August 2005

Out of Thin Air

Keith Jarrett reinvents his approach to the piano, and looks to do the same for his reputation

By Dan Ouellette

A few short weeks before both his 60th birthday and the release of an album that he calls the most important of his career, Keith Jarrett is in a buoyant mood, good-natured and eager to converse. It’s a sunny mid-April day at his house in the New Jersey countryside, and he’s high-spirited, a tad feisty and quick to laugh—hardly the demeanor with which most people associate him. To many concertgoers and even his diehard fans, Jarrett is seen as brilliant yet growly, astonishing yet dour, someone to admire but not anyone you’d want to hang out with.

“My reputation is truly not deserved,” Jarrett says, without a trace of ill temper in his voice.

“[My reputation] is that I tell people at shows to stop making noise in the hall,” he explains, well aware that he’s probably the only jazz instrumentalist who vehemently demands an attentive audience. “It’s like it’s all personal to them. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘he’s always in a bad mood or he’s complaining to us.’ Or some people come backstage to see me and don’t like me to be honest about some subject.”

Jarrett has short-clipped, gray-tinged hair, is trim and looks in good shape. “People ask me why I don’t look like I’m about to be 60,” he says. “Well, it’s because I’m always moving. You don’t catch me standing still.”

That may be the case physically (he’s a walker), but it also underlies the creation of the new release, Radiance, a double live solo album, recorded in Osaka and Tokyo, Japan, in 2002. The two dates not only commemorated Jarrett’s 149th and 150th concerts in Japan, but also introduced a new awareness in the pianist’s creative process.

Jarrett can still learn new tricks—only in this case there was no sleight of hand involved, just pure improvisational freedom that can only be expressed in 10 fingers forging a new relationship with the 88 keys.

“A couple of months before I went to Japan, I deliberately decided to take away all the hooks and all the things that I preferred in my playing,” Jarrett explains. “I didn’t want to be a victim of my own preferences. That’s what happens to players all the time. They have certain sounds and things their hands like to do better than others, and then you hear them do that all the time.”

He feigns boredom.

To close the door on predictability and swing wide the portals to surprise, Jarrett says he had to undo everything that he ever did solo. It was like suffering a brain aneurysm that erased the ornamentation and intent but retained the touch and nuance that Jarrett is known for. It also helped being sidelined from solo performance for several years because of his debilitating bout with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

“It took that gap in my solo playing from 1996 to get to this point,” he says. “I couldn’t have come to understand this being on tour. I had to be at home and in the mood. In essence, I was looking at the piano, and then telling my left hand, ‘Look, you haven’t been let out of the cage. Is there anything you want to say?’”

The break in Radiance from Jarrett’s earlier solo work is manifold. The CD is his first live solo improvised concert since La Scala, recorded in 1995 and released in 1997, and his CFS-recovery ballads album, The Melody At Night, With You, recorded in 1998 and released in 1999. Jarrett’s most renowned solo performance is 1975’s The Köln Concert, the top-selling solo piano album of all time and a groundbreaking recording in that it pioneered the art of concert improvisation with no preconceived set list.

On Radiance, instead of mellifluent music with expansive lyricism, a variety of spontaneous melodies rise up and disappear quickly, not to be repeated again. The tunes also resisted the improviser’s temptation to be named; hence, each piece is designated as “Part 1,” “Part 2” and so on, concluding with “Part 17.” But, perhaps most radically, only one of the pieces is longer than 14 minutes, most clock in the five- to eight-minute range. Two are remarkably short (“Part 4” is 1:27; “Part 11” 1:13).

In a solo setting Jarrett actually stops instead of playing a full-set segue, where in the past he’d weave melodies into a tapestry that could cover an entire wall of a high-ceilinged museum. On Radiance, he used smaller canvases, with the color, depth and unusual design that more resembles the flat-weaved kilimsthat adorn the inside of his house. This too was a revelation that he discovered in his home practice studio.

