A One-of-a-Kind Artist Prepares for His Solo
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
The pond outside Keith Jarrett's home in rural New Jersey is frozen over. Inside the jazz pianist's 18th-century farmhouse, life appears similarly suspended. An expectant silence reverberates against the walls of vinyl LPs, CD boxes spilling off sofas, towers of stereo equipment bristling with cables. Next door, in the converted barn that houses Mr. Jarrett's recording studio, a pair of Steinways and two harpsichords cower under black quilted covers.
In the weeks leading up to a solo improvised concert, Mr. Jarrett retreats into creative solitude to empty his mind. More than 30 years since his first fully improvised solo album, "Facing You," he continues to be the only pianist to offer evening-long concerts of music created out of nothing. He records every such concert, preferring a recording to any attempt to notate and transcribe his music. The recordings thus become the authoritative source for his "compositions." Tonight, he will play at Carnegie Hall, his first North American solo appearance in more than three years. How does he prepare for such a tightrope act?
Mr. Jarrett, his closely cropped silver hair offset by an all-black outfit, frowns. "Imagine an archer preparing for a shot before the target shows up," he says. "He's just aiming at where he suspects there may possibly be a target." In the run-up to his 2005 solo concert at Carnegie Hall, he read fiction by New York writer Nick Tosches and thought about Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles, composers, as he puts it, "who did their thorny stuff, their spiky music which we can begin to call American classical music."
This time, there is little deliberate preparation beyond playing a lot of Bach to "keep his fingers going." But Mr. Jarrett, who is known for hectoring audiences who cough too much, looks forward to playing again for a New York crowd.
"When you're on stage you have a very strange knowledge of what the audience is. It isn't exactly a sound -- it's a hum, like the streets. New York is such a microcosm of the world, and so independent-minded, that I have a kind of trust with them. You can feel that they just want me on stage and then they don't know what's going to happen. It's more like playing for other 'me's' in the audience."
The format of Mr. Jarrett's solo concerts has changed since he returned to them after an illness-induced hiatus in the 1990s. While his improvisations often used to last as long as 40 minutes, Mr. Jarrett now allows each musical idea to find its shape -- even if the result is a three-minute miniature. Recent solo concerts have consisted of as many as 10 musically distinct pieces that range from lyrical blues to jaggedly dissonant knots of fast notes.
"Some of those languages come up just because my hands are in a certain place," he says. "One of the great things about paying money is that maybe you stay there a few minutes longer and you might get to see something being built in front of your eyes. If a person plays dissonance long enough it will sound like consonance. It's a language that was alien and then it's less and less alien as it continues to live. After a while, it's like saying, goddammit, it finally makes sense."
Whether the resulting music can still be called jazz is of little concern to Mr. Jarrett. "It has the tendency to be anything it wants to be. My music education and listening has been so broad that it doesn't sound categorizable to me either. Obviously it gets into jazz territory -- and then it gets out of it again." But while Mr. Jarrett can draw on a wide knowledge of Western music, and an impressive catalog of recording and performing the classical repertoire, he has no desire to return to "that nervous, jittery, get-into-emotion-on-bar-151" world.
As he sees it, moving from the interpretation-based world of classical music to the improvisational one of jazz requires a radical shift that can shake the foundations of self. When he performed a lot of Mozart in the '80s, he says, "I wasn't playing anything other than Mozart. I had to become another person." And, he adds, "to teach a classical musician to improvise is almost more impossible than to teach an accountant or a plumber to improvise."
"I once had a conversation with Vladimir Ashkenazy. We were on a cruise with the English Chamber Orchestra and I gave him a tape with some of my improvisations. When he had listened to it, he said, 'How do you play all the right notes?' I said, 'No, you see they just become the right notes by virtue of their environment.' Then he said, 'I'd love to be able to improvise but I know I'd need so much time to get into the right headspace to do that.' Of course, he didn't use the word 'headspace.' But he knew he'd have to shut everything down. From where they are you can't get to the improvisation and have it be you, because you've been trained outside of yourself.
"If you're improvising and you finish a concert and you're changed forever, that's different from finishing any kind of classical concert, no matter how good. The reason you can't be physically, cellularly changed is it did not come through you. The music was already there."
Still, there are clues to Mr. Jarrett's classical ventures in almost every aspect of his art, from the musical idioms he employs to his near-obsessive concern with matters of touch, color and sonority. Many have written -- and complained -- about his physical relationship with his instrument, the tortured positions he gets into while playing, and the moans and groans that escape him. But Mr. Jarrett says that what some see as an almost sexual relationship with the piano is really one marked by struggle.
"I'm never trying to get it to sound just like a piano. I'm trying to find every possible way to make it either a voice or an instrument that is unlike a Western instrument. You know, it can't be a guitar but I wish it was; it can't be an orchestra but I wish it was. So the rebellion that I'm faced with immediately upon sitting down at a piano is that it is a piano. And I can turn cartwheels -- it's not going to make any difference. But what I can do is try to almost fool the instrument into becoming something else."
The irony is that the painful contortions and ecstatic moans that some critics find so distracting are the effect of his efforts to get out of the way of the music and to channel what he calls a "transformation of energy." And it is this intensity that he brings to each moment on stage that ultimately roots him in jazz.
"If I'm not a jazz player all the time, I've at least been cued in to what I do by jazz. Because people needed to survive, they were in the cotton fields and they sang because otherwise they would not be able to handle their lives at all. If you play music from that same position, then what you have at stake is your own survival. Which is really what I've been saying about solo improvisation for 30 years: It's dangerous as hell because if you fail you feel like committing suicide."
Monday, June 01, 2009
Window into the Mind of a Genius: Keith Jarrett
I'll need to post sometime on Keith Jarrett and how I've been fascinated with his music for many years. The article below is a captivating interview with Jarrett as he gets himself ready to play a solo concert. His thoughts on music, creativity, and the limitations of materiality (e.g., the piano) are brilliant and provocative.