At Home with Keith Jarrett

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“There was a time I decided I was not a composer, only an improvisor, and I find that very difficult to do with one hand,” Jarrett says. “Jumping off a cliff takes two hands and two feet.”

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Keith Jarrett can do more with his right hand than most pianists can with two. As he pulls the protective cloth from the Steinway B in his hallowed Cavelight home studio, you’re reminded that it was here that he confounded critics back in the spring of 1985 with Spirits — a double album of 26 multitracks played on an alphabet of instruments, not ostensibly his main forte, the piano.

Tabla and other percussion Jarrett used on that solo release, which has served generations as a rite of passage during trying times, are still in situ, the gamut of recorders affixed to the wall like a museum exhibit.

In this low-ceilinged sanctuary, he and Charlie Haden shared their last musical dance, reuniting after 33 years — not so long before the bassist’s passing in 2014 — and it’s also where Jarrett gingerly returned, solo, for The Melody At Night With You, which he recorded after struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the 1990s. Jarrett has recorded several classical music projects here, including Bach and Händel sonatas. In the corner resides a vintage Gretsch drumset, one that has seen quite a bit of action at the hands of the piano maestro.

Since a couple of cataclysmic strokes in 2018, then returning from two years in rehab, Jarrett jams with his one functional hand in this room, about twice a month, he reckons. That’s how ECM label manager Caroline Fontanieu and this writer were able to experience a rare concert during a visit to Jarrett’s Dutch colonial home in rural New Jersey, a home that has been headquarters for the 77-year-old musical genius for half a century.

Jarrett’s uncanny touch, capable of eliciting extra groove juice and resonance from the piano, became evident as he raced through one of his favorite tunes, Oliver Nelson’s “Butch And Butch,” followed by an unabated surge of rococo ideas on “It’s Alright With Me.” A grand finale to this impromptu set, which also included “Sioux City Sue New,” involved Jarrett’s wife, Akiko, punctuating bass notes on the kind of rambunctious blues with which her husband would reward audiences around the world after challenging them with protracted bouts of invention.

Earlier in the afternoon, after taking a constitutional walk in the fall sunshine with a nurse’s assistance, Jarrett settled into a rocking chair on his porch in the company of Akiko and Fontanieu. He reminisced about his nonpareil career as he donned a pair of reflective shades.

The following conversation, which found Jarrett playful and receptive, has been edited for continuity.

Keith Jarrett: [of the sunglasses] Do I rock, or no?

Michael Jackson: You’re rockin’, man. Didn’t you aspire to rock stardom with Restoration Ruin in 1968, playing all the instruments like Prince or Stevie, singing too? Did you think you were destined to be the next Bob Dylan?

Jarrett: No, I was thinking it was more like Donovan.

Jackson: “You’re Unfortunate” [from that album] reminds me of John Handy’s singing and elsewhere a whiff of Nick Drake. The record received a parsimonious review in this magazine at the time, but it shows different sides to your talent. Who was Sioux City Sue?

Jarrett: She was someone who’d come to our performances, but I didn’t know where she was from. It felt like it was a dream.

Jackson: My teenage daughter, who’s a musician, digs that one. I’ve been playing her assorted Jarrett cuts on the drive to school. During “341 Free Fade” from Inside Out, or maybe “Hearts In Space” from Always Let Me Go [both 2001, ECM], one of your non-standard, freeform outings, she declared: “I’m not there yet, Dad. It sounds like Jackson Pollock on crack, globs of paint dripping from pinched fingers, while he’s tap-dancing.”

Jarrett: Good, that’s great. Haha!

Jackson: Coincidentally, one of your biographers, Wolfgang Sandner, disagreed: “Jarrett’s painterly instinct is not in line with Jackson Pollock’s; [he] is, yesterday and today, the Albrecht Dürer of modern times, obsessed with details, always in control, mentally aware of sounds just gone by and those still available.” That statement recalls something Dewey Redman told me about you.

Jarrett: Wow, I imagine you’ve got quotes I never heard.

Jackson: Dewey was working with your American Quartet and Ornette Coleman back-to-back and said you were scrupulous about the nuances of your compositions, whereas Coleman wouldn’t even count-in, it was straight off to the races. Is that a fair comparison?

Jarrett: Yeah, Dewey couldn’t read music very well, but he probably listened well.

Jackson: I had the privilege of writing Dewey’s obit for DownBeat, and Charlie [Haden] and Paul [Motian] contributed. Several of your pioneering bandmates are sadly departed, Gary [Peacock], too. I never spoke to Gary. The time I came close to meeting him was at Lee Konitz’s birthday party at Iridium, but Gary refused to play and left because Elvis Costello was on the gig. Gary claimed he didn’t know Costello and wasn’t going to play with a “rock ’n’ roller.” Does that sound like Gary to you?

