October 2013

Keith Jarrett Goes Classical

by Ethan Iverson

The legend sits down with The Bad Plus pianist to discuss Bach, Bernstein and 30 years of sharing the bandstand with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette

Keith Jarrett is committed to exploring certain long-term relationships. The most exposed is a simple triangle with piano and an audience, where for over 40 years Jarrett has kept discovering what else can be new in an improvised solo recital. He has also displayed an amazing stability and loyalty when collaborating with other musicians: While fellow star jazz pianists McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea have hired dozens of bassists and drummers over the decades, Jarrett has had only three of each since Life Between The Exit Signs, his first album in 1967.

Another important partner is Manfred Eicher, the head of ECM, who has recorded Jarrett since 1971. Four years later, when Eicher released The Köln Concert, it bolstered Jarrett’s reputation worldwide, and it helped establish the fledgling ECM as an important label.

Besides two new discs—the jazz trio concert Somewhere and a studio traversal of Bach chamber music—ECM has recently released two archival gems. Sleeper is a scalding document of Jarrett’s “European Quartet” with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen from 1979, and Hymns/Spheres is the first full CD release of a mysterious 1976 album of Jarrett’s organ improvisations.

When recording classical music, Jarrett’s favored composer has been J.S. Bach, whom he plays in a restrained and rhythmically alert fashion on both piano and harpsichord. Since 1987 he has tracked both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier, The Goldberg Variations, The French Suites, the Viola da Gamba Sonatas with Kim Kashkashian, six sonatas with recorder player Michala Petri and now Six Sonatas For Violin And Piano with Michelle Makarski.

Makarski (who, like Kashkashian, has recorded several projects for ECM unconnected to Jarrett) is making her second recording with the pianist. The first occasion was 1993’s Bridge Of Light, where she played Jarrett’s Elegy for Violin and String Orchestra and Sonata for Violin and Piano. Makarski is equally vibrant and stylish in baroque music, new music, or unclassifiable circumstances alongside jazz musicians like Tomasz Stanko and John Surman. I asked her about the new Bach record, which is Jarrett’s first recording of classical repertoire since a second volume of Mozart concertos in 1998.

“The whole thing developed spontaneously after Keith and I renewed our friendship in late 2008,” Makarski said. “Christmas that year, we decided to play something together; it turned out we read through the Bach sonatas. We loved it so much, every time I was able to visit, we’d play them. Sometimes this happened every couple of weeks, sometimes not for months. We’d just play and marvel at the music. Every time we’d do this, the results were very different. Even after deciding we’d like to record, the process didn’t much change. What you have is a window on an organic, long-term process of exploration and deep listening. [It’s] a kind of momentary document of a joyously renewed friendship—not a strategically planned project.”

I have interviewed Jarrett before, and I always notice his hands: While surprisingly small, their rough-hewn solidity suggests immense potential energy.

Ethan Iverson: You’ve made quite a respectable contribution to the Bach discography by now. But this is your first recording of Bach on piano since the first, The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1987. Let’s start back there: When did you learn The Well-Tempered Clavier?

Keith Jarrett: I learned selected ones when I was very young, more of them in my twenties. I just kept doing them, and The Goldberg Variations, too. Making the first Well-Tempered album took a lot of work.

The second book I played on harpsichord because I thought a lot of the pieces are much more for that instrument … . We recorded it right here at my studio: I was the tuner, getting each key right, which was also a lot of work.

When I got my harpsichord, the local guy came in a hearse. It’s a great car to carry harpsichords in, I guess. But the electronic machine that he had along to tune the instrument was a failure. It didn’t know anything, of course … . [T]he instrument was very temperamental. So I took over tuning it.

You must have decided that the harpsichord had something to teach you.

In the ’80s, something led me to the New Englander Carl Fudge, who built one of my harpsichords and my clavichord. In those days I sometimes tried to approach a solo concert in different kinds of ways, and there was a Bach birthday concert, where I had all the keyboard instruments from Bach’s time until now on stage. It was a great idea, but I had not yet really investigated the instruments. I knew the music: Besides Bach, I was listening to William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, and other early music where there were no bar lines. But I hadn’t really played them on clavichord or the harpsichord yet. I remember Carl Fudge kind of cringing when I sat down at the harpsichord: He knew I was naive.