“I started to play and then would stop if I felt there was an end,” he says, then asks rhetorically, “why wasn’t I doing this before? I’d be fully into the music, but maybe I was missing the whole point. I always keep a watch onstage to look at. In the past, there’d be times when I felt like stopping 25 minutes into a 40-minute set, but I’d look at the watch and say I can’t stop now. I’ll lose the whole flow, so I’ll keep playing. But then I started to think about it the other way around. If I lose the flow, that’s good because I may not want to hear what’s coming next. So, I’ll stop. Why keep playing? Just because you know how to do that?”

Jarrett laughs and continues, “That got me fascinated in the creative process. Where’s the resolution? How do pieces end? If I start to play and a minute-and-a-half later I feel a piece is over, I’ll stop. It’s the freedom to stop when stopping seems correct.” While exploring this newfound freedom, Jarrett was also reading mathematician Stephan Wolfram’s 1,280-page tome, A New Kind Of Science, a book about computers and mathematical science that espouses a new paradigm for understanding how the universe works. At heart, Wolfram’s book puts forth, as one critic calls it, “that simplicity begets complexity.”

Why read that book in particular?

“I read a review of it and got interested in his concept.”

Are you interested in computers?

“Not at all. I don’t have a close relationship to them and never will.”

And you read the entire book?

“Yeah,” he laughs. “I’ve been known to do this. I force myself. It’s one of those things from Guru Dev. He said something like you must move your brains every day. So this was a challenge that I set up parallel to the music.”

And the music was also a challenge?

“Yeah. I was in a no man’s land. And here right in the middle of this search this book gets released. And I thought, I’m not going to overlook anything. That’s a part of the serendipitous nature of improvised music.”

And what did the book bring to the music?

“It got me thinking about how I had got myself locked into a slightly too complicated situation where the rules I had made for myself had been governing me—instead of making simple rules that could take me somewhere new. Making simple rules leads to more complex behavior.”

Jarrett says he only recognized how truly profound Radiance was musically when he immersed himself in the material to “get everything right” in the live mixes in preparation for release. “I started to realize how important this album is,” he says. “Recently I talked with an interviewer who commented, ‘This is so tightly constructed,’ and I thought that could be true.”

In the liners to Radiance, Jarrett notes, “The event lays itself out as it happened. I was slightly shocked to notice that the concert had arranged itself into a musical structure despite my every effort to be oblivious to the overall outcome. I should not have felt this way, however, for the subconscious musical choices of sequence were made out of the personal need for the next thing.”

Jarrett says he didn’t realize there was such an arc to the performance until he came home and listened to the tapes. He said to himself, as if objectifying the listening experience, “How did this guy know how to play that next?” He laughs, “Yeah, that was me. I was there and I played. And I don’t know except that there are miracles in the music.”

From the sacred to the profane: the matter of the coughs. Anyone who attends a Jarrett show, solo or with his Standards Trio, knows full well to stifle or muffle any coughing to ward off a potential wrath-of-Keith moment. But on Radiance, a few coughs in all their humanness survived the mix. Initially ECM chief Manfred Eicher requested the coughs be excised; upon hearing the mix, Jarrett disagreed.

“I’m the one who demanded the coughs back,” he says with a laugh, as if to say, can you believe it? “To get his mix Manfred had to close down some of the mikes in the house. I listened to what he did and it didn’t sound right. During those shows the coughs had been cues to what I did next. For example, there’s one cough that determined where the end of a piece should be. I was playing very softly and I could have gone on, but that cough told me it’s about ready to resolve. So, it was like getting messages from the audience.”

Jarrett says that he told trio bandmate bassist Gary Peacock about this part of his “epic saga of working on the live mix.” And Peacock said, “I thought you didn’t like coughs in the mix.” Jarrett said, “You’re right, but it was weird. When they were gone, I wanted them back.”

Peacock’s response: “Keith, you’re even more Zen than I am.”

Jarrett laughs.

So, on the record, is Jarrett now encouraging his audience to give auditory cues?

“No, good point. I don’t need voluntary coughing. Besides, I can tell the difference.”

Was he also surprised by the lack of applause between pieces?

“No, when that happened, I gave a little silent thank you. I was glad that the audience was uneasy. They expressed it by not applauding. They didn’t know when to clap and that was so great. That was special. I knew the Japanese audience would give me a chance to try something different. Even though they weren’t sure if they should clap, they were content to just sit there. That was wonderful to me because that’s what I was experiencing at home in my studio. When I stopped, there was just a pause to let the next [musical] thing occur to me.

