Keith Jarrett: Let Us Now Praise the Art . . .

. . . and respect the artist

Keith Jarrett 1970s
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The Keith Jarrett Trio performs in near total darkness at the Umbria Jazz Festival, July 2013
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Over the past decades I have purchased and become familiar with 27 albums by Keith Jarrett as group leader or as solo performer. I own his Vortex releases, most of the ABC/Impulse material, and many recordings from his voluminous ECM catalog. I also have Jarrett’s albums with Miles Davis and his work as a member of Charles Lloyd’s quartet. I own a few radio and television broadcasts of this artist.

Even so, I have never attended a Keith Jarrett concert; I’m certain I never will.

I have been hearing about Jarrett’s on-stage peculiarities since the mid-1970s, when a group of my college friends travelled to Iowa City for one of his solo concerts. They returned with tales of an artist frustrated with the audience. At one point, somebody in the crowd yelled out, “Get a Rhodes!” Jarrett responded by going to the center of the stage, seating himself in a Lotus position for some time. When he returned to the grand piano, Jarrett told the audience that “electricity should run through those who are experiencing the music, and not through the instruments.” I heard very few comments about the pianist’s actual performance; the music had become secondary.

Jump ahead 35 years and we still find an artist at odds with his audience. At the 2007 Umbria Festival Jarrett became irate and abusive because some patrons were photographing the trio. He was quite nasty to the audience and threatened to end the concert. Jarrett returned to this Italian jazz festival in July for an encore of questionable behavior. This 2013 episode was less boisterous yet somehow even stranger, with Jarrett insisting that his trio perform for the large crowd virtually engulfed in complete darkness, illuminated only by the small light on the bassist’s music stand.

Keith Jarrett is not unique among artists who bring to the stage specific expectations about their audiences. Certainly the numerous frustrations inherent to public performances are not confined to jazz musicians. Country singer Jim Reeves was an audio perfectionist. He would openly chastise concert hall management from the stage because of a venue’s inadequate sound system. Classical pianist Glenn Gould quickly tired of concerts because he felt that the individual audience member was unable to focus on the music in such a setting.

Gould solved the problem for himself by retiring from the stage and becoming deeply involved with making albums and regularly performing on radio broadcasts from the Toronto studios of the CBC. In fact, Gould found radio the perfect medium for his art – pure audio, free of extraneous distractions. In his article describing Keith Jarrett’s performance in the dark, Thomas Conrad notes that one audience member astutely related the experience to being “sort of like radio.” Maybe this was Jarrett’s intention in Umbria.

Jarrett’s working trio of Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette is often compared to pianist Bill Evans’ great trios. This comparison goes further than the music. Evans too could show his great displeasure with a concert setting. During a 1979 taping of Jazz at the Maintenance Shop for Iowa Public Television, Evans takes time to pointedly criticize the sound man because of the audio mix. “So glad we had a sound check,” Evans sarcastically intones between numbers. At another point of the broadcast he says that he will play another piece because “that is our job.” This remark is clearly a shot at a previous discussion with someone involved with the broadcast. Or so I interpret it.

Keith Jarrett is a slave to his talent, but perhaps to some self-inflicted demons as well. I had a tangential experience with the man that I still find very telling: In 1981 Jarrett was scheduled to be the guest on an episode of a network radio program called “St. Paul Sunday Morning,” a 90-minute weekly showcase for classical music performers. Jarrett had previously been the guest soloist with The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and seemed a logical choice for this informal interview and performance broadcast. I worked for Minnesota Public Radio at the time and was hoping that I would encounter Mr. Jarrett when he arrived to record the show in our Studio A.

I did not meet him; Jarrett apparently came and went in a clandestine manner, without fanfare. But he also came and went without recording a program for the popular radio series. Producer Tom Voegeli later told me, “Jarrett sat in the studio at the piano and talked to us for nearly two hours. He thought about playing now and then, but it never happened. Jarrett finally told us, ‘My Muse is not with me tonight,’ and he got up from the piano and took off. So we were left with no program. He was friendly enough, even chatty — but he never played anything.” Forever the archivist, I asked if the engineer had saved the tapes of the conversation. Voegeli seemed irritated, “We never bothered to turn on the machines.”

Jarrett has become (or remains) an artist who is more famous for his personality than for his music. We have long been accustomed to this situation in the rock music world, with performers such as Elton John, Prince, and Madonna. It is less common in the jazz world, and it saddens me that Keith Jarrett would allow his music to be placed into the shadows because of his strident attitude. But since he is well known for being potentially erratic during concerts, it should surprise no one when this occurs.

Neil Young is famous for his short fuse during performances; George Jones was notorious for extremely brief sets. In concert, Bob Dylan no longer plays guitar and does not sound like Caruso. But none of this is news. If you were paying to see “No Show Jones,” you took what you got. When purchasing concert tickets, the patron must decide whether it is worth the risk of being chastised by Young, or whether Bob’s shredded voice will be enough artistic satisfaction for the evening. The choice belongs to the patron: Be willing to accept the possibilities or stay home.

When he was a young man, Ernest Tubb had the opportunity to see his idol Jimmie Rodgers in concert. Tubb purposefully avoided the performance, fearing he would be disappointed. And while this unusual vignette used to strike me as ludicrous, I think Tubb might have been onto something. For me, as a member of the audience, the music created by Keith Jarrett is remarkably transcendent on a regular basis. Why would I risk bringing ruinous or negative elements to my enjoyment of his art? Especially knowing that the man has a reputation for dismantling his own concerts!

Without being held hostage to the expectation of the stage performer, I can listen to his music whenever I please, bathed in bright lights or in total darkness. I don’t need to worry about my fellow audience members inciting the temperamental artist into abusive language or embarrassing behavior. I can even take flash photographs of my record player without fear that the concert will cease or that I will be publically called-out for it.

There are a large number of concert recordings available by Keith Jarrett. In fact, there are many that I have not yet heard. For me, these must suffice in fulfilling the concert experience between me and this particular and peculiar artist. In 1978, before we all became accustomed to large Box Sets of recordings by an individual, ECM issued the expansive Sun Bear Concerts. For its review of these solo concerts, Musician Magazine ran the glib headline, “Would You Buy a 10-Record Set From this Man?” After considered thought, I have my answer to that decades-old question: 10 records? No. My current cache of Keith Jarrett records brings me such joy that I plan on purchasing another 27 albums by this artist. I am confident that they will not disappoint.