December 2010

‘What Am I Doing?’

By continually questioning, reexamining and reinventing his music, Keith Jarrett has developed a Hall of Fame jazz Career

By Ted Panken

Awards usually don’t mean much to Keith Jarrett. But to be the newest member of the DownBeat Hall of Fame resonates deeply. “I got DownBeat as a teenager, and I’m aware of the magazine’s history and deep roots, and of the people I’m joining,” Jarrett said. “So it’s meaningful, as far as people viewing my work as important.”

The pianist’s spoke from his New Jersey home on a Tuesday afternoon in September, two days before he commenced training for a Chicago concert on the upcoming Saturday night by his trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Such preparation is necessary as Jarrett, 63, engages in a rigorous regimen to stave off the effects of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the illness that almost cut short his career a decade ago.

Jarrett’s fall concert itinerary celebrates his 25th year working with Peacock and DeJohnette. They first convened in January 1983 for a three-day recording session that produced the ECM albums Standards (Volumes 1 and 2) and Changes, recently reissued as Setting Standards: New York Sessions. The group’s 18th date, My Foolish Heart, documents a 2001 concert of songbook repertoire at the Montreux Jazz Festival; its 19th, Yesterdays, a similarly programmed 2001 concert in Tokyo, comes out in February.

Had Jarrett only recorded and performed with this interactive supergroup over the past quarter-century, he would be a major signpost on the jazz timeline. But his ECM catalog over this span also includes original compositions for baroque organ, clavichord, harpsichord, string quartet and the trio; interpretations of the keyboard music of Bach, Mozart, Handel, Shostakovich and Arvo Pärt; and six improvised solo concerts (the seventh is scheduled for a late-2009 release) in which Jarrett creates cogent musical architecture from a tabula rasa. He first posed this challenge for himself in 1971, while still in the employ of Miles Davis, and pursued it with increasing frequency through the following dozen years. During the ’70s, Jarrett also led and composed enduring books of music for two quartets—the “European” Quartet, organized at the instigation of ECM head Manfred Eicher, comprised Scandinavian musicians Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, and the “American” Quartet, which Jarrett formed by adding Dewey Redman to his cusp-of-the-’70s trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.

The solo concerts earned Jarrett international celebrity. But transgenre popularity in no way cost him peer-group respect—pianists in the jazz and classical arenas consider him iconic for a variety of reasons. Eicher himself refers to “his phrasing, touch, quality of suspension, way of rubato playing and the influences from Chopin and Debussy that I grew up with as a European.”

Then there’s the rhythmic ingenuity and the bottomless well of melody that characterize Jarrett’s improvisations, and the seemingly infallible chops with which he executes them. However, it is arguable that Jarrett’s most enduring contribution to the sound of jazz today lays less in pianistic derring-do than the expansive compositional strategies that he deployed for the quartets, which such pan-generational luminaries as Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Robert Glasper cite as crucial to the way they think about music.

“I don’t sense it,” Jarrett said. “But possibly one reason is because the quartets were so personal. I took into account everything about those guys while I was writing the pieces. For example, Dewey didn’t like to play on chords. Another example is Luminescence, where I got inside what I thought was Jan’s way of playing—something like a minor second, then a third down, then a second, then another third, so it was completely out of a key. When we rehearsed, I played his part on the piano, and he said, ‘Do I play like this pattern?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you do it all the time.’”

Jarrett’s determination to eschew his own patterns and predictable pathways can be traced to his late teens, when he turned down an offer to study with piano guru Nadia Boulanger.

“I was looking to study with Nadia,” he said. “I couldn’t have explained why I said no. But I always had good instincts about who I was. My ears were going to guide me. Whatever musical story I tell is not all jazz; sometimes it’s uncategorizable. Inclusion has always been what it’s about for me. If someone had said, ‘OK, this sound fits with this sound,’ I might have believed it and might never have experimented putting together different sounds. If you make a map of something, and that map isn’t changeable, you’re stuck with the map. For driving, that’s good, but for music, I’m not sure.”

One way to keep things fresh, Jarrett said, was “to get as close as possible to subtracting the mechanism of the piano from the whole affair.” Early on, he paid attention to pianoless units—Ornette Coleman, Gerry Mulligan’s small groups—and off-the-beaten track pianists like Thelonious Monk (“I’d call his bands pianoless—he wasn’t always comping, and when he was, it was more like orchestral comping, plus his solos were not pianistic”) and Paul Bley.

“People whose ears were open always attracted me,” he said. “It’s something about the quality of sound that a player puts out in the air. Pianists in jazz do not work on touch. I was lucky that I started with classical. I was also lucky, or smart, to continue to play Mozart around the time that I was playing ballads with Jack and Gary, because Mozart demands a refinement of touch that I had not developed until I started to play Mozart. Only since that time—the last five to seven years—has my ballad playing been closer to what I hear.”

