Keith Jarrett's march to the rear

The other day the house was empty and I sat down at my sister's piano for the annual shuffle through the traditional music of Christmastime. It's a habit. I quickly tire of Christmas music and the current rage for hipness in the songs of the season as represented by such as Mannheim Steamroller doesn't whet my appetite for more. After "Silent Night," I took an aborted run at "We Three Kings Of Orient Are." Halfway through "Greensleeves," I caught myself running some riffs on the old Bee Gees' chestnut from 1967, "New York Mining Disaster 1941." I closed the keyboard lid and went for a listening session that featured Keith Jarrett.

"The Koln Concert" [ECM, 1975] has been a boon companion for a quarter-century now, so much a staple of my listening life that I neglect some of Jarrett's earlier work in favor of it. Compounding the sin, I also allow a good deal of his post-1975 production to go by, because the special intimacy of "Koln," despite its being a live recording, feeds me in ways that some of his earlier and later music doesn't.
However, that slippage is more my fault than Jarrett's. His work is consistently fine, so I gave a more careful listen to some that I haven't had in the music box for several years. And what I heard clarified a mysterious thing: I had left the piano in search of Jarrett that day because of his uncompromising retreat from the raucousness of electronics to the intimacy of the acoustic instrument that he plays with such mastery. In my confusion about my own playing, his assurance called to me.

That assurance, in the context of jazz of the past 35 years or so, represents an advance by marching backward. It has been gratifying in recent times to see similar retrenchings by Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, though their moves have been made for quite different reasons and far less peremptorily than Jarrett's. Despite that, Jarrett joins them as a member of the eclectic team of keyboardists who have influenced jazz during the past 40 years.

Jarrett's professional career has passed its 40th year, a confounding fact when one considers that he is only 56 years old. His display of early genius started with piano lessons at age 3 and led to gigging while he was still in elementary school. After some study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Jarrett made his name on the bandstands of New England, then in 1965 at age 20, he made the pilgrimage to that jazz mecca, New York City.

>From that point, his career was whirlwind of prestigious stints with some of the top players of his day, or ours: Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Charles Lloyd. During his two years with Miles, he spent time on the organ and electric keys, spending the first in company with Corea. The two of them helped forge the fusion sound that rapid was becoming the rage under the captaincy of Miles. It was during this period that Miles' "Live-Evil" [Columbia, 1970] brought Jarrett, Corea and Hancock together on a single recording. Corea and Jarrett hung around for "Miles Davis At Fillmore: Live At The Fillmore East" [Columbia, 1970], where they scrapped to an electronic draw.

The fusion experience seems to have left Jarrett a bit bloodied, or, at least, wounded in his sensibilities, and he abandoned the form he'd helped pioneer in a favor of a return to the delicate dynamics of his original instrument. From there, despite a fairly regular recording schedule that continues even 30 years later, he seemed, at least to me, missing in action. Again, that's my fault, not his.

When "Koln" was released, though, it brought Jarrett some fans that lay quite outside the usual precincts of jazz listeners, and even took him to the soundstage of the popular U.S. television show, "Saturday Night Live." Those years were heady ones, for it was during that time through the mid-1970s when Jarrett undertook to improvise his concerts. He was taking a huge risk in doing so during that era of disco schlock; it was a time when careful listening was not highly valued or practiced among the music-consuming public.

Still, the experiment was largely successful, so much so that even non-jazz fans have a picture of Jarrett on TV, grunting aloud as he wove theme after theme into a tightly-knit musical fabric, his rump raised several inches off the piano bench, his head and shoulders moving in creative transport as his musical ideas burst fully mature into the air.

His habit of running a verbal response to his own musical statements drew him considerable criticism from many who found the tic distracting. But Jarrett fired back with a barrage of criticism of his own. In pieces published in both the music and the mainstream press, he took on everyone who disagreed with him on just about anything at all. He has been particularly vocal in expressing his opinions about what he perceives as a general ignorance of musical tradition and a lack of respect for the artists who reset the boundaries of their arts.

Even in the more elite musical fraternity, he is something of an outcast because the delicacy with which he manipulates the keyboard does not carry over into his criticism. He is plainspoken and often rude. He could be called arrogant, a charge he avoids because of the considerable measure of talent he possesses.

Starting about 20 years ago, he returned to his roots in classical music and has issued a good many recordings in that genre. But a decade later he was back on the bandstand with the likes of Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock, taking his reconstituted jazz jones back to the people.

While his classical recordings are pleasant and his respect for the music is apparent in his performances, it is clear that we are listening to a master architect who is clumsy with the plumb line and the T-square. Jarrett's chops are intact with the classics; it is his soul that is missing.
But his return to smaller venues is a cause for rejoicing. His sense of drama is as nimble as his humor; his connection to the mysterious heart of jazz is firm.

"At The Deer Head Inn" [ECM, 1992] finds Jarrett in the old neighborhood. Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he was born, also was the site of his first major engagement as a jazzman, and he brought his refreshed style home on this recording, along with two old cronies, bassist Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. He even turned in some work on the soprano saxophone, an instrument with which he'd carried on a decade-long flirtation beginning in his earlier days at the side of Charles Lloyd. The standouts on this recording are Jaki Byard's bluesy "Chandra" and an intricate reassessment of Miles Davis' "Solar." Throughout, Jarrett and company never fail to surprise.

A man with a long career still in progress has ample opportunity to stun us yet again. Jarrett has the stuff for it, and his retreat from electronic enhancement to the stripped down basic sound acoustic piano is a treat for the ear. His playing, though still effusive and capable of playfulness, has a maturer sound now. That maturity works as well on his style as a finely seasoned wood works on the tone of a violin.
His considerable musical output is gratifying available. Of his several dozen recordings in both the jazz and classical genres, most are still in print, starting back in 1968 with "Somewhere Before" [Atlantic]. A variety of boxed sets and compilations, culled from the most interesting of Jarrett's jazz work, are good starting points for newcomers to his style.

For me, "The Koln Concert" continues to stand as the quintessential Keith Jarrett. Like Jarrett and his return to the acoustic piano, I want to return to that marvelous recording again and again, for it is ever fresh and still sounds many years ahead of some of the piano jazz now being produced.
But he still has far to go, many detours to explore. Because he's never led me astray, I'm willing to follow him there.