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Keith Jarrett: Whisper Not

Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett

In any conversation about music, bringing up pianist Keith Jarrett’s name is sure to stir up a lively debate. The 58-year-old has appeared on more than 130 recordings, which range from him playing electric jazz-fusion music with Miles Davis to improvising marathon solo concerts. It was during these concerts that he began to explore every possible way to extract different sounds from the piano, including plucking the strings in a harplike fashion and slapping on the wood with the palms of his hands as if it were a conga drum. His 1975 solo recording The Köln Concert drew millions of new fans for Jarrett and still stands out as a musical milestone from that era.

In 1983, he formed his Standards Trio, with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, which just finished celebrating its 20th anniversary of exploring the Great American Songbook, topped off by the scintillating album Up for It: Live in Juan-les-Pins (ECM)

Starting in the late ’80s, he expanded his musical horizons even more by releasing a series of acclaimed classical recordings, which include Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Goldberg Variations, several Mozart piano concertos and the daunting Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. Since it’s doubtful that very many full-time classical players, let alone jazz players, have learned this much European music, I opened our conversation by asking how he felt about the experience.

JT: You have been described as a musical ecstatic. Can you achieve this state while playing classical music like you can in jazz?

Jarrett: Classical music is kind of barren in that respect. I don’t think classical players are changed by the music they play. First of all, the music is already old, and even if it’s new, it’s old. Somebody has been poring over it, rewriting it, erasing it-by the time the music is rehearsed and played, it represents a time that is gone. As a jazz player, you’re asked to do the opposite. You’re asked to be emotionally fluid, like a liquid, and that’s what we are anyway-we’re 98 percent liquid. Because of that, a jazz player can get life-affirming or life-changing experiences that a classical player cannot.

I have never seen a classical player who’s happy. Usually they talk so fast that it’s hard for me to believe that there’s any part of them that’s relaxed! I personally think that the stress of learning and interpreting that music is greater than the rewards.

JT: You’ve expressed distaste for electric instruments. Yet ever since the voice ceased to be the only instrument, we’ve come to rely on a whole factory of machines to produce musical sounds. Certainly your instrument, the piano, is probably the biggest, most unwieldy device of all. How do you determine the line that separates an “acceptable” machine from one that is not?

Jarrett: The line is, when the string is touched or the air moves through the instrument, does the sound go directly into the air at that point? Is the sound a direct product of the human touch? To cite an example: on the harpsichord, there was no way to control the volume. The reason the piano was developed was so the player had the option of hitting the keys with more or less force to change the volume. In other words, the player would have more physical input, not less. This is the opposite of what a volume control on a synthesizer does to a player. On the piano, you use more muscles in different ways to create a sort of full-body interaction with the music. On synthesizers, where touch-sensitive keys are largely replaced by simple volume sliders or pedals, it would probably be better if you just hung your arms from a wire, like a linear-tracking turntable, and just played with your fingertips! [Laughs]

JT: I’ve always felt that out of the three great jazz pianists of your generation that tried electric keyboards-I’m referring to you, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea-that the other two really dropped the ball because they got hung up on those synthesizers. You’re the only one that followed through with the piano.

Jarrett: Well, I learned from their mistakes. I had the experience they ended up having on synthesizers, but I noticed it earlier. When we first toy around with something new, especially guys-us toy guys-it’s always momentarily fascinating. It’s like, “Wow, an electric piano!” So you go and play it, and the sooner you recognize the bad effect it will have on your hands, the less likely it is that you’re going to sell your soul to the wrong dealer. It was clear to me that, the moment I touched an electric piano, that it was a toy, not a real instrument. Even when I played electric piano with Miles Davis, my brain was trying to say it was OK, even though it wasn’t, and that could have been like a toxin working on my body. I never allowed that to even begin, I was with Miles, that’s all.

JT: So, you were a disembodied spirit, just connecting with the fact that Miles was playing in front of you?

Jarrett: That’s exactly right.

JT: I think that Facing You [ECM, 1971] is still one of your best recordings. I believe you were on the road with Miles in Europe, playing electric instruments, and you took a day off to fly somewhere and record it. How did you go from playing those “toys,” as you called them, to create such a pianistic and spiritual event? It sounded like it came from another planet!

Jarrett: It was because my heart was always there in the first place. I never made that trade-off that Chick and Herbie did. Miles was constantly after me to join the band, but I didn’t like the way the group was at that time. They all played like they were in little closets: Herbie played like Herbie, Wayne [Shorter] played like Wayne and everybody was in these little rooms by themselves.

