By C.B. Liddell
TOKYO, 5 APRIL 2007—
Most musicians anchor their star to some specific quadrant of the musical
galaxy, but piano virtuoso and Jazz legend Keith Jarrett exists in a
different dimension, one that allows him to transcend categories and test the parameters of
music itself. With a tour of Japan coming up in
April and May, the musician was happy to grant Culturekiosque a lengthy
and in-depth interview to explain various facets of his music.
The essence of Jarrett’s music can be characterized as the
improvisational spirit of Jazz extended beyond the cozy club-bound clichés
to music in general. This gives his work an appeal to a much wider and
more diverse group of music fans than the average Jazz musician.
"Everything has its own fan club," Jarrett explains by phone from his
home in rural New Jersey. "But what’s come true for me, I think, is that
the people who know what I do are coming from all these different fan
clubs to the same concert, and they each have their own way of listening.
One of them will listen to my touch – and that might be a classical
listener – or the harmonies, or the solo moments of the Trio. Other people
love Jazz and they’ll come to hear me playing that."
Starting as a conventional Jazz player in the 1960s with stints
supporting fellow Jazz legends Art Blakey and Miles Davis, Jarrett
continued to develop his music through his own quartets and trios from the
1970s onwards, before also branching into Classical music, where he
distinguished himself as a composer and a player, especially with his
renditions of Bach.
The highpoints of his music, however, are his famous solo concerts of
spontaneously composed music, in which he starts with a musical blank
slate and composes as he plays, like his most famous recording The
Koln Concert (1975) and the first ten tracks of his latest release
The Carnegie Hall Concert (2006).
Referencing a wide range of musical styles, Jarrett’s music includes
elements and flavors of everything from Blues and Country to Gospel and
Classical, as well as a few harder to identify influences, like medieval
Japanese koto music and Brazilian bossonova. Jarrett admits to being
widely influenced, but more at a subconscious level, where he’s never
really sure what his musical antenna are picking up.
"The only time I played solo in Brazil," he remembers, "the promoters
came back stage and said, ‘That third or fourth thing you played in the
second half – we know you’ve been listening to Brazilian music and in
particular this one kind of dance.’ I don’t remember the name of it, but
they told me the name and I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.
No, I have not been listening to Brazilian music, and also I’ve never
heard of that word.’ But they said, ‘No, that’s not possible because you
were doing precisely, exactly this thing.’ Now, I believe that from just
breathing in the air and the vibrations of the place you’re in you can
pick up musical influences. For example, if Japanese music did not exist
it would still suggest the same sounds that exist in Japanese music. Do
you know what I mean? Imagine Jazz being born anywhere but the United
States. That’s kind of hard to do. There’s something about a language,
there’s something about weather patterns; and all those things go into
producing all sorts of music that any culture has."
The main dichotomy in Jarrett’s music, however, remains the one between
his Jazz and Classical sides. For the listener, the key thing about all
successful music is that it is able to present a combination of the
familiar and the unfamiliar. Classical music does this by introducing
identifiable motifs and then elaborating them in complex arrangements.
Even though these are fixed, they are so complex that we are usually
unable to comprehend or anticipate all the permutations as we listen. Jazz
achieves the same effect with simpler tools by using the moods of the
players to constantly introduce elements of improvisation. This raises the
question of whether Jarrett sees any profound difference between the two
"I would say the difference is the same as that between a photograph of
a flowing stream and the actual stream flowing," he answers. "The
Classical world would be that photograph of that stream, because it’s all
on paper already, and you can look at it and it’s never going to change.
But Jazz and improvising is the actual stream flowing, at least for the
player. That’s what Jazz is. And in Classical music, it’s the
interpretation of the photograph. The real difference is that the
potential before these things get played is completely different. I
remember that once I was in Washington DC, getting ready to go on stage
for a piano recital of Classical pieces, and I was trying to figure out
why I felt not all that excited about it, and the basic truth is I knew
everything about what was going to happen. I knew every note of it and
that could not be changed and most of the audience was knowledgeable in
that piece and in those notes too. So, I was acting as an interpreter, but
in Jazz you’re asked to be yourself, and whatever risks that might entail,
are risks you have to take."