Jarrett: Haha, yes. … Gary was a very special player and so was Paul. When I got my hair cut yesterday, I thought I looked a little like Paul when he was younger.

Jackson: In what ways did Gary differ from Charlie?

Jarrett: Charlie was a real 360-degree musician.

Jackson: Simplicity that he was not afraid of.

Jarrett: He was a bass player who could think of what Bach might have done with something, very simple but also very smart. Lines like that, that would not be specifically jazz lines. Gary was a jazz player more than Charlie. Gary was great.

Jackson: And then Jack [DeJohnette] and Gary were piano players, too, which is why they were drawn to you.

Jarrett: Yes. When Jack and I wanted to do a jam session, we’d change instruments. He’d go to the piano, I’d go to the drums.

Jackson: Rhythm and manipulation of the pulse is an abiding concern of yours. You once mentioned some dissatisfaction with Art Blakey’s style, your early employer in the Jazz Messengers, and although you admired Lennie Tristano, you took issue with his timing.

Jarrett: Just the way [Tristano] comps. There’s something loose. Guys like Konitz and Lennie played what I’d call “Western groove.” I’ve never tried to find a way to explain it. It’s laid back slightly not on the beat, a little elusive. By the way, I don’t know if you know this, but I played with Chet Baker once. I have a copy of it somewhere; I’m playing a few tunes with Charlie [Haden], Lee Konitz and Chet.

Jackson: André Ménard [the Montreal Jazz Festival founder] told me how Chet blamed [Canadian pianist] Paul Bley for being a lousy accompanist when Bley basically rescued Chet’s gig, backing him up and filling time when Baker was all but comatose onstage.

Jarrett: When I played with him in the early ’70s maybe, he came in with a couple of women and looked like a skeleton.

Jackson: A talent of yours that’s undersung is soprano saxophony.

Jarrett: I’m sorry I don’t play my soprano saxophone anymore. Have you heard my Spirits album, track 20 of that with saxophone on it?

Jackson: Yes, but what about Eyes Of The Heart (1976), soulfully lyrical soprano? You tear it up on Survivor’s Suite (1977), and on “Piece For Ornette” in Munich (1972) your soprano sounds like a rabid bobcat.

Jarrett: I also play on a Gary Burton album, but not anything special. I took up trumpet, too, but no one heard me do it. I have recordings in the studio. I hear from your accent you’re an Englishman, or Irish. There was a jazz club outside Dublin run by an American. I played there with the first trio I had with two guys from the Pocono Mountains, a Hungarian and a narcoleptic guy.

Jackson: He’d nod off in the middle of the gig? That was the undisclosed trio. The first Boston trio is undisclosed, too, isn’t it?

Jarrett: The Boston trio?

Jackson: After you were ousted from Berklee for enraging staff by tinkering inside the piano, you played around town with a couple of other drop-outs, we don’t really know who.

Jarrett: Danny Fullerton, originally from Saudi Arabia, and bass clarinetist, Kent Carter. We had a gig at the Cape, the only gig I got fired from. We were playing jazz and they said, “Play something peppy!” We thought we already were. They wanted polkas.

Jackson: A film, For the Left Hand, produced by jazz critic Howard Reich, tells of Norman Malone, a pianist paralyzed down the right side. Privately, for decades, he practiced left-hand classical repertoire, eventually performing the Ravel concerto with orchestra. There is more music written for left hand than right, despite left-side strokes being more frequent. I wonder if that could be a project for you, to compose pieces exclusively for the right?

Jarrett: There was a time I decided I was not a composer, only an improvisor, and I find that very difficult to do with one hand. Jumping off a cliff takes two hands and two feet. Now I’m using half the piano, half my ability. I don’t think I would write anything. A guy who has an orchestra, David Chesky, was trying to write for me. He already wrote a lot of it. But I don’t think I could do it better than anybody else, and I’m not sure what he expects of me, whether I’m improvising or not.

Jackson: My mother’s lifelong paramour was the piano, too. She had a stroke but now remembers obscurities like her first boyfriend’s middle name, details buried by accumulated mid-life experiences. A stroke can cull a lot of useless information and clear space for remoter reminiscence, do you agree?

Jarrett: Short-term memory is definitely nearly impossible from five seconds on. Trying to locate your car keys, something like that, you don’t have much. I’m not doing as poorly as someone else who has had the same stroke because I don’t feel like there’s any important things … . Obviously, I can’t bring back scenes that occurred in my life clearly, they’re jumbled, but I try to do that.

Jackson: You think it’s possible to access things from further back after a stroke?

Jarrett: I remember “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” without putting the accent on the first note: [sings the whole song] “Take ME out to the ball GAME / Take ME out with the crowd / Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack / I don’t care if I never come back … .”

