Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Keith Jarrett’s Rio

As regular readers of this blog will have noticed, music is an aspect of life which is very important to me and one which regularly inspires me to posts here; anything from Bob Dylan to G.F. Handel. My taste is wide-ranging and catholic – while the core of it is certainly popular music, more particularly what is called rock music, in the second half of the last century, it also spreads out in many other directions.

For some reason recently, something in me had started to whisper … Jazz. Now I would not regard myself as any kind of expert in this wonderful area of music. I have had phases where I have concerned myself more with the genre and I am not ignorant of the major movements and currents which have taken place in this fascinating form of musical expression. I will readily admit my profound respect and admiration for the genius of many of the great figures of jazz: from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, John McLoughlin, Gil Evans and Charlie Mingus and, of course, the incomparable, the divine Miles Davis.

At any rate, I had the feeling that I needed to listen to some good jazz. And, as it happened, Christmas had brought a gift token and I had had occasion to read a review somewhere of what aficionados were describing as the jazz event of 2011 – a new recording of a live concert at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro on April 9 by Keith Jarrett. So I ordered the double CD and was fortunate that, on the day it arrived, I had the evening free and the flat to myself. Making myself comfortable, I put the CD on the sound system and listened to what all the jazz critics had been making so much fuss about.

And was transfixed, awestruck, amazed …

Keith Jarrett will be 67 this year and he’s been on the scene for a long time. He was a bit of a Wunderkind, possessing that blessing (and often curse) of many really good musicians, absolute or perfect pitch. Why curse? Let me explain. While I would in no way describe myself as a good musician, I do have, not perfect pitch, but a pretty good sense of pitch. This means, among other things, that I can hear if an instrument or a singer is out of tune – even to a small degree – and that it can quite annoy me. Pitch is a difficult thing; there are styles of singing, for example, which rely on shading it. Bing Crosby’s crooning is one good example, where he often intentionally starts slightly flat of the note –and this is all right, because he will then hit the pitch perfectly. But a singer who tends to consistently sing flat (think of Marc Almond of Soft Cell singing Tainted Love) or an out-of-tune guitar can be genuinely painful. And Keith Jarrett has a reputation as a perfectionist, which must make things (or people) only slightly out of tune particularly unbearable for him.

Jarrett’s musicality was recognised and fostered early and as a teenager his interests gravitated more and more in the jazz direction (one of his early inspirations was Dave Brubeck). In 1969 Miles Davis basically head-hunted him for his group; Jarrett played keyboards (along with Chick Corea) on the legendary Miles Davis at the Fillmore recordings, as well as at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. But despite his reverence for Miles, Jarrett was developing an antipathy to electronic instruments (particularly keyboards) which gradually moved him out of the rock-driven fusion style which Davis was following.

Jarrett’s done most of the things great jazz players do; he’s recorded and performed with smaller and bigger groups, trios and quartets and quintets and bands and orchestras (his work with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette providing a defining expression of many jazz Standards); he’s explored different musical directions in that crowded family of jazz styles; he’s composed and covered the compositions of others. He’s crossed-over (like nearly everyone who was hip in the sixties and seventies into rock), more particularly, in his case, into classical music – including composition but also wonderful performances, particularly of Bach. Yet this kind of description only skirts around the circumference of what really defines the man. To get closer to the centre, to the reality, I’ve got to pare it down, cut it back to the essentials. Because this is also a central part of the reality which is Keith Jarrett – the pursuit of the logical simplification of things, their rendering to the essentials; there to let a new, stripped, simple, wonderfully complex artistic beauty come through.

Jarrett is a pianist.

Jarrett is a perfectionist.

Jarrett is gifted with a sublime musicality.

Jarrett follows his own particular dedication to one of the central, perhaps the central truth of jazz – improvisation.

And so, Keith Jarrett regularly takes to the road on tour with the most daunting, vaunting personal project any musician can take on; just a piano, an audience and his own, very particular musical genius.

Improvisation is an essential part of jazz – it’s what you can hear every time you are part of the audience for any half-decent combo playing live, the musicians merging, melding, grooving; tossing a theme from one to another, letting each of them work it a bit, sharing it. Hell, you don’t even need to go as far as a jazz combo; in my own youthful, amateur adventures in playing rock music, jamming was one of the things which was most fun when my friends and I gathered to make music. And even I have experienced that sublime feeling when it clicks, when you finally get into that wonderful gift of space beyond space, of timeless time which only making live music can give you.

And it is this same timeless time, space beyond space that Jarrett is looking for when he goes on his solo tours. It is one of the most wonderful democratic things about music that it can provide so much pleasure for anyone who really is engaged in honestly making music; whether it’s a young enthusiast struggling to get clean chord sounds out of an electric guitar in a garage band or Daniel Barenboim playing a Tchaikovsky piano concerto with a symphony orchestra.

But Jarrett is taking all this one step – one vast step – farther on; he’s making the music, the completely extemporaneous improvised music, all on his own. It is what Miles Davis described in wondering bewilderment as Jarrett’s ability to “play from nothing.” Himself, a Steinway, the audience, and his own genius, his feeling for music. It is, simultaneously, an amazing exercise in hubris and a completely humble act of total trust in and adoration of the goddess of music (and, though the Greeks named Apollo the god of music, take it from me, my friends, the deity of music is definitely feminine – and she can be a real bitch sometimes too).