In an interview a few years ago, Jarrett said he used to believe that his solo shouldn’t last, but self-destruct by a certain date. The old Keith would disappear, not to be confused with the new. Does he feel the same way about Radiance?

“No,” he says flatly. “This is my position paper on what I feel I can and cannot do at the keyboard. The whole language is intact. There’s an electricity because it was live. This album has something to do with my composition in a way that others did not. When you finish listening to it, it’s not like you’ve experienced a transient event. What’s happening here is closer to the coalescing of personal philosophy and music than a shot-in-the-dark concert. I can support this release more than any other that I can remember.”

Plus, Jarrett adds, each listen reveals even more about the music he created out of thin air on those two evenings in Japan. “Usually, after going through the process of getting an album ready for release—certifying the sound, dealing with micro-volume differences—I might be tired of it already. With Radiance, my interest in what I was hearing went up every time I listened to it. This kept happening after I wrote the linear notes, otherwise I would have lightheartedly suggested that the music be listened to at least 26 times before making any judgments.”

Jarrett’s bucolic western New Jersey home that he shares with his wife, Rose Ann, is closer to his Allentown, Pa., birthplace than to New York City, which is a 90-minute drive away. He’s lived here since 1971, has bought up surrounding land and takes refuge here in his house, office and studio, which is in a separate building. There’s a small brook that runs close to the house. He seems rested here and says his only trips to the big city are to go to the airport.

Upon arrival at his residence, Jarrett is sitting in his low-ceilinged kitchen eating a rice cracker with peanut butter and drinking sparkling water to wash down several vitamins he takes to keep his CFS at bay (later, during the interview, he swallows several toxin-cleansing charcoal pills, a part of his daily regimen against the bacterial parasite that nearly permanently sidelined him.)

A few minutes later, a chiropractor who lives nearby bicycles to the house, and Jarrett excuses himself for 15 minutes for some adjusting that helps with this shoulder pain. Two hours later, at the conclusion of our conversation, the chiropractor returns.

Jarrett’s upstairs office is sound-system central, with hi-fi equipment strung together with thick black cables resting on Styrofoam cushions the size of wine-bottle corks. The ceiling is red-orange and has track lighting. His dark-wood desk is scattered with paper, as well as several model cars, including a red Ferrari and a gray Porsche 911 Carrera S. Underneath the desk is a box set of CDs, Sinatra—The Capitol Years.

Jarrett settles into his desk chair. After being congratulated on his upcoming birthday, he smiles and says that this year promises to be full of significant events. “It wasn’t a master plan that I know of,” he says. “It just happened.”

While Radiance is his crowning moment, the CD is only the first project that will roll out between now and this fall. The double disc includes the Tokyo concert tracks, 30 minutes worth, because “that was part of the same concert in Osaka. After the first show I took a train to Tokyo, had a day off and the next thing I played were the four parts in Tokyo.”

The full Tokyo concert (including an encore of standards) will be released by ECM as a DVD. And in support of the DVD release, Jarrett will perform his first solo concert in the United States in more than a decade, Sept. 26 at Carnegie Hall. This is his only North American solo show.

Also slated for the fourth quarter is Columbia/Legacy’s long-awaited six-CD box set Miles Davis—The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, which features Jarrett on electric keyboards. In the tape archives since the 1970 performance at the Washington, D.C., club, the box captures the trumpeter stretching further into the fusion zone in the company of Jarrett, saxophonist Gary Bartz, bassist Michael Henderson, drummer Jack DeJohnette, percussionist Airto Moreira and guitarist John McLaughlin (who’s heard on two of the six discs—the second and third sets of the Dec. 19, 1970, show). Some of the material was used in the LP Live/Evil, but this set features more than five hours of never-released music.

If Jarrett’s Radiance is best sipped in the quiet of a listening room, then The Cellar Door is made for frenetic driving over the George Washington Bridge back into Manhattan, then down the Henry Hudson Parkway. It’s hot, fast, exhilarating and dangerous. Jarrett contributes to the set’s liners, writing, “You don’t usually see this kind of comet go by more than once or twice in a lifetime.”

