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Sons of Miles
KEITH JARRETT: The Well-Tempered Jazz Band.
by Mike Zwerin
25 June 1998


In at least one small way, and maybe not so small, the 1990s have been the good old days.

The trio of Keith Jarrett, piano, Gary Peacock, bass, and Jack DeJohnette, drums, which has been playing their version of standards for more than a decade, is about as good as jazz gets. Or has ever gotten. Somebody told him they were the best trio in the world - ever. While he realizes that's not literal, it's "nice to hear."

Any objective listener with educated ears at least has to accept that possibility. And while we know that music is not a game and that there is no "best," for most of the 1990s, the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio was at the very least a candidate for the "best jazz band in the world" award.

Moldy figs trapped in the past could no longer complain about the present. And young jazz lions lionized on the cover of Time magazine might have paused to consider the jazzistic implications of Artur Schnabel's contention that nobody under 40 is qualified even to attempt Beethoven's last piano sonata (# 32, Opus 111).

Jarrett is over 50, and he is qualified to attempt just about anything he wants. He's still improving and not plagued with false modesty about it. "I can play the piano three times better than ten years ago," he said, softly, matter-of-fact. He's sure.

"If you do 300 concerts, you'll find 300 mistakes you don't want to repeat. So, to begin with, the elimination process makes you better. You learn how to translate intent into music, to play what you hear. There must be a point where speed will stop increasing but that hasn't happened to me yet. The most important thing you learn is economy of expression."

A Japanese musician transcribed his "Koln Concert" recording (which has sold more than two million copies and still counting) on paper. While editing it, Jarrett thought that it might be "funny" to record the transcription - to read what he once improvised.

He has been called pretentious for recording Bach's "Das Wohltemperierte Klavier," and for naming it that way on the label. How much does his jazz owe to DeJohnette's supple precision and Peacock's sensitive anchor? And do we really need those guttural grunts (he calls it "singing") with which he accompanies himself? Jarrett says that he'd rather not do it but he can't help the singing. And besides: "Nobody's forcing anybody to buy my records." Never mind the aggression there. He's right.

A car horn honked outside his Parisian hotel room. It was either stuck or the honker was off his rocker. Jarrett has perfect pitch; it hurt. Closing the window, he said: "Okay, it's an A. Actually it's a very flat A. Like a Werckmeister Three."

He laughed, poking fun at his pedantic side. The laugh provides an insight. He is after all capable of self-mockery. On the surface, he is not exactly a barrel of laughs. Odd, someone who wants to secrete his sense of humor. But, he might be thinking, nobody's forcing anyone to interview him.

Andreas Werckmeister was an 18th century musician and theorist who hit on the happy idea of dividing the octave into 12 equal half steps. It was a sufficiently accurate compromise between the maze of tunings involved in the existing "Just Intonation" - which differed from country to country and in which F-sharp and G-flat could be two different notes - for the ear to tolerate it. Many people credit Bach with inventing the now universally adopted "Equal Temperament." Das Wohltemperierte Klavier was its manifesto.

Keith Jarrett

The information in the preceeding paragraph was boiled down from a half hour discourse on the subject by our subject - a jazzman who feels the need to out-research classical specialists to prove his legitimacy. Recording the Goldberg Variations and book two of The Well-Tempered Clavier (he plays book one on piano), Jarrett tuned his harpsichord to Werckmeister Three, which he concluded Bach would have been most likely to have used.

Jarrett realizes that a jazzman playing Bach, on harpsichord to boot, might be considered a dilettante. But he's been playing Bach since the age of 20, and he practiced harpsichord for eight years before recording The Goldberg Variations. Is this dilettantism?

Classical musicians frequently try and cross over to jazz, fewer go the other way. Jarrett does not recommend it to the average jazzman. In all modesty he considers himself above average. Not a crossover. Both classical and jazz worlds are so strong to him, he can take one at a time and obliterate the other while concentrating on either. You read publicity about "a pianist equally at home with Chopin and Monk." In all modesty, Jarrett believes that the chances of pulling that off like he did are slim.

Verbal pirouettes eschewed, however, Jarrett's Bach is at the very least credible. It's not as though he just jumped into it without thought. He asked himself why add still more interpretations to what can be called a saturated catalogue. The answer: "I'm trying to find a place between the dryness of Glenn Gould and the approach embodied in the idea that each prelude and fugue is like a different cathedral window, which is rubbish. Bach is about ideas not grand flourishes."

His Jazz Standards Trio interprets the Broadway song form with a similar combination of control and emotion. An unspoken rule allows each of them to break the rules. Usually they stay within strict form but vamps are added and codas extended and "Someday My Prince Will Come" might go outside and never come back in.

They have been touring once or twice a year and don't see each other in between. (Tours are becoming less frequent.) The first tune of the first concert of any tour is always a song they have never before played together: "Something about that freshness gets us zapped right back where we want to be. We're always looking to find the center of the song, whatever that means and however mystical it might get. If we find the emotional center, then we can avoid getting emotional about it. That's something you cannot learn in youth. In youth, you have the tendency to indulge your emotions about the music rather than finding the emotion already there."

He has lived in the Pocono Mountains in southern New Jersey for more than 25 years now. This is far enough in the boondocks to be able to bypass what he calls "useless gymnastics," otherwise known as "keeping up."

"One reason I don't live in a population center," he explained, "is that I only need very few little tiny clues to know what is going on. Keeping my own consciousness awake is a full-time job. I don't need to spend a lot of energy checking out other musicians and knowing what's 'in' or 'out.'

"It's hard to keep your head together in the world today I'm just interested in keeping myself going so I can find the next thing to do."


Photo: Keith Jarrett
Credit: Christian Rose

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