[JPL] One Extraordinary Night, Annotated by Its Architect

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Sep 25 19:07:32 EDT 2006

September 24, 2006
One Extraordinary Night, Annotated by Its Architect 
ONE night almost exactly a year ago Keith Jarrett
walked onstage at Carnegie Hall and sat down, without
preamble, at a Steinway grand piano. A full house
settled in with him, sharing a bated-breath sensation.
There was an air of expectation that something
wondrous and ephemeral was poised to unfold. 

The audience had cause for this belief. Mr. Jarrett is
one of the most renowned pianists in the world, a
virtuoso equally at home performing Bach or bebop. And
though he had been a child prodigy and a member of
Miles Davis’s best jazz-rock bands, it was his
Herculean solo improvisations — full concerts
seemingly conjured out of thin air — that brought him
worldwide renown. His 1975 album “The Köln Concert”
(ECM) is the all-time best-selling solo piano
recording in any genre, with more than three million
copies sold. 

In a recent conversation at his home in northwest New
Jersey, Mr. Jarrett shed some light on the discipline
behind his creative process, which his more perceptive
audiences valorize as much as his facility at the
piano. And he took a rare clinical walk-through, like
a coach reviewing game film, of the spontaneous opus
that ECM is releasing on Tuesday as “The Carnegie Hall

The album documents in its entirety a performance that
surpassed even the hopes of the crowd, which clamored
for, and got, five encores. “There was so much comfort
exuding from his body into the instrument, and out to
us in the audience, that you felt like there were no
boundaries at all,” said the pianist Jason Moran. “It
was a real reminder of what the possibilities of the
instrument are, and what the possibilities of a solo
concert are.” 

Mr. Jarrett’s body of solo piano albums stretches back
35 years, to “Facing You,” his first effort for ECM.
“The Carnegie Hall Concert” marks his first release
from an American solo concert, but that’s not why it
stands out.

“This recording seems to be quite a complete
reflection of the past and the future,” said Manfred
Eicher, the founder of ECM, from his office near
Munich. “I hear many things that I remember well from
our first tours together, but in a different kind of
shape and form. And Keith’s pianistic abilities have
developed entirely since then.” 

Of course technique can account for only so much of
the magic of the concert. There’s also the mysterious
interaction of mind and body and environment, which
has been known, on less fortunate occasions, to drive
Mr. Jarrett into either a rage or a rut. And Mr.
Jarrett has reconceived the shape and execution of his
solo performances in ways that only he seems qualified
to explain.

Keith Jarrett lives on the New Jersey side of the
Pennsylvania border, within an hour’s drive of his
childhood home of Allentown, Pa. He bought a small
house on a plot of land — sylvan, secluded,
lake-abutted — after winning a Guggenheim fellowship
in 1972. Since then the house and property have both
been expanded and granted some horticultural
refinement by Mr. Jarrett’s wife, Rose Anne. 

Mr. Jarrett’s studio is a free-standing cottage just
big enough to house a dovetailed pair of grand pianos.
In a corner sat the custom-made harpsichord with which
he once recorded Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations; with
evident pride he uncovered the instrument and played a
few chords. And he noted the arrangement of
microphones in the room, unaltered since he recorded
“The Melody at Night, With You,” an album of exquisite
purity and quietude, during his recovery from chronic
fatigue syndrome in the late 90’s. 

That illness explains why, before Carnegie Hall, Mr.
Jarrett had not played a North American solo concert
in 10 years. His trio with the bassist Gary Peacock
and the drummer Jack DeJohnette was back in business —
they had appeared at Carnegie a few months prior — but
the solo format posed greater physical and mental

“The Melody at Night” was not the only byproduct of
Mr. Jarrett’s convalescence. “I practice now, which I
didn’t used to do,” he said. “I even practice
improvising. It doesn’t seem to have screwed anything
up, and it’s helped a lot with staying in shape. And
it gave me some revelations about my playing. 

“If I hadn’t been in there,” he continued, speaking of
the studio, “I guess I would have just sat around like
I used to, thinking: ‘Well, I’m looking forward to a
concert in three months. Wish I could play the piano,
but I have to stay away from it.’ This is what I used
to say. And that’s what I did. It was pretty strict.”

Sitting on his screened-in front porch, Mr. Jarrett
seemed relaxed yet sharply focused; intensity is still
his way, in conversation as in music. But he spoke
freely about his solo style, which has taken on new
characteristics, like a lighter touch, an assertive
independence of the left hand and more pauses between
ideas, so that a concert consists of discrete pieces
instead of an oceanic roil. 

MR. JARRETT has conceptual as well as practical
reasons for these changes — he spent a few minutes
explaining the “philosophical revelation” he had after
reading a book by the physicist and software designer
Stephen Wolfram — but the music can be savored without
them. His last solo album, “Radiance,” chronicled a
2002 performance in Osaka, Japan, that first put all
of his new ideas into play. 

Mr. Jarrett parsed that concert into 13 jaggedly
disparate but related segments, like the shards of a
single shattered glass. (“It’s structurally more
intact than anything I could ever have written,” he
said.) Three days after Osaka he tried a similar
approach in Tokyo. He did so once again at Carnegie

“In my previous solo stuff,” Mr. Jarrett said, “I
probably thought: ‘This is how you build a world. You
start at pianissimo, and you slowly build this thing.’
No, maybe that’s how you build a stack of cards. But
worlds get exploded into existence. I had completely
not thought of that. And the thing about starting and
stopping is that there are these mini-worlds, some of
which can explode into being, and there are other
worlds that come into existence gently, and the whole
thing is a macro-world.”