Jarrett is pleased with the release, especially since it’s the only recorded documentation of the group without McLaughlin. “I wouldn’t have written any liner notes if I didn’t like it,” he says and laughs, “even though the Fender Rhodes was off its game during that gig. I would not have played that gig without Miles, who knew I was only there temporarily, because I had my own thing.”

Jarrett disagrees with Marcus Miller’s assessment of that period as Davis just wanting a funk band. “Then why was he still playing such wonderful scales that have nothing to do with funk?” Jarrett questions. “I believe Miles wanted us all because he knew we could get funky, but not go over the edge and become a funk band. He wanted the band to play exciting things, to surprise him. Sometimes he’d look at you and you’d think he was mad at you, but what he was doing was looking like, ‘Wow!’”

Was that your last time playing electric keys?


Do you own electric keyboards today?

“No. Totally not. Not interested. I still don’t think they’re anything but toys. I can get toys in a toy shop. It’s hard enough getting the right audio system to represent a certain moment in music. Why bother getting an instrument to squeeze itself through wires and then pretend a volume control means something? I like the electric guitar, but applying the concept to keyboards sucks.”

So, with a milestone album on his hands, what’s the future look like for Jarrett? He has no plans to expand the trio, nor to work with any other artists outside his comfort zone (“I haven’t heard consciousness coming through players in so long that I’m addicted to my own band”).

While he says he wishes he heard something new among the players he’s listened to, Jarrett’s disappointed. “I can only listen to a couple of minutes of performances and I have to turn them off. Unfortunately it sounds like people don’t know what they’re doing.”

So, what’s on the horizon personally?

“I don’t look ahead.”

No plans?

“No, never have, and if I did I would have probably missed out on things that did happen. If I had plans, even the sketchiest of blueprints, I could be stuck with the remnants of a bad idea, rather than waiting for these new things that come through the flux all by themselves. Those little nanoseconds. That’s what’s radiant. It’s like seeing people fishing in the stream and you can see the water glimmering.”

Jarrett pauses and smiles. He says, “Maybe if I have a secret, that’s it: Don’t have plans.” DB


Ask Keith:

Q. Based on your experience, what advice could you give to an aspiring artist?

I’ll negatively answer your question by way of an anecdote. I used to be—and still am—renowned for being pointedly honest to people backstage after concerts. My ex-wife used to get on my case. She’d say, “That’s not very nice.” So, one day, I decided to be a little nicer.

I was playing on the West Coast and this guy came up to me. He had been playing the piano and guitar and decided to stop playing. So, as Mr. Nice Guy, I changed what I would have probably said, which was, “That’s OK if you don’t want to play anymore. Don’t do it.” But I didn’t say that. I said, “You should keep playing.”

So, he went back home, started to play again, made an album, sent it to me and asked for my opinion. Well, I thought it was complete trash and totally derivative. He asked me to be honest, so I sent him an honest appraisal.

First I was god, then I was the devil.

Five or 10 years later, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette and I were playing in Copenhagen. Before the show we were eating in this garden area outside the concert hall, and this guy comes up to our table. He said, “Mr. Jarrett, do you remember me?” And I said, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t.” And then he pulled my letter out of his pocket. And I said, “I remember the letter and now I remember you. And excuse me, but we have a concert to play.”

Being positive and giving people advice has probably done more harm than good. The right thing I should have told him backstage was, “That’s fine. Stop playing.” Then the ball’s in the real court where it belongs. It tells a person to be responsible for themselves and not rely on someone else. The creative thing is to leave someone on their own.

Schools cannot create innovation. Innovation and schools are almost diametrically opposed. A jazz player cannot study with jazz people because you become a part of who you study with. So, you can’t become yourself. No one will help you on that issue. If you’re improvising and it’s not coming from you, it’s not worth playing because it’s been played before, probably by the people who taught you.

And, as for the school of thought of emulating people to find your own voice, I don’t think so. All a pianist needs is a piano teacher to teach you how to use the instrument. After that, it’s nobody’s game but yours. —D.O.

For more information, go to ECM Records