August 2001

Keith Jarrett: Acoustic Pianist

of the Year

By Ted Panken

“Jazz may be the only art form that asks the player—not the conductor, not any detached entities from the actual playing—to find out who he is and then decide if it’s good enough to speak from that self, and then that player has to live with who he said he was until the next time he plays. It’s and incredibly rigorous and merciless things, unless you’re doused with drugs or something. And strangely enough, that rigorous thing is the representation in musical form of freedom. So jazz is a metaphor for important things.” —Keith Jarrett

During Keith Jarrett’s lengthy convalescence from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a debilitating illness cause by bacterial parasites, the piano master managed to record a group of songs in his home studio as a Christmas present for his wife. The music—stripped to essentials, devoid of bravura or rhetorical excess—was unlike anything in his oeuvre, and ECM, his label since 1971, decided to release the tapes to the public. The Melody At Night With You became one of the best selling jazz albums of 1999.

The sound of The Melody At Night With You was not merely a pianistic projection of Jarrett’s personal sufferings. The album foreshadowed an esthetic sea change, one that developed while Jarrett struggled to reestablish his instrumental voice.

Unsure whether he’d perform again, Jarrett listened intently to his recorded past, and began to practice tunes. “Practicing usually gets in the way of my performing,” Jarrett says. “It’s like it sets up patterns or makes my ears less open. I’ve often said the art of the improviser is the art of forgetting; our brains can probably forget better than our fingers. But after I was sick, I had to practice everything. I had no choice but to listen to what I had done, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever do anything else again. I had to make it sound right to myself, and I was leery of a lot of my musical choices. I had time to erase my patterns, and became more connected to the music’s history and older performance practices that I played long ago.”

Looking for a way to return to concertizing “with a fresh outlook that also met my energy level,” Jarrett found himself drawn to bebop repertoire, with which he had flirted with but had never met on his own terms. “I’d heard the pieces, but hadn’t heard them very much,” he notes. “I came along around the time when that wasn’t the thing to do anymore.” He decided to eschew solo concerts and classical recitals, and made his long-standing trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette the focal point of his musical universe.

“On our first concert after Keith started to play again, we all consciously tried to tone down the volume level,” Peacock says. “He was paying attention not to exert himself physically so much. I remember a concert in San Francisco that was absolutely spectacular, and we played practically pianissimo, which the hall demanded, and which allowed him to move his fingers like a horn. His playing is lighter, freer. Less self. More just the music.”

That comment describes the ambiance of Jarrett’s two post-illness trio recordings, Whisper Not, a 2000 release documenting a July 199 Paris concert, and Inside Out, his latest. On the former, Jarrett makes a German Steinway dance buoyantly through 14 canonical tunes, gracefully conjuring free-as-the-wind melodies with a minimum of fuss and an economy of means. He is particularly inspired on “What Is This Thing Called Love,” which opens with a lengthy study in propulsive counterpoint, on Bud Powell’s “Hallucinations” and George Shearing’s “Conception,” on which he carves out long, sparkling theme-and-variation declamations, deploying jagged left-hand syncopations in the piano’s lower reaches. He extracts the essence from such ballad staples as Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” Duke Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” and Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” There’s a nod to stride piano ancestors on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” and a highly personalized “Poinciana” in tribute to Ahmad Jamal.

Unencumbered by any predisposition except to listen and find material in the moment, Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette impart to their statements the improvising-from-point-zero approach that is their collective trademark, avoiding cliché while imparting the idiomatic nuances of phrasing and forward motion that define bebop and make it live.

“The piano in Paris that is on this recording was like a Mack truck, very heavy and thick action,” Jarrett notes wryly. “Luckily, it was the last of four concerts in Europe, and I decided to use whatever energy I had—if I made it through the concert, good; if not, at least it was the last one. Some of these things are personal triumphs. Every now and then, I would barely be able to get that piano to speak.

“A piano is a structured thing, basically a percussion instrument, and when it is in perfect operating condition, let’s say ready for a Chopin recital, it doesn’t have much personality, because it’s so even. I would guess that the pianos bebop pianists played had been pounded to death, were fairly light action, and only in tune if they were lucky. Imperfect instruments create a character that can be contagious, and an improviser works with that. If you think of Wynton Kelly, you realize that almost always, when things were really cooking, the piano had a particular quality that would never be considered good for anything but jazz. I’m not sure how jazz would have come about if everything had been perfect from the beginning.

“My special problem and my special expertise is that I’m coming from both places at the same time. If we play a ballad, I need the piano to do things that only an optimally adjusted piano can do. But when we play a bebop head, I wish the piano could change radically. I am probably one of the few players who more often than not can find a way to make the piano do what it actually doesn’t want to do, and sound appropriate for the situation.” Whisper Not was released about 15 months after the concert that yielded it, by which time, predictably, Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette were exploring fresh terrain, that building collective improvisations from a blank slate, just as Jarrett did on several hundred free associative solo concerts between 1971 and 1995. “It’s a bitch doing that in a group, because we have to be wired together,” Jarrett says. “There’s no format. There are no mistakes. Everything is etched. You have to use whatever you play.”