I began the concert with the clavichord, because no one would have heard it if I had played it after anything else. Stylistically, while it was free improvisation, I ended up working my way around older and modern composers, which is challenging. Christopher Hogwood once asked me to improvise a transition between a Mozart Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, and I refused. “No, man! I can’t do that, at least not on purpose.”

Anyway, back to this Bach birthday concert: By the time of the intermission, I had touched all the instruments on stage. It was OK, but I had no idea what to do for the next set, and when I told my then-wife Rose Anne, she said, “Play ‘Happy Birthday.’” That was a great idea, because Bach loved variations. I remember there was a Mozartean movement, and in minor keys … .

After the concert I bought one of Carl’s harpsichords and began studying. The first harpsichord recording was years later. I began a musical relationship with Michala Petri; she was a fan, and came over and sight-read the Handel sonatas with me perfectly. I’ve had more fun playing harpsichord than piano. Like I used to take my flutes, soprano saxophone, or guitar on tour, and you can’t take pianos. Harpsichord is a little more human-sized. You have to tune and repair them yourself, [so] it’s a more intimate thing.

Did you ever have a harpsichord teacher?

No, but I listened to records and listened to the instrument, too. When a harpsichord recording was coming up I would stop playing the piano or anything else.

Do you have some favorite harpsichordists?

I used to!

Ton Koopman?

I like him, but he’s a little too ornamental. Gustav Leonhardt taught me more about how to deal with the harpsichord’s lack of dynamic range: Whatever keyboard you are playing, that’s the volume. My perfect pitch was affected a bit, too.

Right. Early music tuning is about a half-step lower than modern tuning.

Carl made an extra key so we could shift it to [A=] 440 if I wanted it. But eventually 415 was fine. However, I destroyed my perfect pitch, or at least made it rather elastic. While I was doing the work, I had to ask myself, “Is it worth this?”

After all these years with Bach on the harpsichord, why you are back on the piano?

When I started getting to know Michelle Makarski, I was so involved with the piano on so many levels. And I didn’t know any more harpsichord technicians; some plectrums needed to be replaced.

Michelle had conceived of her version as having an organ, which I thought was a good idea, but I wasn’t going to be the organist. I said, “Piano! Take it or leave it! I’ll do something a little different.”

The way the project developed was unusually organic. Over the course of two years, we met occasionally. She’d come out and stay, the first time was at Christmastime, and she’d say, “Is there anything you want to sight-read?” I had thought I was done with learning new pieces—I was concentrating on the other things I do—but she talked me into reading the Bach sonatas. This is a real triumph for me, because I thought I was done with that world. I wasn’t going to learn Ligeti or anything, and didn’t feel like I needed that kind of nutrition. But every time she visited, we played it again—between dinners or whatever.

Your Bach is very pure, and very rhythmic. Do you think your jazz playing influences your Bach?

I don’t know, but I do like what he said about playing beautifully: “Play the right note at the right time!” In general, I like playing classical music in time. You can take liberties, of course, but still, the right note at the right time.

Tell us more about Michelle.

Steve Cloud recommended her for the Bridge Of Light recording. But the reason we became serious about this recording is that we were never serious. There was no protocol. Our tempos are never the same. But we got along personality-wise, because for a classical musician she is very open-minded in that she had listened to a lot of other musics.

Then, we’re both somewhat Slavic: She’s Polish, and my brother says I’m Serbo-Croatian, and my grandmother said she was Hungarian. Together we got some of the dance qualities essential to these pieces. At one point, we played something in parallel thirds together, and afterward I said, “The Everly Brothers!” We cracked up. We connect with humor, and kind of a casual approach. It was two years of fun experimenting and then making a record. Her violin is named “Vincenzo.”

You used the word nutrition before. Is playing Bach kind of like taking vitamins for your improvising work?

Yes. Someone said about Bach, “He’s nobody’s fool.” I can be guaranteed that anything I play by him has a deep and quick intelligence. I wonder what it was like to hear him improvise!

It’s also nutritious because it’s not me. I’m just throwing myself to this other guy, and asking him, “Show me something I still don’t know about music.”

