Keith Jarrett: Alone in a Crowded Room

A newly released archival box set offers fresh insight into the spontaneous genius of Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett (photo by Sánta István Csaba)
Jarrett with ECM Records staff, including, to his right, label founder Manfred Eicher, at the 2014 NEA ceremony (photo by Alan Nahigian)
Jarrett’s now-disbanded “Standards Trio,” with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock (from left), in 2010 (photo by Daniela Yohannes/ECM Records)
At Jazz at Lincoln Center in January 2014, Jarrett accepts his NEA Jazz Master Award (photo by Michael G. Stewart/NEA)
Jarrett onstage in Japan in October 2002. By this time, his solo improvisations had developed into more concise melodic inventions. (photo by Junichi Hirayama/ECM Records)

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Keith Jarrett has garnered a rare cult of close listeners over his more than 40 years of improvised solo piano concerts: connoisseurs of his sound, devoted mavens of his style, list-making fanatics, discerning experts, even the odd astute critic. None of these people, it’s fair to say, has better insight into Jarrett’s solo music than the pianist himself.

This is one reason to take special note of A Multitude of Angels, a collection of archival solo performances recorded over a single week in 1996, during a tour of opera houses and small halls in Italy. Each concert—in Modena, Ferrara, Turin and Genoa—takes up a single disc in the set and features the rhapsodic, long-form improvisations that Jarrett introduced back in 1975, with his best-selling album The Köln Concert.

As it happens, A Multitude of Angels marks the end of that approach for Jarrett, who was struggling at the time with the onset of chronic fatigue syndrome. For the next couple of years he’d regain his strength in a veil of silence, emerging in 1999 with The Melody at Night, With You, a brittle and affecting solo album made in his home studio.

Like that album, A Multitude of Angels was captured under do-it-yourself conditions, outside the jurisdiction of even his longtime producer, ECM founder Manfred Eicher. Jarrett used the same DAT recorder, serving as his own engineer. The result was a body of music remarkable for its resonance, structural integrity and searching dynamism. As a coherent statement, it’s one of the more impressive feats of Jarrett’s illustrious career.

He officially returned to solo performance in the early 2000s, making his first recorded statement with Radiance, a burst of short inventions released in 2005. Jarrett has kept to this format ever since, playing discrete pieces that form a sort of arc. His most recent solo tour, in 2016, included a concert in San Francisco that he’s considering for future release, because it accurately reflects the formal challenges he recently set out for himself: “consciously choosing the most difficult possible thing to do at a certain spot.”

Jarrett, 71, spoke recently in his home studio in rural New Jersey, in a control room whose walls are cluttered with LP covers, photographs and awards, including several gold records. A wry and voluble conversationalist, he was eager to reflect on A Multitude of Angels and its place in his career, which is still actively unfolding as he settles into a phase of late eminence.

I’m struck by what a breadth of emotion there is in this music. You’ve referred to it yourself as a pinnacle.
It took me 20 years to come to that conclusion.

Why did it take that long?
I hadn’t listened to the tapes much because I knew how weak I was. But Manfred used to tell me, “You always play better when you’re screwed up.” What struck me when I listened again was that I was utilizing the sound. It would have taken that sound for me to do what I’m doing with the overtones, hanging these little glittery stars that stay in the air. The way pianos are recorded now, with close mics, you don’t get the space a piano is inhabiting, and you don’t get my touch and phrasing. The fact that those pianos sound so good, with the overtones hanging there, it gave me a whole new language to use.

It does feel like you’re making those sonic discoveries in the moment.
And when you hear all the concerts, you realize they’re all in different halls, in different cities and with different pianos. But something about it adds up. For a while I was thinking I would choose one concert to release. Then I started listening to them next to each other and thought, “No, they belong together. They don’t repeat, but they all share something.” So it’s like recording an era. And it was the era of being sick, really. [laughs]

How long had you known that you were sick?
In the airport on the way to this tour. I just found myself too tired to do anything I normally do. I thought I was dying. I couldn’t get diagnosed until I was back [in the States].

And yet the music supports that idea of surmounting something to produce a more transcendent result. I hear poignancy, but I don’t hear weakness.
I don’t, either. I think the best example is that D-minor vamp near the end of Genoa. It is unlike any other vamp I’ve ever played. Because I was deep in this place. I knew this was the last concert. I didn’t know if I’d play again. And yet there’s this enormous patience with what turned out to be very simple motifs. They don’t ever get boring.