Miles would be out there playing these beautiful things, but he was only playing very short solos, then he would leave the stage a lot too. So, I thought, “If I could get him to stay on the stage and play longer, if I could help him get more enjoyment out of the music,” then I would play any instrument with him, because nobody is going to play like that again, ever. So I knew, before I joined the band, that I would make a big sacrifice by playing electric keyboards, but it would only be for a short time.

JT: You grew up in the 1960s during all of the social upheaval and even participated in some of the musical changes when you were with Miles and also saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Do you feel any irony, or perhaps like you’re in a time warp, because you are now revisiting the Great American Songbook?

Jarrett: Well, what’s considered radical can only be related to what’s happening in the world at any given time. When the trio started in 1983, it was a radical idea to play standard tunes-almost no one was doing it anymore. When you made a recording with a band, there was an unspoken message that it had to be new music.

As a matter of fact, Gary Peacock was shocked at what I said at dinner, the night before our first trio recording session. He had been assuming that we would play new music. When I said that I wanted to do standards, his mouth dropped open and he looked like he had suffered a loss of hearing-he couldn’t figure out why I would want to do something like that. So, there’s really nothing that’s new or radical, it just depends on the context in which it’s presented.

Also, if you think about what I did before 1983 [during the avant-garde jazz era], it’s apparent that one thing that I didn’t get to do was swing! I loved the avant-garde, but there was one unspoken thing about it: you weren’t supposed to swing very often. That’s the problem with labeling something: You close off some possibilities. Free-form jazz players thought they were breaking away from musical restraints, but how really “free” were they when, by tacit agreement, they were not allowed to swing?

One night, not long ago, we finished playing a set and were coming off the stage when Gary Peacock made the sign of the cross at me and said, “Don’t come any closer!” I asked what he was talking about and he said, “Once, when I was with Miles Davis, I thought I’d played music that swung as hard as anything I’d ever heard-but we just beat that by light-years!” [Laughs]

So, in the Standards Trio, we come to the music as open-minded players, not with a set agenda or as nostalgic refiners of some old arrangement or style.

JT: Well, that’s a kind of freedom too, right?

Jarrett: Right. In fact, in a recent interview, without me having to lead them there, the interviewer said, “Oh, that’s the same then: playing free and playing standards.” [Laughs] We truly have the same freedom as if we were playing free jazz.

Another reason I play with a trio is that we’re dealing with all the elements. Because there are drums, there’s a jazz edge to the thing, there’s a modernity there that will fit anything. If I did solo concerts, they might be seen as nostalgic. When you walk on stage with a totally empty mind preparing to improvise all new [solo] music, the audience’s input is extremely important. I’m not sure of today’s audiences from that point of view. I have a feeling they wouldn’t be sure either! [Laughs]

JT: Well, maybe they would treat it like one of those Peter, Paul and Mary reunions you see on PBS television.

Jarrett: Yeah, that’s what I mean.

JT: There is a perception that you are being temperamental or touchy, because you might get irritated when someone in the audience coughs. Yet another perception comes when one listens to your music, which is often deeply serene and profound and emotionally mature. Do you feel like you’re misunderstood?

Jarrett: Oh, sure-to the point where it’s hilarious now. How many decades does it take for people to finally decide, “Maybe he’s gotta do these things.” [Laughs] The thing about being seen as difficult is that, it’s all relative. I’ve been considered difficult only because I wanted a good piano, and no one else in jazz ever asked for one! You might look at it like this-maybe the reason so few jazz pianists had a “good” touch, was that they never even met a good piano. We don’t even know what they might have done with a good instrument.

At one point, I was wearing enough musical hats where, because I didn’t need the bread, I didn’t have to worry anymore about playing every single night. So I started thinking, “What do I need? What improvements are necessary to deliver to the audience the things that I do, and in the best possible light?” And the audiences, almost without exception, were offended when I gave them that information. [Laughs]

I once played a solo concert at the Oberlin Conservatory. After the sound check I decided that I was going to have to make an announcement during the concert about this bad piano they provided. I thought, if this is the instrument people come through here and play on, the students, who are sitting here listening and paying money to the school, should know that the school needs a good piano.

So I got nothing but flak because I mentioned it. My reputation came from the fact that I was trying to correct things that would be getting in the way of what the audience came to hear.

JT: You once said something to effect that what made bebop what it was is that the originators, like Charlie Parker, didn’t “know” they were playing bop. By that, I assume that you meant that they didn’t know where the edges were yet-styles weren’t put into little boxes like the “Young Fogies” tend to do today. Did you also mean that Bird and Dizzy perhaps had a different sensibility because they listened to Verdi and Stravinsky and, apparently, had no musical boundaries?

