Play like you think it’s going to be the last time. That’s the only way to play.
– Keith Jarrett
Precisely one week after the atrocities began in Paris we were in the Royal Festival Hall watching Keith Jarrett give one of his most intense and impassioned solo performances. Hunched over the Steinway, his face at times just inches from the keys, the man in the single spotlight and all of us gathered together to hear him play represented everything that the killers seek to destroy – a shared pleasure in music and the freedom to mingle at peace on a Friday night with other human beings from anywhere in the world, of all faiths or none.
‘Communication is all. Being is all. People are deep, serious creatures with little to hang on to.’ So said Jarrett in the sleeve notes he wrote for Testament, the ECM release of a recording of a solo concert in this same venue in 2008.
It had been a terrible week, staring into the abyss and fearful of what the future might bring. But, as a surprisingly loquacious Keith Jarrett remarked at one point: ‘Maybe music can heal.’ And, surely, this was an evening of miraculous music.
It’s an almost impossible task – and probably pointless – to attempt to express in words the nature of a solo performance by Jarrett. The experience must be akin to being swept out into the ocean, with no certainty of where you’re heading and only the stars to guide you. By their very nature Jarrett’s totally improvised concerts are a leap into the unknown for audience and performer alike. Jim Carroll nailed it in his review of Jarrett’s Dublin concert earlier in the week:
You think of the thousands of times Keith Jarrett has sat at the piano, paused for a moment with his fingers over the keys and then started to improvise. Every time is different, every route is different, every piece is a different once-in-a-lifetime moment. Once played, once experienced, never repeated.
Why, we might ask, does Jarrett do this? After all, he turned 70 in May this year, and these are intense performances, requiring enormous reserves of concentration and energy. In one of several spoken interludes in last Friday’s show, Jarrett asked himself the same question. He paused, then offered two answers. ‘First, no one else does.’ That thought hadn’t registered with me before: but then I realised it was true. Sure, there are other pianists – such as Brad Mehldau – who do solo performances, but they are not wholly improvised in the Jarrett manner.
Keith’s second response to his query was: to do this kind of thing you have to have had 67 years of playing piano. He is, after all, the prodigy from Allentown, Pennsylvania, whose first public performance was at the age of six (he played Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and a composition of his own). ‘I grew up with the piano,’ he told his biographer, Ian Carr. ‘I learned its language as I learned to speak.’
So, just as when listening at home to ECM recordings of Jarrett’s solo performances, there were passages in which I could detect echoes of the great range and diversity of Jarrett’s influences and musical collaborations – gospel, funk and blues, New Orleans soul and Harlem stride, bebop and free jazz, Beethoven and Part, Gurdjieff and Mozart.
Jarrett also told Ian Carr, ‘I believe that a truly valuable artist must be an artist who realises the impossibility of his task … and then continues to do it.’ And there is something of that persistence against the odds in these solo adventures. Here and there I would fleetingly recognise a chord or two before Jarrett swerved off in a new direction. The mood might shift from minute to minute – from romantic lyricism to churning drama, calm introspection to rapturous joy – in startling juxtapositions as the pianist’s synapses fired, sending him leaping from one musical idea to another.
To play the thoughts taking form in your mind, to shape them on the fly so that they have every appearance of having been composed before the event is both daring and wildly ambitious. As Phil Johnson wrote in a piece in 2013 for the Independent:
With Jarrett, there may not even be a conventional tune to hide behind. Instead, what you get is a long-haul flight of sustained lyrical invention that can sound as perfectly composed as an operatic aria.
All I can say of this performance is that there, in the moment, experiencing the music in all its passion and gorgeousness, it was superb – and in the second set it just got better. In one of the breaks between the music which he said were necessary for him to uncoil himself, Jarrett told the story of the man who rushed out of one of his concerts. ‘I’m not leaving,’ he told attendants in the foyer. ‘It’s just that he’s playing chords I never knew existed’. While you are experiencing it, a Jarrett solo performance rolls out like an endless ocean, storm and calm, and ever-changing currents.
At the piano, Jarrett would sometimes bend his head sideways, close to the keys, as if listening intensely for the receding echoes of his notes, or the silences in between. At other times he would be on his feet, sashaying and stamping his feet, his body thrust forward over the piano like a charioteer. Between segments he would stand to face the audience and bow deeply, then rub his hands as if warming them before returning to the piano stool. He would stare intently at the piano keys for a moment before launching into the next segment.
Confiding in the audience, Jarrett revealed that only that afternoon he had wondered whether he would be able to play: a recurring back problem had been troubling him. But, he had played after all: ‘Perhaps music can heal,’ he said. Clearly he was pleased with the outcome. At the end of the evening he told us that at the interval he had felt that the first set had expressed everything, meaning there was no need to play more. ‘But then there would have been no second set’, he said – a recognition that the heights of the sometimes turbulent power and angularity of the first set had been exceeded by the beautiful lyricism of the second half.
In his 2013 article for the Independent, Phil Johnson commented on how Jarrett’s emotional state had affected his performance at this venue in 2008 (a recording of which was recently released by ECM):
His wife of 30 years had just left him, and he’d only agreed to the hastily arranged concerts to take his mind off the resulting depression: ‘I was in an incredibly vulnerable emotional state, but I admit to wondering if this might not be a ‘good’ thing for the music.’
Johnson also recalled how back trouble and stress nearly jinxed the performance Jarrett’s fans love most:
His most famous record, the Koln Concert of 1975, was also a product of stress. Arriving at the venue, the Cologne Opera House, after a long drive from Zurich and a week of sleepless nights due to a back ailment for which he had to wear a brace, Jarrett discovered that the correct piano had been replaced by an inferior baby grand, a rehearsal instrument. He tried to cancel the late-night concert, and only agreed to a planned recording going ahead as a “test”. It went on to shift 3.5 million copies, becoming the best-selling solo piano album ever, in any genre.
If Koln is the album fans love most, the love that surged from the audience at the Royal Festival Hall last Friday evening was truly amazing as Jarrett was brought back on stage for several encores by standing ovations and wave after wave of tumultuous applause: what one reviewer has called in the past ‘the sort of ecstasy that might greet a returning prophet.’
Smiling, Jarrett pretended he was drained of inspiration – ‘that was my entire repertoire!’ – before treating us to three (or possibly four) encores, including an exquisite rendering of ‘Danny Boy’, the only unimprovised part of the evening.
Jarrett has a reputation for his intolerance of any kind of noise or photography during his concerts. Before the concert began attendants had circulated among the audience holding up symbols for ‘no cameras, no phones’. But during the encores there was a contretemps with snappers in the front rows which led to the pianist stalking off-stage before the m-c appeared to remind everyone that there should be no cameras. Keith came back, but indulged in a short rant about intrusive snapping: ‘I don’t know what you think you have captured in those photos: it’s certainly not me, man.’ He returned to the piano stool to play an encore that was decidedly turbulent, even angry.
You have to think he’s right, though: before the show, as people took their seats, individuals crowded around the stage taking selfies and photographing the empty stage and empty piano stool. I even saw one one man photograph his ticket.
Guys – just listen to the music! It’s all in there. (Note: none of the photos used in this post were taken by me at the show.)
- Another nail in the coughin’ – An Irishman’s Diary about Keith Jarrett: witty review of last week’s Dublin concert (Irish Times)