A singular force in the realm of spontaneously created music, Keith Jarrett has an unmatched body of work that straddles both jazz and classical worlds. This is reflected in the release of a new improvised solo live album, Creation, and a previously unreleased double classical album from 1984-85, Samuel Barber/Béla Bartók. With the shock news that Jarrett’s acclaimed 30-year old Standards Trio has now disbanded, Stuart Nicholson spoke to the pianist about how he discovered his own voice between these two musical worlds and what he plans for the future
He’s been called ‘the enfant terrible of jazz’, ‘the Elvis Presley of High Art’ and ‘one of the greatest improvisers in the history of jazz’. His performances on the great concert hall stages of the world have yielded some of the finest jazz recordings in contemporary times; he’s been the subject of a biography and a major television documentary and he’s been lauded as a legend in his lifetime. So it comes as a bit of a shock to realise that on 8 May, pianist Keith Jarrett turned 70. But as G. K. Chesterton, that grand old man of letters, wrote almost a century ago: “The first fact about the celebration of a birthday is that it is a way of affirming defiantly, and even flamboyantly, that it is a good thing to be alive.” Which is exactly the way Jarrett is playing it, with the release of Creation (ECM), a solo piano album of nine concert recordings from Japan, Canada and Europe from 2014, plus a pairing of Barber’s Piano Concerto with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (plus an encore) from 1984 and 1985 respectively on the ECM New Series label.
Creation offers something quite new in Jarrett’s discography, since it breaks with earlier live performances such as The Köln Concert, Vienna Concert and Rio, which comprise entire concerts, by taking the best individual tracks from concerts in Tokyo, Paris, Rome and Toronto sequenced to create a new concert that never happened in real-time. “What I noticed when I did the sequencing was how the disparity and the similarity between these pieces enhanced each other,” says Jarrett. “But in a way I could never do live, I couldn’t play Creation for an audience because there would be no let up in a certain kind of intensity. But with a chance to do it this way, I had a whole other universe opening up… [because] it does have a story to tell, as a whole, it has a story to tell that a concert cannot tell. It all grew out of something that was already happening in front of an audience, [so] it’s a live performance but for no ‘single’ audience – [it’s a concert for] the CD purchaser.”
In all, Jarrett had material from nine concerts in his 2014 concert tour to select from, 18 performances in all when you take the first half and second half of the concert into consideration, “This was the most labour intensive thing I have ever released,” he reflects, “I was able to pull these things out of these 18 hours of music that represented what I was trying to do. So it’s in some very real way more personal than anything else [I have done].” In fact, the concert tour from which Creation emerged was the result of quite unique circumstances – after 30 years together, Jarrett’s critically acclaimed Standards Trio reached the point where they felt they had said all they could say together. “There were lots of reasons for the trio to break-up… but absolutely no hard feelings of any kind, we’re just as much friends as we always were,” confirms Jarrett. “So I had to fill a little hole where we used to do our major tour in the summer in Europe, and I had a couple of concerts in Japan and a couple of concerts in Canada, altogether nine concerts in a – for me anyway – fairly short period of time.”
For Jarrett, audiences create a very particular kind of tension that provides the creative spur that make his live concerts the event they are in jazz. It is a relationship that is always in fine balance since when it works, his unique improvisationary gift is allowed to blossom. When it doesn’t – when the audience cough, whisper among themselves or find some other way of intruding into his creative space – the result is not creation but frustration. This happened at the Paris concert at the Salle Pleyel, yet it paradoxically yielded one fine track for Creation that gives no hint of the stress between audience and artist. In fact, I put it to Jarrett that audiences might be quite surprised at the positive role they can play in a Keith Jarrett concert, “I think you’re right,” he says, referring to the creative tension they can create, “It wouldn’t happen in a studio. As much as I love the audience it’s also a pressure.” Yet despite this love but never-quite-hate-them relationship, Jarrett does point out there is one cough from the audience in Creation, but observes, “In the entire nine tracks, I did not think of that until I chose the music but it follows perfect logic that if in any of the playing there was a cough it might throw me into a different place, but it just didn’t happen on this occasion!”
