Wednesday, March 04, 2015
Once a seed: Keith Jarrett solo, now
Last night, I saw Keith Jarrett play solo at Carnegie Hall for the second time. The first such show I saw, in January of 2011, had been, in my view, disastrous. (In short, I actually witnessed the Coughing Wars in the flesh, and they were not pretty.) I chose not to write about that concert at the time, mainly because I knew I would take no pleasure in reliving or recounting it. It's pretty clear that Jon Pareles felt the same, though in his case, he was obligated to file a review.
I'm happy to report that last night's show was far better, both musically and in terms of artist/crowd rapport. Jarrett did display some faintly curmudgeonly behavior, but it was self-aware, mild. He seemingly can't not comment on coughs overheard from the audience, but last night he framed these "incidents" (Jarrett didn't use that term; I use quotes only to indicate where I stand on the matter) as minor improprieties, interruptions to be tsk-tsked but ultimately tolerated with a wry smile. Even when he informed the audience that one coughing outburst had ended a piece prematurely, he portrayed this as serendipity, i.e, just the way things go, an attitude you'd expect him to have embodied all along given his insistence on the purity of improvisation.
I'm ambivalent about foregrounding these extramusical details, but they matter. And that's true because, these days, a Keith Jarrett solo concert is a performance on many levels, not just musical. As with all Keith Jarrett solo concerts, last night's was technically improvised, but I couldn't help feeling as though Jarrett was, on some level, working from a script. Not from a score, but from some innate sense of what these concerts are, to him, at this point in his staggeringly accomplished career. The pieces he played didn't have names, of course, but at times, I felt like I was witnessing a performance of an evening-length work called A Keith Jarret Solo Concert.
Though the mood of the show was mercifully very different from the one I saw in 2011, the rhythm, the procedure of it was quite similar. The lights dim. Jarrett, a relatively tiny figure, strides out from those almost comically large doors at stage left. He walks over to the piano with a sort of self-conscious casualness, hands in pockets. "Oh, you want me to play?" his gestures say. "Well, I suppose I could do that." He chats a bit with the crowd. Last night, Jarrett's banter often touched on his drive to NYC that day, which had apparently been long and arduous.
Then he begins playing. The pieces are on the short side, averaging about four to five minutes. They fall into roughly three categories: the bluesy, earthy, muscular vamp-driven pieces; the searching, and often inconclusive and impenetrable, exploratory pieces, which tend to sound more "modern classical" than "free jazz"; and what I'll call, for lack of a better term, the Pretty Pieces. (Thanks to my friend and colleague Sophie, also in attendance, for helping me to establish this taxonomy.) He plays; he stops; he takes his hands off the keys. And then he stands up and bows, deeply, letting his torso go fully slack, as the audience applauds. This gesture plays up the sort of humblebrag quality that A Keith Jarrett Solo Concert has. "I have scaled Improv Mountain on your behalf, audience; I brought back a mere trifle, but I hope it was to your liking." The implication of heroism, of the artist alone up there on that huge, grand stage, with only his wits and his hands to guide him, is an inescapable part of these shows, and though this unspoken but very present element can be oppressive at times, it does seem more or less accurate—i.e., there is, at base, something heroic about what Jarrett does during these performances.
The great mystery and rapture of A Keith Jarrett Solo Concert comes, in my opinion, chiefly during the Pretty Pieces I cited above. Anyone who has seen one of these performances will know the pieces I mean. There were two that stood out for me last night, the second piece of the evening and roughly the sixth—two or three before intermission. Essentially, these pieces are songs. Improvised, yes, but so exquisite in their design, in the rightness of their melodic and harmonic arc, their adornments, the economy of their motifs (the second of the two pieces I cited above started with a little twinkle of a figure in the highest register of the keyboard and, lovingly, utilized that theme throughout) that it's as if Jarrett were plucking them from a tree like pieces of perfectly ripened fruit. Sometimes he sings along, wordlessly, in that famous and, to some, infamously distracting, vocalization of his—for the record, this habit of Jarrett's doesn't really bother me at all—and the mouth sound seems to reinforce the sense that though what he's playing is in some sense brand-new, it's also a song that both he and the audience already know by heart. The Pretty Pieces tend to have the flavor of ballads—wholesome tearjerkers. Melodramatic, in a sense, but also completely disarming and true. Last night, during these pieces, I kept thinking of the Branford Marsalis composition "Hope," specifically the version that appears on Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, the saxophonist's excellent 2011 duo album with pianist Joey Calderazzo. "Hope" is an almost comically gorgeous piece—one of the most elemental and stirring melodies I've ever heard. Several of the pieces Jarrett played last night felt equally inevitable, equally transporting. Pure magic, from the second he set his hands on the keys to the second he lifted them off. I don't know about heroic, but wizardly seems apt. The idea that a musician could, seemingly at will, distill a piece this right-feeling out of the air is almost scary. What would that feel like, to be able to sit down at the instrument and just, like, do that?
