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Keith Jarrett Solo at Carnegie Hall

Keith Jarrett

“This recording studio has more people in it than any other studio I’ve been in,” said Keith Jarrett at Carnegie Hall, in his first New York solo engagement since September 2005. The pianist was feeling talkative, although the lighthearted quips came later.

First, Jarrett headed to the microphone and mentioned his dour liner notes from Changeless (1989), then wondered aloud (to paraphrase): “If art and creativity are allowed to slide off the edge, what is the point of ‘bolstering the economy’? Why would we want to bolster that?” He sounded like someone who hadn’t gotten the memo about Hope and Change. But point taken: The world is still not as it should be. “Pianos haven’t changed since the late 1800s,” he added from the bench. Then he began the first of 11 open improvisations: a cloudy out-of-tempo reverie, with eerie, dissonant chords and swarms of intersecting voices, perhaps a tone parallel to the discontent of his remarks.

Carnegie Hall was packed full. The ovations were hungry, loud and long, and Jarrett reciprocated with no fewer than six encores (one more than back in 2005). The music explains it all: Jarrett can be perplexing and even surly when he chooses to speak; then he’ll steal your breath away with an unerringly gorgeous impromptu ballad, spun from the deepest imagination, like the third piece of the second half-a moment one can relive when this recording, the follow-up to The Carnegie Hall Concert (ECM, 2006), reaches the shelves.

These solo-piano affairs may be wholly improvised, but Jarrett has his guideposts of gospel, boogie and blues, switching from the cadences of the black church and the simplest one-chord drones to the densest thickets of 20th-century harmony. His frenetic second-half opener ended in a blur when his hands simply seemed to run out of keys. After another ending that didn’t sit quite right, he took the liberty of a do-over, to the surprise and amusement of the crowd. The mood grew lighter and lighter. In the midst of the encores, with people emboldened enough to yell requests, Jarrett asked, “How about a ballad?” Then he joked: “That’s the last time you’ll hear me ask that question.”

In fact Jarrett may be the best living player of ballads, on any instrument-thus the still, sparkling beauty of his encores, “Over the Rainbow,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Where Are You” and “Angel Eyes,” along with the curveballs of an ad-lib blues and a flawless, lightning-paced “Carolina Shout.” His fists-at-the-ready demeanor returned only when a patron in the front rows flash-bulbed him-not once, but twice. Thankfully, there was no repeat of his YouTubed 2006 outburst over flash photography at Umbria, which provoked a mini-scandal in the jazz mags and blogs. On the contrary, this concert left Jarrett almost humbled, at a loss: “I really can’t thank you enough,” he declared, wanting to say more but leaving it at that.

Originally Published