Given the incredibly high standards he demands of himself, and the breadth of his genius, these performances can be nothing less than stupendously strenuous occasions for him. This is, in my view, the reason why Jarrett has the (deserved) reputation of being so critical and demanding of his audiences, so … narky. He’s been known to stop playing, for example, and demand that coughers in the audience either quit coughing or risk being thrown out. Talk about the horror of the writer before the virgin, empty page; Jarrett sits there evening after evening, just him and his piano, waiting for the initial inspiration, the ignition to come. One story tells of the opening of a concert, of minutes going by in silence – the maestro can’t find a beginning. Finally, someone in the audience, blessed by some kind of divine intuition, calls out, “D sharp!” “Thank you,” replies Jarrett and launches into a sublime improvisation. It is no wonder that this man has made the ghastly acquaintance of nervous breakdowns, and chronic fatigue syndrome. As he himself describes it, “No matter what people think, no matter how many hundreds of times I've done it, it doesn't get easier. It gets harder, because my whole goal is not to repeat myself, and in some way bring something else into the world that wasn't there before in quite that way.”

The man is talented enough, and professional enough, to always give his audiences more than value for their money. He engages completely with his work, moving constantly on the piano stool, humming and groaning in dialogue with the emerging music. But sometimes … very occasionally … it goes beyond that and Keith Jarrett reaches a pinnacle which goes beyond any descriptions which could be reached with mere words. It happened at the Köln Concert (1975) and the Vienna Concert (1991). And it happened in Rio last April.

“I really had no idea what I meant, but this concert is it. Everything I played in Rio was improvised, and there is no way that I could have gotten to this particular musical place a second time, or in a different country: not even in a different hall or with a different audience, or on a different night.”

Luckily, the evening was recorded. I’m not going to give a long description of it here, if you want this, read some of the links I’ve put at the end of this piece. But, more importantly, listen to the music. I’ve put some YouTube links into this essay* but they don’t really do the master justice. This is music which needs the full wav. format, compromised audio forms like downloaded mp3 files just don’t hack it. Nor do headphones – if you want to do this music, this performance (and yourself) justice, listen to it on a decent sound-system. Go out and buy the CD and listen to it properly. It doesn’t matter if you’re not into jazz, this music goes far beyond categories. You won’t regret it.

*The links I originally placed in this essay have since been blocked on YouTube. Those now there are replacements - that ongoing internet theme of intellectual copyright, the rights of record companies, freedom of the web, etc.!

Keith Jarrett didn’t pay me to write this, it was entirely a labour of love! J If you want to read more about the album, try some of the following links

Photo retrieved from:


  1. Beautifully and passionately written!

    I love the little ditty about the audience member's shout to Jarrett. I had no idea of the complexity of the person. Creative geniuses are fascinating.

    I've gone through jazz phases as well. My affection for the genre was sparked in more or less equal parts by Joni Mitchell's work and by my ex-husband (and friend).

    I will give a listen to the clips when I have more time. It is morning and I must get myself in gear for the workday.

    This made me smile:
    "(and, though the Greeks named Apollo the god of music, take it from me, my friends, the deity of music is definitely feminine – and she can be a real bitch sometimes too)."

    Thank you for this!

  2. My husband and I have something of a similar history to you insofar as the development of our musical tastes over the course of our now long lifetimes. Although we've never been in the correct place at the right time to hear his music live in concert we were lucky enough in the mid-80's to watch a solo performance on PBS. We were enthralled including the part where he actually stood up and plucked the strings of his Steinway. It was so obvious that doing so was the next natural progression in the piece.

    When I told Jer about your reaction to Rio he immediately went to i-tunes to download the album. I know what you mean about having the CD and playing it on a good sound system but all our albums were copied to hard drives and the CD's themselves were gifted to a nice second hand music store in Portland before we left. The good news is we do have a Bowers and Wilkins sound system.

    We shall listen to it tomorrow. Thanks for your wonderful essay and tribute.

  3. Gina, Susan and Jer - hope you enjoy the music. I certainly did!

  4. Thank you for this introduction to Keith Jarrett. From listening to the samples you've provided, I understand your enthusiasm.

  5. Gina said:
    Rio 7 is heartbreakingly tender.

  6. Francis,
    Thank you so much for introducing me to the music of Keith Jarrett. Yes, I know, that's a confession: I did not know this music, or its brilliance.
    The first of your soundtracks came across to me as the artist telling the story of life's question marks and distressful moments, yet setting them into a kind of shell that included also light-filled moments of either revelation or relaxation.
    Great. I had to press the pause button on a recording of Mahler 6 to listen - and am glad I did.

  7. Ah, Tom, good jazz is always there - modest, unpretentious and often brilliant.
    The past few days have had me listening a number of times to Kind of Blue, which many crtics regard as being Miles Davis' masterpiece. Well worth checking out too!

  8. Interesting post, this was really useful. thanks!


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