You’re talking about the vamp on Disc 4, preceding the encores.
Yeah, before the blues and “Over the Rainbow.” I can’t see that as anything but extremely spiritual. There was no reason beyond the music to play what I was playing. If I couldn’t like it while I was playing, why was it there? And so I couldn’t give candy to anybody. I couldn’t give cookies out. But there’s such an overwhelming warmth there, and the funkiness of the vamps. I played the Ferrara concert and I heard this strange thing; I didn’t even know how I played it. I was playing a melody and some shit in E-flat major, and it blew me away. I thought, “I’ve never done anything like this before.”

I was going to single out Ferrara. There’s a long stretch in there that’s impossibly funky and very deep.
If I was going to release just one of these concerts, that was the first one I considered. And it was mainly because of those sections. But then there’s also the latter part of the first half of Genoa, when I’m finding this repeating note in the bass and then creating some kind of whirlwind out of that. So I found things on all these concerts that were mandatory to come out.

If you listen to just the first two minutes of each one, they’re wildly different. I think Torino is the closest I come to hearing desperation—there’s a desolate feeling to the beginning.
I agree with that. But the angels were there. The second half of Torino undoes everything you thought about the first part. Like, whoops! Wait.

And even though I’ve been listening carefully, suddenly I find myself thinking, “How did we get here?”
You know what’s so good about having a four-CD set? I don’t remember what to expect, even now. I remember thinking, “Wait, isn’t this where I go into G major? How will I get there? When does that happen? And then how does it get funky from where I am at this point?” And yet it all makes sense. That’s why I had to release all four of them. I had to convince Manfred of that.

Since your return to solo performance, you’ve played concerts full of short pieces, rather than this earlier long-form model. What’s lost and what’s gained in that shift?
I don’t know how many hundreds of concerts I’ve played, but every now and then I think, “I have to change something.” Nothing in the music itself, but something. And there was a time when I would build something from a sort of graceful place. And softer. My recent concerts, it’s the other side of the universe.

Does it lessen the pressure when you play those discrete pieces, because you don’t have to think as much about transitions or a larger structure?
Not really, because I’m a human being, and after I hear a certain amount of something I say to myself, “OK, that’s enough, maybe.” But then what should be next? That problem goes away if I keep playing, and it’s caused me more grief than I would’ve expected since I began playing the shorter pieces. Only one out of my eight recent concerts strikes me as a
possibility to release.

In your liner notes you allude to the fact that 1996 was before the ubiquity of our device culture, and our age of distraction.

Could you elaborate on the difference that has made, just in the quality of the listening among audiences?
That’s a very good question. I probably forced myself never to think about it. [laughs] I know I’m sitting in a room with other human beings who are trying to concentrate, if I’m lucky. But they might also be human beings who have lost the ability to concentrate over any extended period of time—which, by the way, is another reason I have moved to playing separate pieces. That’s why it’s probably necessary for this release to be out. In a funny way, it’s like a good book. But not short stories. And not a thin book.

Can we talk for a moment about the spiritual aspect? How essential is that to placing this work in its context?
Very essential. It’s so essential I forgot about it. I’ve been out of that milieu, let’s call it. But I haven’t forgotten anything. It just rang the bells when I heard the music, that this is what it is to be conscious in the moment and produce something of extreme integrity. And meaningfulness. And emotion. And even funkiness. [laughs] Music is an emotional experience, and it has the ability to be a spiritual experience. I’m not trying to play religious music, and yet I hear so many kinds of deep meditation, let’s say. And deep joy.

Does this creative impulse tap into something external? Or is it really internal?
It’s internal. But it’s from vast experience, which I luckily had had by then. And not to mention, having played the piano long enough that I could un-piano-ize it. I was not being pianistic, I was saying, “What do I hear?” And if it’s a single-note thing in the right hand, played over a held-down chord in the left hand with overtones that come out depending on what notes you’re playing—to me that takes me back in some way to a time when chords didn’t exist, when polyphony didn’t exist. And because it’s so missing in the world, it’s moving to hear that.

That goes back to what you said about the overtones and the quality of the recording. One of the most fundamental religious gestures is the ringing of a gong, experiencing the spatial dimension of that sound.
Yeah. Yeah.

So for that to be a part of this listening experience, it seems to tie things together.
Yeah. There was a time when I played so many vamps at so many concerts, my ex-wife said, “You know, I don’t know if I like vamps anymore.” I knew what she meant. But when they’re really done right, there’s nothing like it. When a note is played at the right moment, you almost don’t need another note to exist, unless you find one that is calling out: “Please play me; this is the right thing.” I mean, it really was the simplicity that sold me on this music. And I don’t mean simplistic. The heart was in it, and the funky stuff was as funky as it gets.