Trained from early childhood “to be a virtuosos,” Jarrett was in his middle teens when he heard his unschooled youngest brother elicit sounds from the piano that made him consider the notion of playing “free.”

He cites the music of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell and Paul Bley’s input on the 1961 recordings of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio as important directive signposts toward a path that would allow him to transcend technique. “I heard Ives play studies for some of his written pieces, which I knew from the page, and they didn’t seem at all even related to the pieces he wrote!” he says. “And Paul Bley was giving me a message that you could use intelligence in a certain way—that it didn’t have to swing. “In Boston, I had a bass player who asked me, ‘Do you really want to play that clean all the time?’ I said, ‘That’s a very good question. And no, I don’t.’ I had to work for a long time to get some imperfections in the technique—because that’s where the soul of something lays. I heard a lack of something. That bass player’s question started those balls rolling in me to try to find out what that lack—at least in my case—might be. What did I really hear?

“Up to the late ’60s, I was working on who I was musically. When I played something that sounded like someone else, I used to say, ‘No, that’s really not me.’ Then I did a tour with [bassist] J.F. Jenny-Clark and [drummer] Aldo Romano. One evening, when I came back on the stage after a set break, I realized that to find your voice was probably way down on the list of priorities. Rather, once you find your voice, the imperative is to play, and not think about that. It was possible to drop that other shit, and just say, ‘Well, I’m who I am when I’m playing’ That freed me to do whatever I heard. If a player gets stuck in their own voice, where do they go from there? Nature doesn’t say, ‘I’ve got these materials; I’m only going to use them for one thing. Make sure it’s me.’ Nature says, ‘I’m going to do as many things as I can, and let’s see how much there is.’

“Change is the eternal thing. We’re talking about the creative act, and the creative act continues to demand different things from you as a player. You don’t say, ‘I think it would be very creative of me to do this.’ The act asks you.”

“Playing free involves a tremendous amount of preparation,” says Peacock, a ’60s pioneer in the idiom with Albert Ayler and Bley. “If you persist, you reach a point where you give up a personal investment in how you sound—how good you are or how bad you are, in what you personally have to say, in what you think you should do—and simply listen. That is the moment of the beginning of freedom. This opens up a huge space, because then, in a sense, you are out of the way. You don’t forget everything you learned. It’s just there. The essence of free playing doesn’t distinguish between forms, whether it’s so called ‘free jazz’ or standards or anything. It’s just free to play.”

Creating such an environment was precisely Jarrett’s intent in convening the trio 18 years ago. “Playing standard tunes was not at all the thing to do in 1983, and before our first recording, I asked them to have dinner so I could explain why I wanted to play them,” he related last year in a conversation about Whisper Not. “I told them that I wanted us not to rehearse our own material, not to say ‘use brushes here, we’ll go into time here.’ Playing jazz doesn’t depend on material, and I think what we do is much more the core of what jazz is. To play jazz and make something valuable out of it takes a perfect balance of two things—mastery and the relinquishing of control.”

Those comments came 10 weeks after the two London concerts that comprise Inside Out. The core of the CD is a de facto suite of three extended improvisations. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette draw upon their full spectrum of experience, creating cohesive statements in which blues language—as Jarrett states in the program notes—is a common denominator. They feel structured, but no structures were predetermined.

“The objects sort of appear before us, and it’s mostly the piano that invokes them, in the way I might invoke them in a solo concert, “ Jarrett says. “Jack and Gary right away see what I am hearing—or very shortly thereafter see what they are hearing–and we all find the center of that thing. We did this a couple times.”

In the ensuing year, he adds, “We’ve gone much further into the head space of free playing—into the ozone immediately. I hear Inside Out as a prelude to what we’re doing now. What we’re doing now is freer, and not as easy to listen to.”

Amidst the three-way interplay, Jarrett remains the trio’s programmatic guide. “I have instincts about form over large periods of time,” he says. “I think without my little pushes and pulls, it wouldn’t cohere. But when you hear the tapes we did in Tokyo that will probably be our next release, we all sound like we disappeared. I feel that our identities become erased in the quality of energy we’re working with. Me less than them, because unfortunately it’s hard to make the piano elastic—it keeps popping back into being a lever system. Because my instrument is chordal, if a slump is coming up or we feel something is not there, the only person who can suggest tonality, or a lack of it, or direction, or motion, or dynamics in any quick and coherent way that could be grasped by the other two is the piano.”

A self-described skeptic about all belief systems, including his own, Jarrett professes utter faith in the chemistry that makes his trio breathe as one. “We are different people, and the alchemy we get when we play together comes from our separate natures,” he says. “But nothing is great on its own, and no description can make that person as great as I feel they are. We’ve been together for so long, and we understand each other’s language and trust each other 100 percent. It’s like we were watching kids grow up—and we’re one of the kids. When we play, we’re morphing more and more into what we could have been before, but we didn’t know it yet.”

For more information, go to ECM Records