It is Jarrett’s opinion that his investigations with the Standards Trio and the earlier “three free spirits” trio with Haden and Motian stand “in defiance of the norms of the time” in which they performed. “We were in the midst of that revolution period,” Jarrett said, referencing the Haden–Motian unit. “Now, most free players couldn’t play time, or might not even be able to play their own instruments, but they could be influential because they did things that no one was willing to try. If we wanted to swing, we could; if we didn’t want to, we didn’t.

“One night at the Village Vanguard, Max Gordon said to me, ‘Keith, you guys could get a lot more people in here if you’d swing,’” he continued. “I said, ‘Max, it’s going to take a while, but the people will come, because we’re doing exactly what we know we should be doing.’ How did I know that? If you follow your instincts, words come out of your mouth and you don’t even realize it. You don’t remember, ‘Gee, I’m not sure when I’m going to eat my next meal.’ But I wanted to be free of everyone’s bullshit, and that included my own. So I wasn’t going to be sparing. I was going to be merciless on myself. If I could write something that could find its way to a different place than everything else, and I still felt close to it, then that would be successful.”

Although Jarrett has recorded no original compositions with Peacock and DeJohnette for close to two decades, he asserts that this trio, which recently has deviated from their custom of solely interpreting songbook repertoire by presenting collectively improvised suites in their concert performances, as documented on Inside Out and Always Let Me Go, from 2001, continues to occupy a singular niche.

“We are trying to hold onto this precious thing,” he said. “If I think of one thing that it is, it’s how Miles attacked the beat on his trumpet. When we did our so-called Miles tribute, Bye Bye Blackbird, a couple of weeks after he died, I said to Jack and Gary, ‘We’re not doing a tribute album. My idea is to play as though I were Miles, not play like a pianist who would play Miles.’ In doing standard material, we’re trying to take away a personality other than ourselves, to find this place that we don’t hear many people coming from. We don’t often hear young players swinging. There’s a lot of wasted energy.”

A gigging professional musician from his mid-teens, Jarrett burst into public consciousness before his 21st birthday on an April 1966 cross-country tour—and the album Buttercorn Lady—with a short-lived edition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Then he embarked on a two-year run with Charles Lloyd’s popular quartet. During this period, Jarrett studied the philosophical-musical writings of Gurdjieff, and developed an interest in applying to his musical production the ecstatic rituals of Sufi ceremonial as well as the elemental emotions of contemporary pop.

“There was a whole rough mix of ingredients in the ’60s and ’70s that we don’t have now,” said Jarrett, citing unrealized projects with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and an association—“I would roll cigarettes for them”—with the Animals. “I never took drugs; I didn’t need that,” he added.

“We might call this the ‘information age,’ but I consider that complete bullshit. What is the information? Of what value is it if it doesn’t attach itself to something? In the future, I can foresee an audience that literally thinks all music is equal, and there’s no such thing as good or bad.”

Jarrett expressed ambivalence about the legacy of his contemporaries. “My generation’s impact should have been greater, because there were a lot more great players,” he said. “But fusion somehow ate them up. Keyboard players got enamored of electric instruments, and never could go back. These are artistic decisions, and you can’t make them lightly. It’s like a painter throwing away their paint, saying, ‘Well, I want to get these,’ but they’re all monotone, and then, ‘Well, no, I want my old paints back.’ Sorry. They went out in the garbage.”

Jarrett did make a considerable splash as an electronic musician with Davis during 1970 and ’71. “There was an understanding that this was temporary, that I had this other direction that had nothing to do with electronic keyboards,” he said. “We felt that I was meant to be a part of this. Around 1967, he brought his whole band to a little basement club in Paris where I was playing with Aldo Romano and J.F. Jenny-Clark, and later, every now and then, he would show up to hear the trio with Charlie and Paul. I’d walk past his table, and he’d say, ‘When are you going to play with my band?’ Once after a set with Paul and Charlie, he said, ‘Keith! You play the wrong instrument.’ What could I say? So my comments about horns and voice, he was hearing that already, even though we were playing this strange music. A couple of times, he asked me how I could play from no music. I said, ‘I don’t know. I just do it.’

“Once I heard the band with Wayne, Herbie, Ron and Tony at the Village Gate, and Miles played a beautiful short solo—he played all short solos—and then the rest of the band played long solos,” he continued. “He walked off the stage, went to the bar, had some water, stood there for a long time and then finally went back on stage and played a tune, and then went out. I heard that happen each tune, and I thought, ‘You know, I’d like to help out somehow, but I’m not sure what that means yet.’ When I joined him, the band started turning electric, and I wasn’t sure what my role could possibly be. What he needed was someone on keyboard who could be challenging and funky, and that’s what I contributed. Once that band started, Miles was staying on the stage the entire time, and going into his crouch. I made him happy for a while.”