Jackson: Lester Young’s dictum about knowing lyrics. Surely you don’t recall the words to “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” or “Golden Earrings”?

Jarrett: [sings] “There’s a story that gypsies know is true/ That when your love wears golden earrings/ Love will come to you … .” The bridge I don’t know. What’s the other one? [sings] “Wrap your troubles in dreams/ And dream your troubles away … .” I could have won Name That Tune, could have been a contestant!

Jackson: Valedictory ballads “Goodbye,” “One Day You’ll Fy Away,” “Where Can I Go Without You?” and “I’m Gonna Laugh You Out Of My Life,” on your duet recording with Charlie [Haden], had nothing to do with the breakup of your marriage to Rose Anne, correct?

Jarrett: It’s just the melodies more than the songs.

Jackson: Jasmine (ECM, 2010) is my favorite make-out record.

Jarrett: Oh, really?

Jackson: Yes, I’ve had a lot of success with it, but why the title?

Jarrett: It sounds like “jazz, man.”

Jackson: Now we’ve got the secret!

Jarrett: There you go! I remember Charlie and I deciding what we should play. We had to do “My Ship” because one person played that so well, it was Miles’ version with the orchestra.

Jackson: The breakup of your American Quartet gave rise to the superb “Belonging” Quartet with Jan Gabarek, for whom you wrote music especially.

Jarrett: The first thing I knew about Jan was his sound. I was in Stockholm with Charles Lloyd and heard a tape of his playing and went, “Who is that?”

Jackson: Despite ballyhooed miking fluctuations, Nude Ants (ECM, 1979) is classic. “Processional,” Beethoven-dramatic, organic and ominous, is spellbinding; ants-in-pants grooves persist elsewhere with that funky rhythm section. Jan’s playing kills, but he wasn’t happy with it, was he?

Jarrett: He played his best solo on “Sunshine Song,” which I wrote for Rose Anne. I like a lot of them, but that’s the one. I commented on it in the kitchen at the Vanguard. He said, “I don’t know if I’m into that anymore,” or something like that.

Jackson: As you draw extra resonance from the piano, Jan has that added width to his sound. He sounds great on My Song (ECM, 1978), too.

Jarrett: My Song was written for the little girls on the cover. I took that picture in Tunisia. They were laughing that I wanted to take their photograph, put on their best dresses from the house. I didn’t know anything about them. I sure wish they knew that album existed; I don’t know if they do. The record company worried that people would think they were Algerian, but that wasn’t the case. Up the street from that picture was the hotel we stayed at. My photograph of that hotel is on the cover of Survivors’ Suite. I wish I had the photos I took of the monastery where I made my first organ album. I spent days photographing it, a place that Bach had played.

Jackson: Ottobüren?

Jarrett: That’s it.

Jackson: Of all the world-class venues you’ve played, so many memorialized on live releases, which ones would you look forward to the most, perhaps for acoustics or a special instrument that awaited? We won’t mention Cologne Opera House [The Köln Concert, ECM, 1975].

Jarrett: Those two things? I’ve my own reasons to add. My favorite was Antibes because that was outside. The ocean was immediately to my left onstage and birds would be singing.

Jackson: How many times did you play Antibes?

Jarrett: We beat Ray Charles’ record. He did 24 years, and I did 26.

Jackson: Would you make adjustments for different audiences and halls? Amongst 150 performances in Japan, is there a way you might inflect your playing for the audience there?

Jarrett: Yeah, I try to know them before I see them. I know them from the culture they are representing, but when I see them I know them in another way. It’s true. I mean, if I play Rio, it sounds like Rio. I played São Paulo, they have some good music there. I love South American music, and they can obviously figure that out from the way I play.

Jackson: Your latest release, Bordeaux Concert (ECM), a 2016 solo recording from Opéra National, speaks to your special relationship with France. In the penultimate improvisation, do I hear the passing influence of Abdullah Ibrahim? Is he someone you encountered?

Jarrett: Yeah, I heard him, but I wasn’t thinking that way. If I listened to the music it wouldn’t leave me remembering. I liked his stuff.

Jackson: No doubt you don’t like talking about influences.

Jarrett: I can do it. I like to do it. I don’t understand how it works, anyway. Nobody who plays music can actually say why they did something. Is it because somebody else did something? Go ahead, ask me.

Jackson: Would there be Keith Jarrett as we know him, without Bill Evans?

Jarrett: Possibly not. Or Paul Bley, who I met at Berklee. He gave me his album Footloose. I was just a student. I played it a lot. But in the past, Lennie Tristano, I loved his sound. Ahmad [Jamal], y’know?

Jackson: I was going to mention Ahmad, dynamics and timing. You once played “Poinciana” in his style [Whisper Not, ECM, 1999].

