Keith Jarrett Interview

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Interesting insight into Jarrett's creative process and more.



Keith Jarrettby Rose Anne Jarrett

In 1999, in a major broadsheet feature, Geoff Dyerauthor of the acclaimed, genre-defying book on jazz,But Beautifulreferred to Keith Jarrett as "The greatest living jazz musician." It was not the first time, and it certainly will not be the last time Jarrett has been referred to in such terms. He is, after all, one of just a handful of jazz musicians who have become a legend during their own lifetimes.Jarrett's recording career neatly divides itself into three periods: the early Atlantic years, the Impulse! years, and his ECM years. It's fair to say that his Atlantic and Impulse! periods (and a dalliance with Columbia in-between) represent a portrait of the artist as a young man, while his career as documented by ECMfromFacing Youin 1972 to the present dayreveals the flowering of an astonishing talent, not just in jazz, but in improvised music and classical music, as well.The solo concert format established by Jarrett in the 1970s has been particularly influential. It led to some of his best loved recordings, including 1975'sKln Concert, which has now sold well over three million copies. In 1988, a Bach/Jarrett keyboard cycle was initiated by ECM's New Series classical imprint, beginning withThe Well Tempered Clavier Book 1(piano) andBook 2(harpsichord). In 1991 he went on to record Shostakovichs24 Preludes and Fuguesto worldwide critical acclaim.In 1983 Jarrett embarked on a new jazz venture, the formation of a jazz trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. For some while he had been playing"Over the Rainbow"as an encore at his solo concerts, and he decided to form a group to explore the American Songbookand beyondexplaining to Musician magazine that year, "Some of the things you hear with the group are fun: the fun of being able to relate to something and not care what it is, and just take it. But when you play alone, whatever you hear, you cant have fun with it because you just have it to yourself." After the success of his solo concerts, Jarrett, it seemed, was missing human interaction with other musicians.In 2008, ECM celebrated the trio's twenty-fifth anniversary by issuingSetting Standards, a boxed set re-release their first three albums, recorded in January 1983 at New Yorks Power Station studio. As the Swiss jazz writer Peter Redi said in the liner notes: "From the very beginning Jarrett emphasised two imperatives: they must take the standards seriously as great if unrecognized art on a small scale, and they had to do so from an up-to-date and radically improvisational vantage point. Once the musicians entered the studio the effect was astonishing. The old tunes unleashed a rush of emotions, a delight in streams of collective communication, without preconditions, following not only the skeletal changes but the melodic lines of force in the originals."After recording enough material for two albums of standards, the trio was so elated, they decided to try something else. It resulted in the third album in the ECM box set,Changes. Apart from Jarretts composition"Prism,"the music they recorded for this album was totally improvised. Since then, what has become known as "The Standards Trio" has built a substantial discography on ECM, including two more albums of spontaneous interaction.With the recent release ofYesterdays, a 2001 session capturing the trio in top form, it seemed appropriate to begin Keith Jarretts interview by talking about this latest release, before briefly reflecting on a over quarter-century of music-making with the trio in both its "Standards" and free/collective improvisational guises. He also talked frankly and engagingly about the importance of melody and meaning in jazz improvisation, the transferability of skills from classical music to jazz, his practice regime, and more. What gradually emerged was a portrait of an intensely dedicated musician, restlessly challenging himself to achieve the highest standards he can possibly attain.