“If it’s a good night,” he clarified, with a dry

“Carnegie Hall was an extremely good night for this,”
he continued. “Not only is it the best example so far
of what I’m talking about, but the audience is part of
the music.”

Mr. Jarrett has a reputation for being tetchy with
audiences. There’s a moment 25 minutes into “Tokyo
Solo,” a DVD from the 2002 tour, released by ECM in
June, that illustrates the point. The camera is
filming Mr. Jarrett’s face in close-up as he ends one
meditative piece and begins another. An overexcited
fan claps, loudly, and Mr. Jarrett’s expression
crumples as if in response to a putrid odor. He stops
playing, and for 15 long seconds, lets the silence
loom. When he starts again, his harsh trills register
as a rebuke.

WHEN reminded of that incident, Mr. Jarrett offered an
analogy. “What I’m being commissioned to do is dive
down,” he said. “So let’s say you’re in your diving
suit, and you’ve got your mask on, and you’re going
deeper, or feel like you are. And a little air gets
in. Someone would not say, ‘Why did you panic?’ That’s
as close as I can come to describing what it’s like.
It’s not a personality failure on my part.” 

He extended the metaphor, likening most distractions
to ripples on the water. “I’m not going to worry about
the ripples,” he said, “but if someone goes,
‘crrrsshh!’...” He mimicked a violent splash, and

The upshot of Mr. Jarrett’s acute sensitivity to
environment is that a good audience can stoke his
creative fires; it happened at Carnegie, he said, in a
way that was matched only by Köln: “The emotional
color of the hall in New York was so accepting and
prepared and uncompromising and willing to go through
whatever process I was going through. I could feel
that before I even sat down. So what you’re hearing,
in the first track, is my testing this — ‘Could this
really be true?’ — and letting everything fall out of
the piano as though I wasn’t playing it, but it was
hitting me over the head.” 

MONTHS after the concert, when Mr. Jarrett listened to
a playback for the first time, he took notes intended
to serve as a reference guide during his production of
the album. His comments on the first track, scrawled
in ink on an unlined sheet of paper, read: “atonal
rhythmic multilayered,” “linear,” and “voiced very
NYC, via American avant-garde.” 

The sequencing of his performances has always been a
point of pride for Mr. Jarrett, whether it involves
choosing standards for his trio or shaping the
direction of a solo improvisation. So he was
scrutinizing his notes by request, as a means of
charting his thematic movement through the concert.
The hope was that a track-by-track self-analysis — his
first time trying such an exercise with a journalist,
he said — would reveal something about the internal
logic of the performance. 

What it illuminated most was the complexity of Mr.
Jarrett’s decision-making process, variously
influenced by the nuances of the Carnegie Hall piano,
the balance of dynamics over the course of the evening
and the structural possibilities of each piece as it

In some cases one piece essentially gave birth to the
next. “Part 4,” which began with a scramble of notes
at the high end of the keyboard, included a middle
section of “free balladic playing,” according to Mr.
Jarrett’s annotation. “Interestingly,” he said,
looking up from the page, “the free balladic playing
in it is the direct precursor to the next tune.” 

That piece, “Part 5” on the album, was described with
a giddy exclamation (“Wow!”) and “dark brooding
thickness in bass,” along with a more subjective
phrase. “Existential masterwork,” Mr. Jarrett read
aloud, and chuckled. “See, when I’m a producer, I’m
allowed to say these things.” 

In the concert’s second half Mr. Jarrett followed a
“furious” opener with a gospel-rock number vaguely
evocative of “Let It Be,” and of Mr. Jarrett’s
Köln-era ruminations. Was this a reward for the
audience, perhaps, after the dissonance of the
previous piece? 

“Oh yeah, definitely,” he said. “There was a
conversation between the audience and myself over the
entire span of my career.” 

It culminated, for him, in the evening’s first encore:
“It’s the only example in this concert of something
that to me felt so spiritually uplifting that it was
impossible to imagine ever playing it except after the
rest of it.”

He came up with a title for the improvised encore,
“The Good America,” that then held fast despite
attempts to dislodge it. “Basically what I hear in it
is the culmination of everything that I feel about
this country that’s good,” he said. “It has something
I used to think I wanted all the time, which was a
kind of hymnlike quality, and in this case it’s
because it’s a descending major scale with very pure
chordal concepts. Then there are Tin Pan
Alley-sounding parts of it, though it’s completely
asymmetrical. And there’s my comment: ‘Absolutely the
best.’ ” 

The song’s unspoken message rang clearly in the
audience. (My notebook from the concert includes the
phrases “hymnlike” and “pastoral Americana,” along
with “anthem to that imaginary land.”) But the sense
of longing in that melody also had to do with the
circumstances of its creation. 

“When I came out for the first encore,” Mr. Jarrett
said, “I guess I was telling myself: ‘Not yet. You’re
not letting go of the body of this concert yet.’ ” 

With the release of “The Carnegie Hall Concert” Mr.
Jarrett gets his wish, in a way. The whole album seems
to express an urgent plea to suspend time, to savor a
moment before it passes. At one point, after the third
of five encores — “My Song,” a ballad associated with
his 1970’s European quartet — Mr. Jarrett gives voice
to that plea. It’s audible on the recording even
though he’s not using a microphone. “I’ll take any
extra time,” he calls out, “any way at all.” 


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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