically, it strips you to the bare bone, to a place where you have nothing to express. You find out what life is about, and that is survival. Plus, if I had gigging all the time, I’d have never had the time to notice what I didn’t like about my playing and make changes.”

The new Keith is basically the old Keith with slightly different inflections. For example, he says his voice is much more tuned in to bebop now than it was before. “I’ve been trying to free up my left hand to play like the middle bop period where much of the real stuff of modern jazz was born. I’m adding in these little jagged things with my left hand that might get in Gary’s way more. I’m trying to pay tribute to bop-era pianists every time I play.”

Jarrett chafes when asked who specifically he’s paying tribute to. Still, upon a little prodding he responds. Bud Powell? “Well, if I had to name someone, sure. But I also think of Lennie Tristano even though I hate the way he played right on beat all the time. But basically I’m trying to hear the history of jazz as well as play into the future while playing the stupidest standard tunes. If that helps some people understand why Gary, Jack and I have a zillion recordings of standards, then good. All three of us love melody and don’t like playing clever.”

Having been so sick and having to consider the very real possibility of a relapse, Jarrett counts his blessings. He’s content working with the trio and prepared to resign himself to never writing any new material again. “It’s too much to think about right now. If I write something that requires rehearsals, well, that’s way in the future because of the energy it requires. It really doesn’t matter if I ever do anything new again, because the act of making music is so important. If I’m able to only do that a few times, I won’t ask for more.”

Jarrett’s slowly on the mend. But he’s cautious. “The parasite isn’t gone. These days I’m thankful if I can practice a half hour in the morning and then another half hour later in the day. I’m testing my limits and hoping I won’t overdo it. It’s pretty scary because I could wake up tomorrow and say, oops. But so far so good.”

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