I was with either my ex-girlfriend or my dad when I first went to a Keith Jarrett concert. Either way, she was there, which may be the reason why it was also the last. I should go again.
I was 15—beginning my sophomore year in high school—and had several of Jarrett’s records in my collection: The Köln Concert (solo), a few with his classic quartet (Dewey Redman on sax), and another with his more avant-garde experimental works for various ensembles. In general, I loved his work. True, even then I found it to be sometimes indulgent, particularly the solo work. But the playing was always beautiful, expressing a profound sense of joy in making music.
He has one of the most authentically lyrical senses of the piano you’ll ever hear. And he —along with the late Cecil Taylor— practically invented the modern school of improvised solo piano.
Walking the Musical Tightrope
The latter is no small feat. Greatly written solo piano music is hard enough to perform convincingly, but at least you have the score and many decades, if not centuries, of performance practice to guide you. To improvise an entire concert’s worth of solo piano music is like walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon without a net—and not really knowing what path the tightrope is taking. There’s a better-than-even chance you’re not going to make it. Even if the end result isn’t death, it is, without question, among the most demanding musical challenges an artist can take on. No wonder so few even attempt it—and vanishingly few do it well.
Jarrett once spoke about that challenge in an interview: “I wonder if they [meaning other great pianists improvising freely, without a set tune or form] don’t do what I do at home and are afraid to take the risk in public.” He’s probably right. It takes a great deal of courage to think musically out loud without a plan, in front of a large audience, alone on stage.
My ex-girlfriend was smitten with him—he could do no wrong. I apparently could. So maybe I was jealous of Jarrett on some level. A year after she had dumped me for an older, more experienced (not at music) boy, I still really hadn’t gotten over her. And pianistically, I was clearly no match for Jarrett. Though I was picking up the language of jazz quite quickly, I was at the beginning of my journey into the world of improvised piano music. My solo playing was limited to playing background music at the parties of the well-heeled. Back then, I could admire a great pianist while also being violently jealous because I wasn’t at that level. But even then, I was always questioning my heroes—trying to find holes in their arguments, trying to be better than them in some way.
I’m unsure, but think my ex-girlfriend and I transcended our broken relationship—along with my jealousy of Jarrett’s superior skill—and went to that concert together. If not, then I went with my dad, and she sat several rows in front of us with her mom. I can’t remember. But either way, her presence there probably colors my memory of the concert.
We did discuss the concert the next day at school. She liked it a lot more than I did. I liked it but found that Jarrett went on too long with the vamps. Seemingly, the final 20 minutes of the concert were devoted to a two-chord, gospel-funk vamp—his left hand repeated the same basic bass line/chord figure, while he improvised freely over it with his right.
It became boring after a while, and I was relieved when it was over. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was formulating an alternative plan for an alternative approach to improvised solo piano. Now, 40 years later, I’m still working out the implications of that “plan.”
But listening to some of his solo concerts nowadays, I hear a more subtle strategy in the way he builds toward a climactic finish—not only with increasingly complex figures in the right hand but in the way the left-hand vamp evolves, becoming denser to keep up with the right.
Which is to say, there are things in your youth that you can’t understand, not because you don’t have the mental capacity, but because you lack the patience to stay with it. You want more thrills per minute and less organic development toward those thrills.
Jarrett, at any rate, was always in it for the long haul—both in his individual performances and the arc of his career. No doubt, his aesthetic derives, in part, from his coming-of-age era . . . an era where John Coltrane was taking 40-minute solos that were as much a religious/spiritual experience as they were musical development.
Coltrane is among my favorite musicians of all time. But I’m now—and was even back in the mid-1970s—a secondhand recipient of this tradition. I wasn’t in it. I was an observer from 10 years in the future. Coltrane died in 1967 . . . and with it, died the prophet of that movement.
By 1976 or so—when I heard Jarrett perform—improvising musicians were turning away from the supposed excess of 40-minute improvisation. They were, mostly with jazz fusion (mixing jazz with rock-type instrumentation), trying to create a more manageable, digestible, commercial-friendly version of jazz. The overwhelming greatness of Coltrane was too much. We had to move on to something more . . . sensible? More controlled, at any rate. The 1970s: a more practical, if less inspired, version of the 1960s.
Jarrett and Cecil Taylor—perhaps the last great practitioners of the cathartic/spiritual tradition (on piano anyway)—weren’t moving with them. You can call Jarrett old-fashioned, out of touch, or whatever, but he stuck to it. He never wavered from his commitment to a certain aesthetic of acoustic jazz.
And he never was old-fashioned because there was always something entirely new in his improvised language. It’s the thing that made him commercially viable without ever being remotely commercial. It’s the thing that allowed him to reach a wider, non-jazz audience. If I had a dollar for every person who said to me that they know nothing of jazz, except for Keith Jarrett . . .
It is, in part, the deep and poignant lyricism in his playing. But it’s something else as well. Lyricism in and of itself was nothing new to jazz. Jarrett went beyond the jazz romanticism of a pianist like Bill Evans, clearly one of his important influences. Jarrett’s lyricism was steeped in modern folk, country, gospel, rock, and pop traditions—a clear departure from Evans, whose romanticism seemed be a kind of jazzy adaptation of Chopin and the European romantic tradition. Evans was brilliant in his own right, but Jarrett’s lyricism had a more contemporary, authentically American feel. And that, I think, accounts for his connection to a much wider audience.
Future of Improvised Solo Piano
Whether you liked it or not—and as a teenager, I was quite skeptical—Jarrett’s playing made an indelible impression. He was saying that, yes, you could use rootsy, contemporary music genres in your improvised music without selling out. That it was okay to be folksy and funky. Of course, he wasn’t the first or only one to do that. (Check out the hard bop of Horace Silver in the 1950s, which clearly employs R&B type elements.) But at least with regard to solo piano, he did it better than anyone else.
You could make the argument that because Jarrett is white and effectively integrated white elements of folk, rock, and pop into black music, he was going to be more popular than, say, McCoy Tyner. (Not more popular than Herbie Hancock, who was, at least at times, self-consciously commercial.) I’ve often wondered about that. But the fact is, Jarrett was just himself and stuck very much to being himself. He never was a slave to any musical fashion other than his own.
For a long time, I never identified with him as a major influence on my playing. But then he kept showing up in my playing and writing, seemingly unbidden, reminding me that he’d somehow, without my being aware of it, deeply infiltrated my soul.
Black & White
I’ve long said my two biggest influences in jazz piano were McCoy Tyner and Randy Weston—whom I considered to be harder hitting, more relentless, and well, blacker. In many ways, I’d say they are still my most important influences. But when I’m playing in a more lyrical manner, I recognize the importance of Jarrett in my approach. More and more, I’ll find myself playing or writing something, then all of a sudden, it’s “Hello, Keith Jarrett. Where did you come from?”
But he’s always welcome. We’re all lucky to have him. By giving voice to a kind of 1960 transcendentalism in music, he freed all of us to consider improvised music in different ways.
Maybe that’s what my ex-girlfriend was responding to—and maybe, unburdened as I was by the history of jazz, she had a more direct connection to it at the time. Or maybe it was my dad who responded to it. Though come to think of it, he didn’t really like Jarrett at all . . . if he was even at the concert.