Over the years, your improvising keeps having more color and texture. This kind of development seems like it must be connected to your commitment to practicing repertoire. The first solo introduction on Somewhere, “Deep Space,” seems almost to be in 3-D.

“3-D” is a good way of putting it. Manfred Eicher complimented me on that introduction, too.

Is it fair to say this kind of playing is connected to practicing Bach?

No. It comes more from listening. If I’m improvising moving internal lines or something connected to fugue, then obviously practicing Bach is relevant. Bach and I agree that there aren’t chords; there are moving lines. But that introduction is maybe more like Elliot Carter showing me how many ways there are not to play rhythm, or maybe how a cluster has to come from some place you don’t expect.

There are solo concerts where I try to keep everything from resolving.

That’s some of your playing that I enjoy the most.

If I’m in Rio, and I know their music—because bossa-nova did infect jazz very well and will never go away—I will give them some of their music, because I love it, too. A Rio concert would never be totally abstract. But there’s a 2008 Yokohama concert, which is most successful of the kind of abstract thing we are talking about. They didn’t applaud between movements; it was a real workshop atmosphere. That is on my Top 3 list of solo concerts I want to release someday.

Let’s talk about the tunes on Somewhere.

There’s a story in the names of the title. I totally did not intend this, but someone else pointed it out. It begins in “Deep Space,” then “Solar,” “Stars” [“Stars Fell On Alabama”] and “Sea” [“Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”], then “Somewhere” or “Everywhere.” Finally it is “Tonight,” like, take all those things and think about them, and then: “I Thought About You.” It is kind of like the story of how a concert happens. I look at this CD as representative of almost everything we do, but in small pieces. It was also a single set concert. When we have only one set, we know we have to be expansive, because we know we aren’t going back out there.

I don’t recall you playing Leonard Bernstein before. Why don’t jazz cats play Bernstein more often?

I would guess that Bernstein’s way of writing is more like a classical composer. You can’t just get away with playing the block chords, or if you do that, you have to change the voicings so they make some kind of jazz sense without destroying the tune. You put some jazz ii/Vs in there that aren’t from Bernstein. You must have thought about what would be your “changes” on those pieces.

Especially on “Somewhere.” On “Tonight” they are not so hard to get to. We play them differently every time, though. And there was never a vamp on a ballad before. And that really sounds like it is going “Everywhere.” It is stopping, and starting, and going out, and coming back. It’s very involving. When I first heard the tape I thought, “There’s no way we can avoid using that one!”

“Somewhere” is such a delicate piece. If you get anything wrong, it’s obvious. In fact, I played the melody really well someplace else, not on this recording. I like what I do with it here, but there was another gig that was better. Jack said afterward, “Could you play those voicings again?” and I said, “No, sorry!”

On the other hand, the ending of “I Thought About You” here is really good, probably the best we’ve played it. It is so heartfelt and powerful.

Does that tune have a Miles Davis association for you?

Sure. Having him play any song so many times is a good signal that there’s something there … and you can hear what’s there!

“Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” is an older tune, like a stride pianist might play. Do you think of it that way, as connecting to stride?

A little, but more like: If you can find the groove, it’s a good melody. You can get jocular with it, and let it jump. Jack DeJohnette and I are playing games with the rhythm. We never know what we are going to play, nor do we know why we are playing it.

So you never hand Gary Peacock a chart?

Sometimes he has some music. We both have a fuzzy way of going about it. I have a big list of tunes on the piano. If nothing pops into my head, I check out the list. But Gary and I are both extremely cool with my starting something he’s not prepared for.

The trio’s language has been very influential, especially the idea of total spontaneity: Everywhere in the world there are trios that don’t use tight arrangements in the older mold of Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson. And drummers, in particular, love your trio because of Jack. He’s famous for playing very convoluted rhythms, breaking up the time. But on “Deep Blue Sea,” especially, I was once again struck by the depth of his ride cymbal beat.

When the rough mixes of the record started coming, I would usually start with that tune because I wanted to hear Jack. There’s a couple places where he double-times, but the rest of it is pretty simple. But being a drummer myself, I know there’s nothing simple or commonplace about swinging.

