As his longtime fans well know, the cornerstone of any improvised concert by pianist Keith Jarrett is tension. Jarrett is a sculptor of tension, and he manipulates it masterfully, extracting moments of penetrating beauty from the fricative space between precision and possibility, skill and imagination, expectation and outcome—and, especially, between silence and sound.
But on Feb. 15 at New York’s grand Carnegie Hall, where the pianist gave a concert to a full house to help promote his new ECM release, a four-CD box titled A Multitude Of Angels, the heat of yet another friction hung over the proceedings: that between politics and art.
The recent election of Donald J. Trump to the highest office in the United States provided the concert’s conceptual through-line, and the evening served a platform for Jarrett’s politics as much as his artistry. Throughout the night, the pianist, 71, took to the microphone time and again to rail against the Trump administration and what he feels is an attack on the American character, calling the recent blitz of executive orders a “preventative measure against freedom.”
“This is the opposite of what I know to be the American people,” he declared.
Fortunately for the audience, Jarrett was able to channel his passion into clear-eyed and at times utterly sublime improvisations at the piano. He began, appropriately, with an eruption of dissonant runs that spanned the entire keyboard, emitting rumblings that would crystalize into melodic fragments over time, then just as quickly dissolve back into discordance. The overall impression was one of venting frustrations and clearing the slate—improvisation as catharsis—but the song also served as a stunning display of Jarrett’s agile technique, which radiated with the precision of a classical master. Even in anguish, Jarrett retained the level of composure necessary to channel his benevolent muse.
There followed a series of improvised vignettes that drew from a range of stylistic influences, many of which would ring familiar to any dedicated Jarrett follower: a gospel blues; a propulsive, minor-keyed soul shuffle; a modern, prismatic hymnal; a kaleidoscopic array of colorful, glassy chords. These pieces underscored Jarrett’s pension for uniting simplicity with profundity, a gift that endows his melodies with the originality of free improvisation and the seeming inevitability of composition.
A deliberate colorist, Jarrett’s spontaneous compositions are often striking in their harmonic depth and shading. One song consisted solely of sparse, quietly intoned chords that became more vivid and nuanced as they jostled for position in the air. Another involved a series of rough, clustered voicings that rumbled, gear-like, in the lower register. “Tough times call for tough harmonies,” he said at the song’s fraught conclusion.
The mood lightened as Jarrett closed the first set with a meditation that evoked the wholesome dignity of modern American music, drawing generously from the work of Copland, Gershwin, Bernstein and Berlin. With its folk-tinged phrases and soft-spoken confidence, the piece had the effect of smoothing the political turbulence that dominated the first part of the concert. In its elegant phrases and peacefully resolving chords, the song recalled the feeling of having overcome some great hardship, of finding solace in the storm.
Returning to the stage after a 20-minute intermission, Jarrett was greeted with a searing flash photo from the back of the hall, a major infraction in the eyes of the pianist, who has a famously low threshold for audience “misbehavior.” The guilty photographer was duly reprimanded. “Respect other artists,” said Jarrett. “It’s not even about me.” He then used the moment to pivot toward another criticism of the Commander in Chief. “Our President doesn’t even know what respect is.”
Save for the occasional sneeze, the audience remained in silent thrall for the second set, and Jarrett seized the moment to explore a more impressionistic aesthetic. He resumed the concert with a drone of deep, undulating piano rolls that coalesced into a minor-keyed statement of headstrong defiance, and followed that up with a piece based on the repetition of four-note and three-note phrases. Pastoral and dream-like at first, the mood slowly darkened as Jarrett’s right hand ventured into more ominous harmonic territory in the upper register.
The final song of the second set demonstrated Jarrett’s versatility. The piece consisted of jostling bebop lines that tumbled atop each other as if rolling down a hill. As the song gained momentum, disparate voices would emerge from the tumult, giving the impression of multiple jazz pianists having a conversation. This continued across three or four minutes before coming to a crisp conclusion, in which all strains of thought seemed to arrive at the same conclusion.
Jarrett was called back for two encores, during which he thanked the audience profusely. At one point, just as Jarrett was about to retake his seat at the piano, an audience member called out, “We love you, dude!” Jarrett, as if pricked with a pin, stood up and returned to the microphone. “I have to respond to that,” he said. Many in the audience expected a scolding.
Instead, he simply restated his gratitude. “I love you, too,” he said. Then, addressing once again the specter of Trump, he proclaimed, “We deserve better than this.” And with that, he closed the concert with poignant reading of “Autumn Nocturne” that received rapturous applause. Even the pianist was emotionally moved.
“You are,” he said before departing the stage for the last time, “the first audience that made me cry.” DB