The last jazz soloist

On the eve of his first UK concerts in eight years, Keith Jarrett speaks to Phil Johnson about the decline in individual musical achievement
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The American pianist Keith Jarrett, who plays his first London concerts for eight years at the Royal Festival Hall next Wednesday and Friday, occupies a unique position in the world of contemporary jazz. That tickets to see him will cost as much as £50 is remarkable enough; that the concerts will almost certainly sell out, rather more so. No other figure in his field could get away with charging so much money, but Jarrett is in a field of his own, and always has been.

The American pianist Keith Jarrett, who plays his first London concerts for eight years at the Royal Festival Hall next Wednesday and Friday, occupies a unique position in the world of contemporary jazz. That tickets to see him will cost as much as £50 is remarkable enough; that the concerts will almost certainly sell out, rather more so. No other figure in his field could get away with charging so much money, but Jarrett is in a field of his own, and always has been.

Alone of his generation - he is now 55 - Jarrett has redefined what it means to be a jazz artist, changing the rules forever. Alternating recordings by the "standards" trio he is bringing to London with solo improvisations and the classical repertoire, he is the only pianist in the world able to play "Bye Bye Blackbird" and Bach's Goldberg Variations with an equal sense of purpose, and to command an audience eager for both. A child prodigy from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Jarrett played his first solo performance when he was seven; the programme included Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and an early original composition "I grew up with the piano," he told his biographer Ian Carr. "I learned its language while I learned to speak."

As the most comprehensively gifted pianist to have emerged from the late Sixties US scene, when he played with three of the most successful bands of the period - Art Blakey's New Jazz Messengers, the quartet of Charles Lloyd and, in 1970 and 1971, Miles Davis's electric groups - Jarrett had already experienced a wide range of styles before he began his career as a leader. The groups he formed in the early Seventies effectively synthesised the competing musical forms of the era, taking elements from both free jazz and fusion to create a new, intensely lyrical, personal style.

His "American" quartet, which developed from an occasional trio in 1968, featured the free jazz stars Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman and Paul Motian, and this was followed in 1974 by the "European" quartet with Scandinavians Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen. By this time - in a move which symbolised the switch from America to Europe as the centre for recorded jazz - Jarrett had established his relationship with Manfred Eicher's Munich-based record label ECM, for whom he still records. A series of recordings of solo piano concerts led to the incredibly successful The Köln Concert of 1975, which has sold over a million copies and remains the best-selling solo piano album ever, in any genre.

Jarrett's incredibly prolific period of recordings for ECM in the Seventies and Eighties was accompanied by an equally intense spiritual journey. Brought up as a Christian Scientist, he developed an interest in esoteric religions - typical of an era epitomised by "Mahavishnu" John McLaughlin - and was for a time attracted by the philosophy of Gurdjieff, whose music he performed on the album Sacred Hymns in 1980. In 1983, Jarrett recorded the debut album of his "standards" trio with Gary Peacock (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums), and this band - which he brings to London next week - has been his favoured jazz-group format ever since.

However, at some point during the fecundity of his output for ECM in the Eighties, Jarrett appeared to reach a kind of artistic crisis. Where once he had composed prolifically, original work all but dried up and subsequent recordings were divided between either the Broadway show-tunes and jazz standards of the trio, or reinterpretations of the classical repertoire, while the frequency of live shows slowed to a trickle. The most unstoppable force in contemporary jazz had come, at least temporarily, to a halt.

At his last London concert in 1992, Jarrett - who had already established a reputation for being temperamental - came across as decidedly eccentric. When drummer Jack DeJohnette drew his attention to a red light in the auditorium that could possibly have come from an illicit recording device, Jarrett immediately stopped the concert and started to lecture the audience about their responsibilities to the artist. That the source of the light proved to be an LED on the sound-mixing desk, made the display seem decidedly bad-tempered.

In the years since, rumours of Jarrett's ill-health, and of an energy-sapping disease similar to ME, began to circulate. Planned concert dates - including a scheduled London appearance two years ago - failed to materialise. Ironically, Jarrett's reputation grew ever more unassailable as almost all of his peers succumbed to the enemies of promise endemic to jazz - signing to vulgar record companies and making corporate-friendly albums to pay the mortgage. Last year there was a striking return to form with the solo album, The Melody at Night, With You. Recorded at home and dedicated to his wife Rose Anne, it was Jarrett's best album for years, although the tunes were still all standards, bar one.

As Keith Jarrett is famously intolerant of critics and rarely gives interviews, the prospect of talking to him was rather forbidding, even by telephone. I rang him at the appointed time at his home in upstate New York on my mobile from Italy, where I was on holiday, but it turned out that the fax notifying Jarrett of my call had failed to arrive, and I caught him unawares. "You really are an independent journalist, just calling up when you feel like it," he said, but once I asked him about playing standards he soon warmed to the theme, talking brilliantly for half an hour or so before I became so worried about the cost of the call that I brought the interview to a premature close.

The reliance on standards by his group is, it seems, partly a matter of band politics. "All I know is that when you start to say, 'Let's play some new music,' you're putting yourself in a possessive situation," he said. "If you've written the music, then you start to make demands, saying to the drummer that you want brushes here, and so on. I wanted to bypass that whole thing and just get together and play. What I'm promoting is that you cannot not do your own thing if you have something that is yours. We keep thinking that we know how we play together, but continue to surprise ourselves. If we seem to be playing simpler, then that's probably a good thing. If you listen to the Bartok piano concertos, the last is the most simple, the first the most complex."

Jarrett's regard for the music of the past also involves a repudiation of the present, at least in terms of jazz. "Well, I think the world is where the world deserves to be," he says. "I wouldn't be able to say that it's all bad - who am I to say that? - but I don't see much opportunity for music. Who's really talking about individual achievements now, even in jazz? You read in The New York Times about how the need for the solo is retreating, and that it's a good thing. I just am not willing to make that excuse, and I would ask why are there not good jazz soloists who you don't get bored by after 10 minutes? The answer is to do with the way the world has changed, and we get what we deserve. What I hear around me is not moving me at all."

When I ask him if this is because of the increasingly corporate structure of jazz, Jarrett heats up even further. "Oh sure, but musicians never had to buy into that. Now they do, and nobody says no anymore. The 'no' comes from individual personal knowledge; the 'yes' is easy to do. You start thinking about selling CDs and you don't remember that you need to know about music first. It's too fast and too hard on young musicians these days; they become famous too fast and leaders too soon. They don't get a chance to work with great players, and the few who are left are mostly old and dying. They listen to records too much and think they are the real thing, but records are exactly what the word suggests; they're documents, a sign, a pointer towards the real thing, but not the thing itself."

These faults, he says, derive partly from the accelerated pace of today's jazz. "It might be because technology has eaten up those important slow rhythms, like sitting at the piano with your hands on the keyboard but not playing anything." I ask if he means what is called "laying out", when a musician - usually the pianist - stays silent to let the others have their say. "It's more like the idea of sneaking up on your own soul by not forcing anything," Jarrett says. "Everything comes down to philosophy."

Exactly how the philosophy, and the standards, shape up, can be judged next week. Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette, 26 & 28 July, Royal Festival Hall, London, 020-7960 4242

Comments