Juan Rodriguez: Keith Jarrett’s improv — melodies or sheer funkalero

by Juan Rodriguez

Long, rambling, multi-styled, often cathartic solo piano excursions — encompassing a myriad of moods and touchstones within a single improvisational piece — have been the domain of Keith Jarrett, most notably in 1975 with The Köln Concert, which is said to be the best selling solo piano album of all time. The album is often mistaken as his first such improv effort.

Actually, his three-record set, Solo Concerts: Bremen & Lausanne, released two years earlier, put him on the map as a boomer solo excursion hero. Köln seemed to be the icing on the cake and was followed by a number of indefatigable efforts recorded in Paris, London, Tokyo, and other cities over the last few decades.

Jarrett burst on the scene after eye-opening stints with Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis, with Davis’ breakthrough and controversial, “jazz-rock” band in the early 1970s. His was a slim figure crowned with an Afro hairdo, who stood half curled at the piano as if making love to it. Village Voice critic Gary Giddens described him “levitating from the bench like beer foam, gyrating his hips and swiveling towards the audience with a grimace indistinguishable from a grin.” He also had heavy ‘attitude’ — lecturing audiences not to cough or take photos, as such activity impinged on the moment. He exuded a high-pitched hum and cries of ecstasy that some listeners found irritating.

If Jarrett is incomparable in his solo music, which he insists is never thought-out in advance, then Whitney Balliett, the incomparable former New Yorker magazine jazz critic (from 1954 to 2001), was the first to itemize his touchstones during a solo piece. He accurately describes Jarrett’s approach in the Köln Concert:

“A Jarrett performance may reflect and refract Bill Evans, Indian ragas, Ray Bryant, Stephen Foster, Chopin, Dave Brubeck, Cecil Taylor, Beethoven, Art Tatum, Debussy, Bud Powell, Brahms, the blues, Rachmaninoff, Gospel music, Bach, Horace Silver, Lennie Tristano, flamenco music, folk songs, the Warsaw Concerto, McCoy Tyner, George Gershwin, the Bolero, boogie-woogie, and Liszt. These structures have grown encyclopedic …” Not to mention something mystic, and mythic.

But was it ‘jazz’ or self-indulgent showboating? Jarrett had his share of detractors before his eclectic mad methodology became somewhat par for the course.

Just as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis left their imprint indelibly on the course of jazz, so has Jarrett been the most influential musician of what can properly be called the postmodern (post-bebop) era. He embodies the ephemeral, and risky, tenets of freedom that make jazz the most adventurous, and personal,
of art forms.

His latest album is gloriously titled A Multitude of Angels, a four-CD archival recording from four Italian cities in 1996, just as he was coming down with the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that threatened to put an end to his performing career. In those concerts he says, “the angels were with me.”

He eventually recovered, issuing the succinct, delicate, low-key home recording The Melody At Night, With You in 1999.

Starting in this millennium Jarrett began making his solo excursions shorter — and to my ears somehow more satisfying than his longer treks, but that may depend what mood I’m in: Radiance (from 2005), Paris/London: Testament (2009) and Rio (2011) are beautiful examples of this approach.

Now 71, his neatly trimmed hair more salt than pepper and wearing spectacles and a thin mustache, the
former “enfant terrible” of jazz looks like a trusted country doctor. A doctor, that is, of improvisation and deep feeling. “Music is an emotional experience, and it also has the ability to be a spiritual experience,” he told Nate Chinen, the New York Times critic writing in a recent Jazz Times. “I’m not trying to play religious music, and yet I hear so many kinds of deep meditation, let’s say. And deep joy.”

The reason for adopting shorter pieces, he said, might be because he’s “had enough” of the longer ones (been there, done that), but he also alludes in his Angels liner notes to audience attention spans within our mobile-device culture.  “I know I’m sitting in a room with other human beings who are trying to concentrate, if I’m lucky,” he told Chinen. “But they might also be human beings who have lost the ability to concentrate over any extended period of time.”

He often begins his recitals somewhat tentatively, as if he has no clear-cut direction, which, of course, he doesn’t, but, like life itself, he keeps on going, and themes begin to evolve and soon he is rapt in discovery and from then on it’s like a hayride, with variations on occasionally familiar vamps and [unknown] tinkles (twinkle-twinkle
little star), and he’s just carried away with new inspirations and improvisations that turn into melodies or sheer funkalero. He can be exhausting yet, when he’s struck his final note, you find yourself wanting more. If you didn’t “know” better — the Importance of being Keith Jarrett — you’d call him a true showman, in the best sense
of the word.

Jarrett’s success in solo recitals has opened a musical market to other pianists to foray far and wide, most notably Paul Bley (whose 1972 classic Open, To Love opened the door for Jarrett, and most recently Play Blue: Oslo Concert and Solo in Mondesee), Brad Mehldau (Ten Years Solo Live), Fred Hersch (Solo, starting with a lush version of Antonio Carlos Jobim and ending with an elegiac Joni Mitchell), John Medeski (A Different Time, a delicate work so different from Medeski, Martin & Wood), and Marilyn Crispell (Vignettes).

These albums are as different, fascinatingly surprising and satisfying, as the personalities involved. Put them all together and voilà! — another jazz genre, with classical concert trappings, and flourishes.

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