Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Keith Jarrett: Boldly Going

Having been a serious Keith Jarrett fan for about 20 years, I can say unreservedly that Jarrett has been the musical artist of my maturity. I own almost 30 different Keith Jarrett recordings, and I have seen him perform live with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. Jarrett remains a central figure in my listening, even though in recent years, I have branched out to the music of such performers as Marilyn Crispell, Dave Holland, Evan Parker, Irene Schweitzer, Tomasz Stanko, Bobo Stenson, Esbjorn Svensson, Ralph Towner, and John Zorn.

Jarrett’s catalogue is quite diverse. I have several recordings with the American Quartet, which included Charlie Haden, Paul Motian and Dewey Redman. This was a hot group, bridled and bristling with tension. The Survivor’s Suite is, to my mind, their most stunning effort. Jarrett’s European Quartet was perhaps more celebrated. Drummer Jon Christensen and bassist Palle Danielsson are spectacular players, but saxophonist Jan Garbarek was a superstar to rival Jarrett. Garbarek played with an utterly singular combination of tenderness, soul, and intensity. Songs such as “Sunshine Song,” “Blossom,” “Long as You’re Livin’ Yours,” and “The Journey Home” capture this quartet at its stunning best.

Since the 1980s, Jarrett has teamed up with Peacock and DeJohnette in the so-called “Standards Trio.” But the group has made two very good “free” recordings. The group is highly professional, sometimes a bit self-indulgent, but just awesome in their collective powers.

Jarrett’s solo piano recordings have been the main draw for me. The first one I owned contained concerts from Bremen and Lausanne. I had never heard anything like it before, but I connected with it immediately. Here was Jarrett, totally bold, walking onto stage and composing on the spot. He was improvising, but he was composing also. To me, that’s the essential difference between Jarrett and many free players. Jarrett doesn’t just play and let the notes extend off into the stratosphere. He’s at once trying to bring out a form from the notes and to let that form morph into something else. And that's what was so exciting for me, the fact that I was going on this journey too and discovering what was to come. He wrung these lush, rich sounds out of the piano. He music expressed exuberance as well as reverence, and he was a font for endlessly emerging musical ideas.

As a listener, I appreciate the daring and the risk-taking of a performer like Jarrett. I admire Jarrett’s continued willingness to experiment and explore in and through his music. I no longer follow Jarrett single-mindedly like I once did, but I see Jarrett’s music as part of my life for the rest of my life. I think this is because in my impending maturity I still see living life as a kind of improvisation, as a daring expression that must be taken up boldly. As long as I see things this way, Jarrett’s music is relevant, indeed central, to my life.

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