A Keith Jarrett Concert gives the impression that the Muse doesn't answer every time the maestro knocks. Some of last night's pieces were more sketchlike—open-ended, even downright stunted. The gulf between these and the Ones That Work can be frustrating. Couldn't Jarrett conceivably just play a concert of all Pretty Pieces? Hard to say. I'm sure his contention would be that it's out of his hands, pun intended, whether a given piece takes flight, but the rightness of the Pretty Pieces, from note one, is tough to ignore. Yes, he does in fact make it look easy, as though the art of composing a perfect song from scratch were as simple as solving a Rubik's Cube for the thousandth time.
Near the end of the show, in a genuinely affecting moment, Jarrett walked over to the mic in between pieces and said, "Thank you for following my work." He then addressed the elephant in the room, the notion—perfectly conceivable for anyone in attendance in January of 2011—that he "hates the audience." He assured us that none of what we were hearing would've been possible without us present. "You think I play like this in my studio?" This speech too seemed like a preordained part of A Keith Jarrett Concert—a necessary display of contrition and appreciation. But it also felt sincere. It was both welcome and classy, and, for me at least, it served to clear the air. (There had, for the record, been another solo Jarrett show at Carnegie Hall between the ill-fated 2011 one and last night's concert; according to Sophie, Jarrett's demeanor and performance had been exemplary that night in 2012.)
Does A Keith Jarrett Concert grab me the way Jarrett's ’67–’76 material does (see here and here)? No. There's a wild, organic beauty to that work that moves me, revs me up to no end. These days, Jarrett doesn't seem to be walking so close to the ledge, aesthetically. He's flying blind, yes, but I do get the sense that he can, so to speak, play these concerts in his sleep, simply reaching into his endless storehouse of Keith Jarrett Pieces. I realize that it might sound like I'm selling his achievements short, but that's not my intention. I'm just saying that there's something about the "not a hair out of place" quality of his present-day improvisations that both dazzles and stonewalls me. Whereas the ’70s work—and I'm generalizing rampantly here—felt like a man meticulously constructing a stairway to the stars, via compositions that felt so infectiously personal and natural, the current work can feel like a man ascending the very same stairway, i.e., one he's already built and ascended countless other times. There's an inevitability to A Keith Jarrett Solo Concert that, to me, feels the slightest bit canned.
The Pretty Pieces, though. Those exquisite sensations. Recalling them now is like recalling a bath in a hot springs. You really can't get that feeling anywhere else. At his best, Keith Jarrett has always been a genre of one, and that singularity was on display last night. He's a complicated figure—at times, a tedious one. But his achievement, the Idea of Piano that he's brought into the world, is undeniable, and still strong. It exists, persists, and you can go see it. Admire the perfection and sturdiness of it, almost as though it were a thing growing out of the ground. It's hard not to see the full, flowering splendor every time you look, but it's worth remembering that A Keith Jarrett Solo Concert was once a seed. It came about gradually. All the years of apprenticeship. Charles Lloyd, Miles, the American and European Quartets, the Standards Trio. The decades of solo performances. (Interesting to note that the 40th anniversary of the famed Köln Concert was this past January 24.) It all fed into this, and it's all there, if you look and listen closely. A Keith Jarrett Solo Concert is not inevitable, preordained, even if it can seem that way. It happens now because Jarrett has willed it to happen, year by year, moment by moment, right up to the present.