But although it is in the nature of Jazz to take risks, most Jazz
musicians still need the musical safety blanket of a standard tune that
they can distort, deviate from, and return to when they lose their way. It
also helps that they play in groups, where other musicians can come in on
the end of their breaks. Jarrett’s spontaneous solo composition concerts,
however, take Jazz improvisation to its highest level. The Carnegie
Hall Concert (2006) features ten spontaneous composition that are by
turns nerve-racking and inspiring as Jarrett produces new melodies,
rhythms, and combinations that veer close to his varied musical influences
without ever hitting them. This is the musical equivalent of a circus act
without a safety net.
"It’s very intense," he explains. "There’s nobody around you to reflect
your thoughts, except yourself. So, if you have a funny thought that’s
worth nothing, and you’re busy listening to yourself play that and you
realize that its value is not so great, how do you answer that as a
player? You’re stuck with what you just played and you have to relate to
it somehow. That’s the very hard part of solo playing."
On the The Carnegie Hall Concert there are almost no moments
like this. A much bigger problem is that, just sometimes, you feel the
piece of music at the end of his fingers is about to mutate into something
you know, either a famous Classical piece or a Jazz standard, while
sometimes, as with the Gospelly "Part VII," the track has such a distinct
character that you are sure it must already have well-known lyrics and a
long history. So, how does Jarrett stop crossing that line between his
spontaneous compositions and the whole world of music that he indirectly
Keith Jarrett performing at Carnegie Hall, September 26,
Photo: Richard Termine
Photo courtesy of ECM
"I don’t know, except I think it’s lucky that I’ve been playing so long
and listening to so many thousands of composers and players and
recordings," he replies. "There must be a file there of ‘Do not go any
further with this melody or it will become this.’ It is a kind of radar,
and I think it’s a matter of how large my repertoire is and how much
listening I’ve done that I can weave my way between everything and not
have it be the same as anything else. Also, as much as it’s important to
have a file for it, it’s also important to forget everything, because if
you have it in your head – in any part of an accessible part of your brain
– the chances are it could decide to come out at the concert. It could be
something you heard on the radio that you wish you never heard."
Because of the unique open and unfocused frame of mind required for
this kind of playing, Jarrett also has high expectations of his audiences,
even, on occasion, supplying them with cough drops to remind them not to
disturb his concentration with unnecessary noise. During a concert last
year in Paris he walked out after the audience failed to respond to his
pleas to stop coughing.
"If there’s interaction with the audience that’s OK, but if it’s
nervous coughing, then they should just leave," he comments. "I mean if
they’re bored, I’d rather they just walked out. I’ll refund their tickets.
When you’re playing solo, you’re living in this wide dynamic world, and I
like to play soft, but there are times when I start playing soft and I
realize, no that’s not possible because then I’m going to notice
everything in the room. Jazz started out in clubs. In clubs there are all
kinds of noise. There are waitresses, glasses tinkling, and sometimes
people eating dinner. I just happened to be the first major figure to be
playing in concert venues to demand things in a Jazz arena that Jazz
players had not felt comfortable demanding. They actually needed the work
so badly that they didn’t want to make enemies. Lee Konitz called me and
said he appreciated that someone would be able to say stuff like this.
There was a pianist I won’t name, but I used to like his work when I was
very young. He called me from the mid-West. I had never talked to him and
he said, ‘You know, I just have to thank you for this.’ Much or all of it
was about the mistaken view of the Jazz world via the Marsalis brothers,
and especially Wynton, but that’s all gone now. I don’t have to worry
Photo: Jimmy Katz
Photo courtesy of ECM
In contrast to the risk inherent in his solo concerts, his forthcoming
visit to Japan sees Jarrett bringing his own safety net in the guise of
his Standards Trio, with Gary Peacock on double bass and Jack DeJohnette
on drums. But even with his Standards Trio audiences should expect the
"What kind of music will we be playing? We never really know that ahead
of time," he says. "But I guess that the core of what will happen is
probably some standards of some kind or another. But we don’t ever plan
the music, so I guess the answer is I don’t know."
