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KEITH JARRETT: ZEN IN THE ART OF JAZZ

 

 

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 genres.

"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 references?


Keith Jarrett performing at Carnegie Hall, September 26, 2005 
Photo: Richard Termine
Photo courtesy of ECM Records

"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 about that."


Keith Jarrett
Photo: Jimmy Katz
Photo courtesy of ECM Records
 

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 unexpected.

"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 feeling."

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 mobility."

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, Yokohama, Japan
May 8, 2007: Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, Tokyo, Japan
May 10, 2007: Tokyo Kosei Nenkin Kaikan, Tokyo, Japan

Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert
2 CDs
Recorded September 2005
Released September 26, 2006
ECM 1989

C. B. Liddell is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

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