Sep 1, 2020 10:00 AM
In Memoriam: Saxophonist Mark Colby
Saxophonist Mark Colby died Aug. 31 from complications related to cancer, according to an email sent to DownBeat from…
Fifty years after arriving on the international jazz scene, pianist Keith Jarrett remains one of its greatest improvisers, rising to great heights in the still thinly-populated field of concert-length solo piano improvisation, a genuinely tabula rasa art form.
The opportunity to witness these events is one to be cherished, especially since he has cut back on his concert schedule: His April 29 concert at Los Angeles’ acoustically pristine Walt Disney Concert Hall was one of only three concerts so far this year—between shows at Carnegie Hall and San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall. (Jarrett is highly discerning about his selection of venues, placing great emphasis on the room’s role in his artistic equation.)
Jarrett, who will turn 71 on May 8, is still shining and inventing in a medium with which he has had an on-again-off-again relationship for decades. As a musician, he stands apart in his own enclosed world, not quite in the gravitational pull of the “free improvisation” orbit, but in a sphere that showcases his classically trained virtuosity and remarkable fluidity of ideas.
Jarrett works within parameters, grooves and modes comfortable to him. He planted roots as a solo artist in the ’70s, with such classic albums as The Köln Concert (1975, ECM) and other live recordings, but later took a break from solo concerts to record with his Standards Trio, which includes drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock.
In the current era, he tends to break solo concerts into short pieces, often utilizing elements that are now familiar to longtime fans—a gospel-tinted waltz zone, a rhapsodic ballad-on-the-spot, a technically commanding etude on a particular theme or technique, an open, harmonically vamping space, or an atonal passage seeking resolution (which inevitably arrives).
One wholly unpredictable aspect of a Jarrett concert is his gruff manner, evidenced by unseemly comments related to his almost pathological abhorrence of having his photo taken—or taking issue with silence-busting coughers. At Disney Hall, he opened the show by petulantly upbraiding an unsanctioned photographer near the stage, offering a cold, site-specific comment: “Walt Disney made films. I have no interest in that.”
He next sermonized about his “deep sadness” regarding the pitfalls of modern, screen-obsessed humanity, and promised to “dig beneath the concrete” with his concert. Deep into the show, some patrons snapped photos during his encores and he sniffed, “See what I mean about humanity?” as if these renegade smartphone-users represented the downfall of the species.
Jarrett’s eccentricities usually can be excused in the face of the unique profundity of what he produces from his Steinway; and this was the case on April 29. After his tirade at the outset, Jarrett seemed to channel his angst—and his desire to quell it—into a 30-minute suite that turned out to be the highlight of the concert.
Without introductory niceties, he leapt into a torrent of intense, atonal yet utterly focused notes. Echoes of Stravinsky, sparse portions of Elliott Carter—whom Jarrett reportedly has been alluding to during recent concerts—and then the yearning melodicism of Schubert wafted through the piece.
Tune by tune, the collection of ideas shifted in personality and musical identity. One of Jarrett’s signature on-the-spot ballads was followed by a study in perpetual, contrapuntal motion, a sixteenth-note rainstorm that was both bracing and refreshing.
Opening the second set, a contemplative three-note motif—almost minimalist in character—in the right hand rippled as his left hand got busy, inventing and exploring, at one point crossing over the supportive, anchoring right hand.
Next up, a growling, chromatically walking left hand laid a shambling groundwork for some of his characteristic, whizzing jazz gymnastics in the right. A fragile beauty followed, in a piece laced with rippling arpeggios and an impressionist spirit.
“None of this is in my repertoire,” he told the crowd late in the show, with a smile. “And it never will be.” Spontaneous invention followed by a comment that might be warm, or might be harsh—it’s all part and parcel of who he is and the magic he conjures.
Jarrett returned for three encores (despite some errant snapshot-takers in the house), including a straightforward rendition of “Summertime” and the sweet tenderness of Nat “King” Cole’s 1954 hit “Answer Me, My Love” to close. It was played in a style reminiscent of his mostly improvisation-free 1999 album, The Melody At Night, With You.
But the encore section proved an anti-climactic finale, lacking the brute artistic force of that first bold and exploratory half-hour enterprise. Jarrett’s life as a radical romantic continues, at a high level.
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