While Jarrett’s solo spontaneous composition concerts play for higher
stakes and may as a consequence rise or fall further, his Trio presents
the audience with safer but more guaranteed quality.
"With the Trio we’re all confronting the same challenge, and there’s an
ability to find whatever is missing," he explains. "Each of us can
contribute to what is missing at that moment. With three, and especially
with the traditional rhythm section, even though we might be taking a
traditional way of playing some of the standards, we are aware that it
might not have to happen like that, because with three somebody can stop
playing. Occasionally, we might look at Gary as though he might be playing
a solo next, but it has not been planned, and when that time comes Gary
decides, ‘No I don’t think I want to play here,’ so he’ll stop. So, either
it’ll turn into a drum solo or Jack will look at me and I will start
playing so we’re playing a duet without bass. If Jack decided to stop it
would still work. If I decide to stop, it still works. With any of the two
out of three, there’s still some music that can be made."
In addition to having the perfect playing partners, Jarrett is also
looking forward to playing in front of a Japanese audience again.
"I’ve always liked the essential politeness of the Japanese audience,"
he says. "In the earlier years, even if they might have sometimes wondered
at what we were doing, they are essentially so polite that they would give
us the space to experiment. Whereas when I had been trying to do something
new in the States, I had people coming backstage and saying, ‘That wasn’t
Jazz,’ ‘I thought this was a Jazz concert."
But for Jarrett, Japan is about more than compliant and appreciative
audiences. On his many visits to the country he has developed a deep
appreciation of Japanese aesthetics and culture. One of the most
interesting aspects of seeing a musician like Jarrett in Japan is that
there is something quintessentially Zen about his approach to music,
especially the way, like all great Jazz musicians, that he is able to ‘be
in the moment.’
The idea that Zen and Jazz are at some level analogous has been around
for years. Bill Evans an earlier Jazz piano virtuoso once described his
interest in Zen: "I don’t pretend to understand it. I just find it
comforting – and very similar to Jazz. Like Jazz, you can’t explain it to
anyone without losing the experience. That’s why it bugs me when people
try to analyze Jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s
Nevertheless, a study of Zen can also give added insight into the mind
of a musician like Jarrett. The German philosopher Eugen Herrigel in his
famous book Zen in the Art of Archery described the state of mind
necessary to be a faultless archer: "The mind or spirit is present
anywhere, because it is nowhere attached to any particular place. And it
can remain present because, even when related to this or that object, it
does not cling to it by reflection and thus lose its original
Apply this to Jarrett’s ability to reference and be inspired by
countless pieces of music without ever directly copying or being
derivative and you have a perfect fit. Like Zen, Jazz develops a loose,
all-embracing awareness of its subject and a lack of premeditation that
allows the musician to suddenly strike the right note.
Regarding Japanese Zen philosophy, Jarrett explains that, as with his
musical influences, he has not been directly influenced. But, as an
attitude that can be applied to different aspects of life, Zen is
something that clearly resonates strongly with him.
"Those Zen paintings made with one brushstroke after years of
meditation, were always very striking to me," he reveals. "They are not
touching the page, then they are, then they are not: and that is exactly
what happens when one is truly improvising – you are touching the whole
thing, and then it’s gone."
April 30, 2007: Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, Tokyo, Japan
May 3, 2007: Osaka
Festival Hall, Osaka, Japan
May 6, 2007: Kanagawa Kenmin Hall,
May 8, 2007: Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, Tokyo, Japan
10, 2007: Tokyo Kosei Nenkin Kaikan, Tokyo, Japan
Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert
Released September 26, 2006
C. B. Liddell is a Tokyo-based journalist
who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
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