I received a few sharp emails in response to my January/February column, which opened with barbs directed at President Trump. That rhetoric has no business in a jazz rag, these incensed readers argued, before the obligatory threat of a subscription cancellation. In many ways I agree with the pushback: Here they were, trying to unwind with an article on the best jazz albums of the year, and they’re forced to endure the same kind of political snark that just provoked them to turn off the TV. I understand their pain, and my introduction assumed political affiliation of my readership, which I regret. But the wound was fresh then, our political and cultural environment is spectacularly bizarre, and the arts don’t exist in a vacuum. To prove that last point, I assigned Michael J. West a feature that surveys post-election feelings within the jazz scene, with input from Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, Terri Lyne Carrington, Antonio Sanchez and others. Several of these artists clearly feel compelled to react to the current administration with their music, as if they have no choice. That same sense of urgency was evident at Carnegie Hall in February, when Keith Jarrett peppered two hours of incomparable solo improvisations with anti-Trump commentary that maintained a casual comic buoyancy without obscuring the fury at its core. He read, from notes, a laundry list of disparaging descriptors; he reminded us of Trump’s “unpresidented” Twitter flub; he excoriated the president’s cabinet picks; he questioned aloud the relevancy of the Electoral College; he reiterated that the Constitution is important, and that love is good and hate and racism are bad. And his jokes tended to land. “Dark times call for dark harmonies,” he quipped after one lyrically murky piece.
Jarrett’s solo concerts have a romantic history of being inspired by struggle, and his disaffection, emboldened by the packed house’s appreciative response to it, leavened him with good humor while guiding his pianism into the stratosphere. The concert was rooted in Jarrett’s trademarked expert balance of light and night, tension and release. But on this night his spontaneous rhapsodies were so fully realized it was jarring; improv after improv I began searching for the title of a songbook or gospel gem in my mind, to no avail. When he did dip into standards during the encores, he began to tear up. We’re going through a “tough time,” he said, “but it ain’t over yet.” And he closed with an admission: “You’re the first audience that made me cry.” Were they tears of joy, or sadness, or anger? As in the music, all of the above.