Jarrett’s aversion to plugged-in acoustic phenomena is one reason why so few studio recordings appear in his discography of the past two decades. “I hate studios,” he said flatly. “Also, what I do is for a public actually in the space.”

Does performing for an audience facilitate his focus? “It’s harder to be focused then. However, given that, I have the valid feeling that there are people there who are ready for whatever happens—it’s not just me.”

“He used to like the studio very much,” said Eicher, whose meticulousness with sonic detail is part and parcel of ECM’s identity. “Earlier recordings like Belonging and others that we made in studios with great balance and sound couldn’t easily have been made in live concert. Later on with the trio, it flew into other directions. He also needs the interaction with the audience, and probably the risk of going to the edge there is more appropriate than being in an intimate studio.”

In distinction to Davis’ predisposition to follow the straight line, never looking back, Jarrett’s journey traces a circular path, as he periodically reinvents himself by revisiting, recontextualizing and refining previously explored materials. Consider his 21st century solo recordings The Carnegie Hall Concert, from 2006, and Radiance, drawn from 2002 concerts in Osaka and Tokyo, and how different the sound is than even on La Scala, from 1997.

“Manfred and I talked about doing another solo thing in the studio, and I’m open to it,” Jarrett said. “Originally, I was curious about the process. As far as I knew, nobody was investigating it. Perhaps after Facing You, I played a concert at a festival in Heidelburg after Friedrich Gulda. I started playing a song, then, without stopping, I attached it to another song. Then there was some transitional material, and it ended up being whatever amount of minutes of that. That led me to wonder whether those transitions themselves were something, which led me to investigate that. I wasn’t even ready for this discovery—only in the last six or seven years did I become a good enough player to use both hands properly under those circumstances. So whatever amount of years I spent doing it, it was as an inferior player to who I am when I play now.

“When I was sick, I had a great opportunity to sum up my work,” he continued. “I’d listen to my solo stuff and think, ‘What am I doing? There are too many notes here. If I did this again, no, I’d never play this, I’d never play that.’ I realized that if I ever returned to playing solo, I’d have to do it differently. Now, when you’re sitting at the same 88-key instrument with the same two hands and trying to undo the architecture you’ve built up over a couple of decades of doing this thing you thought you understood, it’s a freaky experience to have to go through. However, the freakiness only lasts a second, and then you realize, ‘Man, if I ever have the energy to do it again, at least I know where to start.’”

Jarrett keeps a tight schedule, and he had to end the interview to take his CFS medications and eat dinner. “If I were a different kind of artist, I think I’d use found objects,” he said. “I wouldn’t go looking for new technology. I remember seeing Herbie Hancock backstage somewhere when he’d just started getting seriously into electronics. Instead of having a conversation, he was saying, ‘Wow, have you heard this wire, this thing, connected to this and this over here?’ I said, ‘Herbie … no. I don’t want to talk about wires. I hate seeing them on the stage.’” DB Sidebar Manfred On Keith Manfred Eicher (told to Ted Panken)

Before ECM, when I was a student and playing in an orchestra in Berlin, I heard Keith Jarrett at festivals with Charles Lloyd and was curious about his playing. When I had the label, I wrote Keith, and sent him test pressings of Chick Corea’s solo record as well as Jan Garbarek’s Afric Pepperbird. Keith wrote back that he liked this music and the sound. When he came to Munich with Miles Davis, we met, and decided to make a recording. I’d actually suggested a trio with Jack and Gary, but Gary wasn’t playing bass at the time. Keith said he would like to do a solo record first, which he did in Oslo in 1970. That was Facing You.

The trio was always the wished-for combination, and in 1977 we did a remarkable recording (Tales Of Another) under Gary’s leadership, with his compositions. The first time they went into the studio to do standards, the idea was to make one record, but we had booked three days, and by the time we came out, we had recorded and mixed three records. In the reissue, Setting Standards, you can hear how closely they already understood each other, how beautifully their exposition of each piece came out.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Keith played differently, especially in the solo concerts. He always played piano on a high technical level, but his touch has changed over all these years, small nuances first, then more fine-tuning. In the early days, I was at every recording, and we were close in deciding every little thing. It’s not always possible for us to be in the same place now. He trusts his engineer and manager, and when the music is done, Keith sends it, and then we decide together what to release. He needs the interaction with the audience. The risk of going to the edge is more appropriate there than in an intimate studio. It’s important to assist a musician in his needs and his ideas, and then get the best out of it.

Keith was the ideal partner for my esthetic with the label, a wonderful musician with talents other than playing the piano. From the beginning, it was clear that whenever I could work with Keith, I would like to. He’s one of the best musicians I know. “Best” is always a strange term, but his musicianship and personality, and his influence on music-making, means a lot to me.

—Manfred Eicher (told to Ted Panken)

For more information, go to ECM Records