Yesterdayswas recorded in 2001, and to me its at once intense, creative yet playful, and seems to encapsulate your remarks in the LA Times that jazz musicians dont have to break down doors all the time. So what is your rationale when you select pieces to perform with the trio?Rationale? I dont have one; I dont have a conscious concept. Just to give you an example:Tribute[the double CD set of standards, plus two Jarrett originals, recorded October 15, 1989 at Philharmonie, Kln] was a tribute to Nancy Wilson,Charlie Parker,Coltrane, and people like that in jazz. There was quite an in-depth review of itIm not sure if it was a German reviewer or could even have been British. Anyway, it was very in-depth, and he had developed this theory that as we were playing each song we were quite aware of who the recipient of this tribute was. I had to debunk his whole theory when he talked to me a little bit. I said, not only have you developed this theory, painstakingly probably, and worked it out, but I have to tell you that youre absolutely not correct. There was no thought of these singers and players at the time we did the playing. That came after the fact, when I realized there was a connection between the songs and what someone had done. For example, when I think of'All the Things You Are'I think ofSonny Rollins, and so on. So there is no rationale, no game plan with the trio.So you just hit on songs?Thats about as in-depth as you get! I hit on them, like baseball or something. For example, if you takeYesterdays, if I were to analyze the different facets of it and say what was the rationale for those particular choices, I couldnt. I remember we were coming out of three or four concerts that were all free music, and then we did a sound check in the hall [April 30, 2001 at Metropolitan Festival Hall, Tokyo], and it seemed like songs would work better than free stuff and we had not played any tunes at all on this trip, yet. So one of the things you hear [on the album] is relief. We were just relieved not to have to be in charge of every split second. So answering your original question, we didnt feel we had to push the envelope as we had been pushing the envelope at those other four concerts for every split second. Rather than rationale, there are reasons that provoke us into saying 'yes, this works, no this doesnt work, this hall is good for this, its not good for this,' and then the music arrives in a certain package.For example, the whole music ofThe Survivors Suite[recorded Ludwigsberg, Germany April 1976 and released by ECM] was written (and this is something thats perhaps not known widely at all) that suite of pieces was written specifically for Avery Fisher Hall in New York, because I knew we were going to play there. I think it was opposite Monk as part of the festival. I knew from playing in Avery Fisher Hall many times the sound was not precise enough onstage to play fast tempos[the sound] got blurredso I decided to write the music for that evening. I felt it was important as an evening of music, and thats the first place we played it and it was written for that hall. And then it became something we did at other places. So there was a rationale to that, but I think very few people would ever say, 'Would you conceive, Mr. Jarrett, of writing for a specific hall?' I probably would say, 'No.' But the answer lies in the fact that I knew the hall to be very poor for certain kinds of things, and if you listen toThe Survivors Suiteyoull notice there are no fast tempos.Interesting. Religious music, of course, is conceived entirely with the acoustic space in mind.Thats right. Anything on that record was 'free' speed, not tempo speed, so that was that story. I think that explains more or less how we go about this stuff.Yesterdays you mention you did four 'free' concerts beforehand, but 2001 was actually a very rich period for the trio.Ah, yes. I was the first person to notice, of course, because I have a list of 'must come out' releases. 'This tapemustcome out;thistape forget it, we dont need this.' So I had recordings from all over the place from a few different years, and I made list on a couple of sheets of paper in case my plane went down or something silly like that, and someone would see that and know what I wanted next. And its a funny thing. I noticed that in the end, although I was choosing from over several years, I kept choosing pre-9/11 in the year 2001. And I have no explanation for that.Well, I was going ask if the inner man was celebrating putting that awful illness behind you [Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which afflicted Jarrett for over two years, beginning in the autumn of 1996].Yes. That could be. If thats true, then theres something going on now, too. It started at the end of [2008] at Carnegie Hall with the trio and everything jumped, skyrocketed!Well, I hope its being documented. Can we go back to the beginning of the trio, and the ECM three-CD boxed set,Setting Standards, which documents its beginnings [Standards Vol. 1,Standards Vol. 2, andChanges]? What was the ethos of the trio then, and how it has evolved?

Peacock, Jarrett, and DeJohnetteby Sven Thielman

Well, interestingly, it evolved all by itself, as long as we keep the same principals just not possessing the music as though its ours and just going in as a player in a group. It evolved like that. It depends on the purity of Gary and Jack and I at that time, and thats all it depends onplus our health of course. But really the purity of intent. Theres not another group that has this M.O., at least Ive never heard of one, but its not that were casual, were the exact opposite. Im not hearing any more, like I heard ten years ago, 'Why are they still playing standards?' Im not hearing this from critics. Im seeing them saying 'just listen to them playing.' Not so much 'thats the third time theyve played this song,' but the fact were chang