Jarrett: According to Jack [DeJohnette], Ahmad said when people ask him who they should listen to in the jazz world, he mentions us. So Jack, Gary and I already loved his white album (Portfolio Of Ahmad Jamal, Argo, 1959), and to some extent, when I was young enough, about 14, [Dave] Brubeck did a solo album that was transcribed, so I got the music, and I played it at home.

Jackson: Did you ever tell him that?

Jarrett: No. But when I heard him live, as a teenager with my parents in Allentown [Pennsylvania], in the only jazz club I ever heard of in Allentown, I got into it. But the last piano teacher I had was from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia — Eleanor Sokoloff. She’s not alive anymore. [Sokoloff died in 2020 at age 106.] But her husband, Vladimir, was famous and was in the piano department, also. She didn’t like me listening to other music: “You’ve got to concentrate on what we are learning here,” and that was all classical.

Jackson: Did you ever run into Nina Simone? Her whole life turned around when she was rejected from the Curtis Institute. Her family relocated in anticipation of her gaining a scholarship. Her holy roller mother didn’t like her playing jazz and blues.

Jarrett: Not Nina, but do you know who Kathleen Battle, the opera singer, was? I was on a classical music cruise with her and Vladimir Ashkenazy. I gave Ashkenazy a tape, and he said, “Is that improvised? How do you play the right notes?” He conducted me playing Mozart. Kathleen sang some spirituals. I asked if she was interested in me doing an arrangement behind her, because they had a classical arrangement for a Black music thing. Her mother was at the table going, “Yeah, you should do that.” I wondered whether she would do an album of Black music.

Jackson: The dichotomies of classical and jazz.

Jarrett: I did a talk about the difference between classical and jazz, comparing the words given to the singers in classical music with the song “This Little Light Of Mine.” I said “That’s jazz. We’re accepting that there is a light, whereas in classical, you’re trying to make, or turn on, the light.” That was my talk. I was smarter then. Haha!

Jackson: Your relationship with your live audience has been symbiotic, or somewhat disastrous. At Chicago Symphony Center once, I sensed you were going through some things, trying to communicate with the audience on a deeper level. It was not often you did that.

Jarrett: I did that a lot in New York, though.

Jackson: But that night you were positively confessional as if you needed the audience more than usual. Often it’s the reverse of John Cage’s 4’33” with you, and utter silence, beyond the music, is golden. As with fellow genius John Zorn, the matter of memorializing a spontaneous one-time event with photography or video is repugnant. Do you regret any of your tongue lashings, walk-offs or blacked-out shows — Perugia in 2007 and 2013 come to mind — or insist they were wholly justified?

Jarrett: All I know is the first time I tried to play a solo concert, I was kept from continuing by people going behind the curtain and hitting drums on the stage. They stopped the concert and there was a whole room of Black protestors backstage saying, “This is not jazz.” There was a knock at my dressing room door and in came a truly African guy with his little daughter, and he said: “Don’t ever stop what you’re doing. They don’t know what they’re doing. You were great, don’t stop.”

Jackson: Robert Bly’s poetry has been important to you. A Bly quote, “If this sadness could not flow out of me, it would kill me,” is salient in the booklet to Vienna Concert (1991). Clearly that resonates with you.

Jarrett: Yeah, I played a poetry reading with Bly. I said, “What do you want me to do?” And he said, “I was going to read my poetry, but instead I think I’ll read Rumi’s poetry. I think you’ll know what to do.” Most people don’t know that I did that. He started from Rumi, told the audience this was one of the greatest poets, the greatest ever poet.

Jackson: You are mystical. It’s in your occasional writings, surfaces in tune titles — “Everything That Lives Laments” — part-and-parcel of your metaphysical relationship with the piano, which I also hear in ecstatic gasps between saxophone breaths. Your forebears were Christian Scientists, and the religious tenets of philosophical idealism must have influenced you early on — the belief that reality is purely spiritual, the material world an illusion.

Jarrett: I like Christian Science for what it is, but I don’t follow its precepts all the time. I felt more like a Sufi because I did comparative religion studies. I wanted to find out what there was, and I found [Armenian philosopher George] Gurdijeff, the Sufis and mystical Islam, for example.

After a wide-ranging conversation, which migrated from the sunny porch — where Jarrett descended into sporadic bouts of existential or creative crisis over the years — to the adjacent studio where he transmuted those crises into breakthroughs, it was time to listen.

Enough talk, a less transcendent means of communication. Time to drink in with the ears sitting in front of imposing Avalon speakers with books, plants and kelims in the meditative living room, listening to a 1968 big band recording of his music.

Jarrett still assesses the legacy. He brings up his rousing recording debut with Blakey from 56 years prior, Buttercorn Lady, and inquires if this writer has heard, presumably one of his favorites, The Out-Of-Towners (2001). Yes, it’s another favorite — one of many. DB



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