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Keith Jarrett, a retirement in tatters
Keith Jarrett © Daniela Yohannes / ECM Records

Keith Jarrett, a retirement in tatters

Having suffered from two strokes, the virtuoso pianist may never again return to the stages that gave birth to his legend, and where he redefined the art of improvisational jazz.

At the age of 75, Keith Jarrett announced his own death. At the end of October, in a heart-wrenching confession to the New York Times, the legendary pianist revealed to the world that his life as an artist had come to an abrupt end in 2018, after a series of strokes that left him paralysed in his left hand and brought an end to his long sensory exploration of jazz. ‘At the moment I don’t really see myself as a pianist. That’s all I can say,’ he announced, lucid, but also caustic and pained. ‘All I can hope to get back from my left hand is to eventually be able to hold a cup. Don’t bother saying “Don’t shoot the pianist” because I’ve already been shot’. The recording studios – which Keith Jarrett has long since deserted – may not miss him, but he will leave an immense void in the concert halls and festivals where the American pianist’s legend was born; where he pushed the boundaries of the possible and elevated improvisational jazz to the rank of major art form.

Improvisation with a capital ‘I’

If Herbie Hancock will be remembered for a few finely tuned hits (“Cantaloupe Island”, “Watermelon Man”, etc), Keith Jarrett will leave to posterity a totally improvised concert recorded at the age of 29 in a small Cologne hall on a winter’s evening in 1975, that have been divided into “Part I” and “Part II”. Despite the dry-sounding set-up (a man, a piano, an audience) and an opening number that lasts for more than 26 minutes, The Köln Concert has fascinated millions of listeners as it captures a virtuoso’s meanderings between jazz, baroque, and sometimes even country. It’s rather like a therapy session held in front of 1,300 people, where the unconscious takes over and dictates the soundtrack. ‘It’s as if my body, my left hand, just knows what to do. If I tell it what to play I get in its way, and I’d stop it from doing something bigger than I could ever imagine,’ explained the man who started playing the piano at the age of 3 and gave his first solo recital at 8. Improvisation, he says, ‘is like being inundated with possibilities that run through your body’.

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From Charles Lloyd to Miles Davis, his free play has fascinated the great names of jazz, who saw in the pianist’s afro and dark complexion one of their own, a brother of both sound and blood. ‘You have to be black,’ free saxophonist Ornette Coleman once told him. To which Keith Jarrett, whose parents were white, replied, ‘I know, I know, I’m working on it.’ On stage, as if in a state of trance, you can see his slender, muscular body rise up, as if possessed by a higher power, while a guttural, almost mystical song escapes from his inner being to accompany his flights of fancy on the piano. ‘When so much is going through you, to the point where you come close to feeling like you’re being strangled, you just have to make some kind of sound. Otherwise, you’re gonna die.’ Keith Jarrett often justified the sounds he made, as he people frequently asked him about them and they bothered purists.

His intimate relationship with live music has developed over the course of numerous solo albums, including the recently released Live in Budapest on his ever-faithful label ECM, as well as with two accomplices he met in 1983: double bassist Gary Peacock who died last September, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, a former partner of Miles Davis. For this trio, improvisation has always been the golden rule: no track list before going on stage but rather an intimate knowledge of the standards which then allow for an unlimited field of experimentation. In their hands “Autumn Leaves”, “My Funny Valentine” and “Someday my Prince Will Come” are crushed, kneaded and stretched to infinity, becoming virgin territory once more. In their hands, during their marvellous 1995 recording Live at the Blue Note the ballad “I Fall in Love Too Easily” becomes a river of a piece at more than 27 minutes long, seeming to traverse ages and genres and building a work around one D minor chord. ‘There’s so much music that has never been played. That’s what I’m looking for – this music that’s out there somewhere. That’s why I play concerts,’ says Jarrett, who believes that Mozart also loved to improvise. ‘We just never had the recordings,’ smiles the great lover of classical music, who has made several studio recordings of Bach.

Demanding absolutism

However, this quest for the absolute has its downsides. To achieve musical Nirvana, Keith Jarrett demands iron discipline from his audience. A cathedral-like silence must be observed during the master’s performances; neither cough nor sneeze may sully the atmosphere. And don’t even mention the flash of a camera. In 2007, at the Umbria festival in Italy, the pianist exploded in anger before he’d even started playing. ‘I don’t speak Italian, but those who speak English can tell those assholes with their fucking cameras to turn them off now,’ he said to a disbelieving audience who had at first thought he was joking. ‘If we still see lights, I reserve the right to stop playing and leave this damn city,’ Jarrett continued, putting his cards on the table. There’s another live music aficionado who also demanded that his audience keep their mobile phones at a safe distance during his concerts: Prince.

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Over the years, this perfectionism fed a reputation of that of an unbearable diva; an arrogant and distant artist, who was using and abusing his already fragile body. ‘Audiences think I don’t like them, but the reality is that I need them more than any other artist live artist’ says Jarrett, who believes in the sacred nature of a live concert, where the invisible link that unites artist and audience has an impact on the creative work that’s taking place. It isn’t unusual for his live albums to feature long minutes of applause at the end of tracks – a testament either to the contribution of the audience, or to Jarrett’s narcissism, according to his detractors. ‘I just need the audience to do a few simple things in order to concentrate,’ argues the pianist.

The acoustics, the size of the stage and, of course, the model of the piano must also find favour in the eyes of the master. The Köln Concert almost never happened because the technical team made an unforgivable mistake: instead of a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial, they brought a much smaller and – horror upon horror – badly tuned piano on stage. It took several hours of negotiation and tinkering before Jarrett finally agreed to play. Unlike his contemporaries such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett remained faithful to the acoustic piano. Only Miles Davis convinced him to convert, during a short jazz-funk collaboration in the 1970s, to electronic keyboards, which he despised and never considered as anything more than just ‘toys’. ‘Even when I was playing electric piano with Miles Davis, my brain was trying to say to me “it’s OK” even when it wasn’t. But I was playing with Miles, and that’s all that mattered,’ he has said.

Now holed up in his house in New Jersey, Keith Jarrett must once again improvise, this time far from the concert halls, in order to avoid paralysis of his left hand – the hand that sets the tempo and defines the bass. ‘I can only play with my right hand, but that doesn’t satisfy me at all,’ he said in an interview with the New York Times, where he expressed with a panicky fear that his sensual relationship with his audiences might be lost forever. ‘At the moment I can’t even talk about it…

Keith Jarrett – Live in Norway 1972 (Full Concert)
Keith Jarrett playing. Footage from “Keith Jarrett: Last Solo”. Tokyo ’84 Encore.