You’ve been interviewed so often about the trio. I couldn’t think of anything new to ask, except perhaps a backwards question: You could play with anybody, anywhere, anytime. Why stay with the same two guys? And only those two guys?

A lot of it is about magic. If you don’t choose the right guys, magic will never happen. A big part of my work is intuition. You don’t need much information or many clues to know if you want to play with someone. If it is really right, then clues are right in your face.

The first time we did a record, we had dinner the night before. And Gary was worried about playing “All The Things You Are” again because he had done it so much already. I told him he didn’t have to play it like he had ever done it before, and in fact, I didn’t want him to.

There was no intention to be a working band. But if you find the right guys and the magic happens, then, well: Let’s play a gig. Not in a concert hall, but in a club, because “All The Things You Are” in a concert seems wrong. But maybe the magic deepens so you try a small hall in Japan, then finally major halls everywhere. And you feel freer and freer within this context. If you decide to be like peanut butter and spread yourself all over the place, you might never have the experience of what happens next with those same guys. In 30 years we never had an argument about music. We never had a dispute of any major consequence. We just show up and play. One of the concepts, if not the basic concept, is that we are all sidemen to the music.

At this point, anything else I would do would be an event. And what if it was horrible and lasted only a very short time? I’d happily go out of my career knowing I had never made that kind of mistake.

A lot of the trio’s repertoire comes from musicals, like these two songs from West Side Story. Have you watched a lot of musicals?

Not really. I don’t love musicals, although I like the music from West Side Story a lot. And some of Leonard Bernstein’s other, more serious music I like, too.

You must be connected to the idea of “American music.”

Yeah, I don’t think there’s European jazz, although there are lots of people trying to get the spirit. My quartet with Scandinavians was great. I love Sleeper, the recent discovery from that band.

But jazz is the sound of lone self-expression, of your own self. You can’t disguise yourself—you speak from who you are.

I don’t know if there are influences in music, anyway. After you hear music, you either imitate it or just go on being yourself. Books can be a bigger influence. I don’t have as many as Umberto Eco, but I like what he said about having a big library: “You should always have more books than you can read, so you always know that you don’t know everything.”

What about Harold Arlen vs. George Gershwin vs. Irving Berlin: Do you think about the differences in their voices?

Not as much as I should, but at least I know the lyrics. Gary asked me, after years of playing, “Do you know the lyrics to all the songs?” and I said, “Sure.” He said, “That explains it.” I don’t know what he meant, exactly, but … American music. Well, I think Elliot Carter is American music, too.

I’m astonished you’ve brought up Carter twice in this interview!

He’s a recent discovery for me, somebody I learned about in the last decade. His music really gives me something. The content of his music doesn’t impose new things for me—I just like the experience. He worked hard at getting several meters to happen at once, and then the whole orchestra goes, “Brmmph!” together. How did they do that?

The two American composers I would guess you have really checked out are Aaron Copland and Charles Ives.

Of course. Copland was more original and more important than many people realize because he’s so popular. If there’s an American sound in classical music, he invented it. I went through a long Charles Ives phase, and gained a lot from him. The first time hearing him is revelatory, of course.

You worked with Lou Harrison.

Lou had something really special. One time after hearing a group play a Mozart symphony, he said, “They played it better than they could.”

I was having a bit of shoulder piano trouble when he wrote me the Piano Concerto, so I asked him not to write anything percussive. Then he turns around and gives me the “Stampede” movement, which is not just banging with the octave bar but putting it down and picking it up again. He said, “Don’t get muscle-bound.”

But like it is hard to be a European jazz player, I think it is hard to be an American composer. It’s not hard to be an American jazz player. But we didn’t invent composing, and it’s a tough country to draw a large-scale anything of, because everyone is so [much] themselves. In jazz, you are not expecting anybody to do anything they can’t do, and you aren’t expected to be able to analyze a symphony. In jazz, you don’t need much composition before you can express yourself. I was listening to the radio at Christmastime, and there were horrible jazz versions of horrible Christmas tunes. I was going to turn it off, but then Sonny Rollins came on with “Winter Wonderland.” I said to myself, “There’s no way I can turn it off now!”

Sonny put so much of himself into this piece. It was something that was only Sonny, and that something made the little tune transcendent. DB

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