On Samuel Barber/Béla Bartók the enormous breadth of Jarrett’s talent stands revealed with two superior performances that seem destined to become – this is their first ever release, despite the 1984/85 provenance – the benchmark by which other recordings of these piano concertos will be judged. They come from an interesting period in Jarrett’s life, when he was pushing the boundaries of his creativity, in both jazz and classical music, to its limits. The performance of the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3 took place at the Kan-i-Hoken Hall in Tokyo on 30 January 1985. Enthusiastically received by the press, Jarrett had a few days off and was then joined by Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette for a 12-concert tour of Japan with The Standards Trio. After that, he was back on the classical circuit playing recitals of Beethoven, Scarlatti and Bach, followed by his New York debut playing this material (which received a laudatory review from The New York Times). The immediate juxtaposition of the two musical disciplines had a profound effect on Jarrett. What he was doing was unparalleled in the music world – working at the highest level of his profession in both jazz and classical music.
Leaving aside the fact that he has never really received the kind of recognition – then or now, and especially in his own country – the magnitude of this achievement deserves, something had to give. “I got as close to a nervous breakdown as I’d ever like to get,” he reflects. “I marched into my little studio and started doing Spirits as a reaction against the classical nervous ‘Edit from bar 267, we want to start there’, and all that stuff. I would say things like, ‘but I am supposed to be in an emotional state at that moment in that piece, I can’t just jump into that emotional state because you don’t have it there perfectly’. And then not long afterwards I read a quote from a Beethoven player, it was the early days of recording, making 78s I guess, and he was the guy, the Beethoven player, and he was quoted as saying when someone said ‘don’t you think we should do this over?’ and he said, ‘if we did it again it would be better, but it wouldn’t be as good!’ [laughs] I love it. I relate to that – I don’t know that there is anyone whose playing I love who plays ‘perfectly’. I know there are players – I can think of names but I don’t want to desecrate their work – and they do it perfectly, but I don’t get anything from it.”
When the album Spirits was done, he felt better able to come to terms with his feelings about classical music: “I appreciate everything about it and I was trained in it, and I have more classical recordings and LPs than I have jazz, and I listen to more classical music than most jazz players, but no, the world itself I find a little bit unfortunate. I’m involved in the world of creation from the ground up, because I can do – luckily – both things. I know what I am hearing, I know if I am successful at playing what I hear: the art of interpretation exists, but it’s not my thing, it was my thing, during that period of time in the 1980s. But then I just got overwhelmingly, let’s see, I was in the classical world in that period and walking out that door and breathing the air and thinking, ‘wait, I was so involved in this, editing at bar 167 was so not a good idea, can I possibly remind myself why I am in music at all?’ And I threw myself – came back down and had my pseudo nervous breakdown – and threw myself into the most spontaneously crazy thing I had done up to that moment [the album Spirits], and I had trio concerts that would make me smile while I was playing… and I thought shit! That’s what it is! You can’t do that in a concerto or classical thing, you just can’t do that!”
As Jarrett’s career trajectory subsequently revealed, his enormous creativity found its true voice in jazz – he once said his humming during a jazz performance was a response to the sounds he heard in his head, while in classical those sounds are pre-ordained by the music manuscript so he remains silent – which has been all the richer for his commitment to the music (with just a few detours into classical over the years).
So at 70, how does he view the future? “Well the first thing I’d like to see is what kind of response this music [Creation] has, as it’s so radically different, as radical as the very first solo concert I played as it doesn’t follow any of my own rules in the past, and then I’ll figure it out from there. I don’t ever have a deep seated future planned out for adventures, but I don’t have a trio now so all I know is that I’m not going to look for other guys who I would need 30 years to get as good as we got, that’s the biggest problem of all. How much rapport and understanding we had, it’s unmatched anywhere I think. I can pick up albums I forgot about and listen to them and go, ‘Oh my God! Yeah, that’s right!’ So anyway, at the point we had all the information [for Creation] together we sent it to ECM and included in it was this quote, ‘Only age reveals our drive, our compulsion to say something, youth has nothing to declare’. It’s a very, very interesting quote.”
Review KEITH JARRETT – RIO ★★★★★
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe-to-jazzwise-magazine
Top photo courtesy of Henry Leutwyler / ECM Records