Jarrett: That’s not what I meant at the time, but what you said is just as valid. I think what I meant was that because they didn’t call it anything, they were more free to do it. The trouble with attaching a label to something is, you just sent away a bunch of other things. The Young Fogies you mentioned haven’t even learned how to call anything by name yet. [Laughs]

JT: Words can do so much to limit your thinking or to expand your thinking. It seems ironic that, for the past 50 years, all of these various cats have been let out of the musical bag, and now politically oriented musicians are running around trying to put them back in-and telling everybody that a lot of things never happened.

Jarrett: Well, they don’t know what they’re doing and, in a way, that makes too much sense in the world today. It’s like, let’s all be blind together because that’s the way the world is supposed to be right now.

JT: Some of your improvised works turned out to be masterpieces. I know that there are concert pianists who would love to program some of those. Have you considered having them transcribed and published?

Jarrett: Well, The Koln Concert does exist in printed form. Putting it all together was an ordeal that I wouldn’t want to go through again soon. The guy who did the transcription was amazing, but I had to spend all of my time at one point overseeing the whole project.

Sometimes we couldn’t even get close to the reality of the music because there would be floating rhythms or “ghosted” notes in the middle of an improvisation. I had endless back-and-forth conferences with the transcriber because, sometimes, there might be no time signature, or if there was, it was wrong. I mean, how does one use a clunky old European notation system to portray emotional states?

In the end, we printed a caveat at the beginning of the book saying, “If you really want to know what this is, you’re going to have to listen to the record.” Anyway, ever since the book came out, I haven’t gotten quite as many requests to do that kind of project again. [Laughs] Nor have I seen what I thought would be the funny result of having someone record it! Then, at one point, I even had the great idea that I should record the printed version. [Laughs] I actually started to practice it and said, “Oh man, I hate half of it and barely like the other 50 percent!” So I gave up that idea.

JT: A lot of jazz players merely make intelligent use of what’s already in their hands. Their chops contain musical wherewithal and they quote from that wherewithal. In other words, their chops are playing them, instead of the other way around. How do you get past physical things and go beyond what one “should” be able to improvise?

Jarrett: Well, to quote something I read once: “The longing for it has to be ferocious enough.” That’s it-that’s the difference.

There is this man who used to come to a lot of my concerts, and he was trying to develop a theory of my improvising. He noticed these spots in the music that seemed to be purely creative spots: they didn’t seem to be related to anything and didn’t come from anything he could put his finger on. What he did notice, after coming to a lot of concerts, was that during these creative sections, I wasn’t using any logical fingering. He told me, “The only thing I can figure out is, whatever is happening is faster than your ability to come up with any fingerings.” And I told him that he was exactly right.

When your hand is lying on the keyboard and you are trying to be pianistic-that is, using logical fingerings-you are ruling out a lot of what I do. And, that is where the ferocious longing makes up for it.

There is this book called New Pathways to Piano Technique and it’s about willing notes to be played, if you can hear them. You are eliminating the hands as a restriction. But if your hearing is strong enough, and you don’t risk failing, then your chops are always going to be in charge of you.

JT: It’s ironic that, as an educator, I tell the students that they should amass a lot of knowledge so they can let go of it later.

Jarrett: Yeah, that’s right. But you’re never really letting go of it the way people let go of a kite. You’re letting the kite go higher than is possibly safe, but you’ve still got your hand on the string.

JT: In the 1970s, your solo, concerts had a very strong cultural resonance. But now, we’re in a different era, surrounded by format-oriented, pop-music radio stations and a new generation of jazz players who seem capable of only looking backwards. Have your own audiences changed much over the 30 years?

Jarrett: Recently, since I narrowed my focus down to just playing with the trio, we’ve had the best audiences in sequence-that is, concert after concert-that we’ve ever had. I can only guess that there’s hunger for good things out there-maybe even more than in the 1970s. As you implied in your question, there are things going on in the world that make it more difficult for musicians today. One wonders if music is even important anymore, and that is a question that a musician in the 1960s or ’70s would not wonder about.

Today for me, the trio is a little island in a vast, barren place, and on this island, there is still vegetation. On any night, just before we’re about to play a concert, I still feel the pressures of the world. But when we go out to play, it’s almost a guarantee that the island is still there. That’s our job-the job of taking care of the vegetation on that island. Originally Published