That’s a good segue for me to ask about your trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. After more than 30 years, is it really done?
Well, I was trying to keep it together as long as I could. Jack wanted to do his own thing, and Gary was losing his hearing, to the extent that, given what we do when we’re a trio, he couldn’t actually maintain it. So it is not a trio anymore. And there was no adverse feeling, except that I was pleading with Jack: “One more tour in Europe. Please. I want to be able to tell you guys what this whole thing meant to me.” Well, I remember when Miles was pleading with Jack. [Miles voice] “Hey Jack, you know, just tell me what you want.” When it’s your group, and when you have lived and worked with those guys that long, and the music has gone that far, you don’t ever want to just drop it.

Did it leave you with a sense of loss?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. [pause] But, you know, because it was gradual, it wasn’t like suddenly something happened. It was pretty much, “We can’t do this exact thing anymore.”

Is there any place you feel you didn’t get to with the trio?
No. See, I have a basic principle, which is: I don’t want to have that be true on any level. So at this moment, if I couldn’t do any more of something, I know I already did. I don’t have goals that I haven’t met, let’s put it that way. I can see moving around inside this space that I’ve created, which is pretty vast. I could move in there forever. But I don’t feel like there’s some horribly missing piece of information that needs to be presented.

One thing that’s out of your control is the perception of your work. The legacy of your band with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, for instance, has a greater resonance now than it did 20 years ago. How aware of that do you tend to be?
I am aware of it, completely. That’s why I feel satisfied with the changes that have occurred in my career. There was always something else I was doing when something dropped off the map. At this moment that’s not true, because I don’t have a group. But I know what I’m doing with what I have.

In the last 15 years or so, there’s been a generation of new classical musicians who are much more fluent with improvisation. There’s more dialogue between artists with jazz training and classical training.

I feel like your career can’t be removed from that development. The example that you’ve set with non-idiomatic spontaneous composition, for lack of a better

No, that’s a good way of putting it.

—and just the idea that this can all live on the same continuum. Does that make sense?
Yes. I’m using what I learned, and I’m using everything I didn’t learn. [laughs] But it includes everything. What happens is, musicians find themselves in categories. As it turns out, with an incredible amount of luck and personal history that worked in my favor almost the whole time, I haven’t had to deny any of the categories. So I will touch the piano in the way a classical player would touch it, at a certain moment in an improvisation. And at another moment in that improvisation I am a wild man playing this crazy stuff, and the touch isn’t playing a role. These things can connect.

They aren’t mutually exclusive.
I mean, I kind of rejected the classical thing. First of all, my family ran out of money for teachers. But everything was working in my favor. I was listening to everything my teacher didn’t want me to hear. Then I was finding records that a buyer in a certain shop in a mall didn’t want to buy. It just ended up there in the rack. One of those was Ahmad Jamal’s white album [The Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal, 1958], and that changed my life right there. I was in a car once with Jack and Gary when I mentioned that. And they said, “You too?” We all had had the exact same experience with that album.

Do you listen to any pianists who have clearly been in the woodshed with your music?
I haven’t heard them. I purposefully don’t hear them if they have that rep. That may be a problem with the media age by itself. There’s too much information, and information can’t lead to knowledge. It bothers me that people are trying to emulate other people. What happened to tenor saxophonists after Coltrane died was a sin, really.

Can you elaborate on what you just said, that information cannot lead to knowledge?
Maybe I can clarify that, because I’ve never said that phrase before. Information is surface, in my opinion. You can get information about chords, you can get information about melodies. You can read scores and get information from that. But as Lester Young asked a young player, “Where is your story?” That’s what I mean by knowledge. It would be self-knowledge in that case, right? Instead of you playing your ax, you’re expressing who you are at that moment as well as you can as a musician. To do that, any amount of information is still not going to make that happen.

There’s a certain experience that’s maybe gone, in terms of becoming a jazz musician. Things are very different now than they were when you were coming up.
There’s no tribal thing. Especially if you include big bands, there was a life that a jazz player would lead that wouldn’t be quite like the life somebody else would lead that works in an office. Wouldn’t be anything like it. They’d keep different hours; they’d always be traveling. The world has somehow conspired to make that smoother, and at the same time, that means it’s harder to become real—to become real like the grass is real. Three-dimensional, in a way. And not just spit out what you learned.

Because people are gonna say, “Great! That’s fantastic, man.” And if you feel really good that they’re saying that, you probably will want to do something like that again. I had to get rid of things. I had to throw out a lot of classical yeses, in terms of how to play, and find my own voice. I wasn’t throwing them in the garbage. I was going to be able to use everything at some point. But what I mean by knowledge, it’s consciousness. Let’s put it that way. You can gain knowledge, but you can’t gain consciousness. That’s what my statement should have been. And consciousness is what I was working on in ’96. That’s the thing about this new set: I believe people could listen to this music 30, 40, 50, 60 times, and they’ll keep noticing subtler things. Unless they have a bad system, in which case I can’t do anything for you.