Architect of Thought: New Recordings from Keith Jarrett Document a Spectacular Creative Journey

Keith Jarrett "La Fenice" Out on October 16

Ever wonder why each of the 20 solo piano albums by Keith Jarrett since Facing You, his 1971 ECM debut, has documented a live concert performance? In a 2001 conversation, Jarrett explained the reason.

“I hate studios,” he told me. “There’s too many wires, too many light-stands, too much metal. The control room and the speakers are usually worse than the ones I have in my house. Most of the time I feel that what I do is for a public that’s actually in the space.”

The majority of Jarrett’s ECM releases in recent years are solo, including his paired 2020 releases, Munich 2016 and Budapest 2016. But his corpus is extravagantly comprehensive. Another 21 albums feature Jarrett’s super trio with the late bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, which disbanded in November 2014. ECM’s Jarrett catalogue also includes his original compositions for baroque organ, clavichord, harpsichord, string quartet and the trio, and interpretations of the keyboard music of Bach, Mozart, Handel, Shostakovich and Arvo Pärt. During the ’70s, Jarrett also led and composed enduring books of music for the “European” Quartet, comprising Scandinavian musicians Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, and the “American” Quartet (which recorded for Impulse!), in which Jarrett added Dewey Redman to his cusp-of-the-’70s trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.

I’m drawn more to Jarrett’s ensemble projects than the solo concert albums between 1973 and 1996, when he earned international celebrity through early forays as Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne, the million-selling Köln Concert, and The Sun Bear Concerts, and sustained it on mid-career highlights like Vienna Concert and La Scala. Personal taste aside, however, Jarrett’s ability to scratch-improvise cogent musical architecture alone on stage for long durations is sui generis and objectively spectacular.

Jarrett’s immense crossover popularity came without a corresponding dip in peer-group respect — pianists in the jazz and classical arenas consider him gold standard for a variety of reasons. Eicher himself praised “his phrasing, touch, quality of suspension, way of rubato playing and the influences from Chopin and Debussy that I grew up with as a European.” Others appreciate the bottomless well of melodic variations and ingenious rhythmic formulations that infuse Jarrett’s improvisations, and the seemingly infallible chops with which he executes them. Still, it’s arguable that Jarrett’s most enduring influence lies less in his pianistic wizardry than the expansive compositional strategies that he put forth in the quartets.

I’m much more appreciative of Jarrett’s solo corpus after 2002, when he returned to that platform after a self-imposed hiatus while recovering from the debilitating effects of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. On the concerts that generated Resonance, followed by The Carnegie Hall Concert, La Fenice, Paris/London – Testament, Rio, and Creation, the music is more complex, more inclusive, reflecting a remark he made to writer Nate Chinen in 2017: “I’m using what I learned, and I’m using everything I didn’t learn… I haven’t had to deny any of [my] categories.”

Keith Jarrett, Italy, 2006 (© Roberto Masotti/ECM Records)

In 2010, Jarrett told me that his initial forays into playing with the trio when afflicted with CFS allowed him “to get rid of a lot of habit patterns.” He continued: “I was broadening the palette of my left hand.  I realized jazz pianists don’t do their left hand. It gets to be just like an appendage. When they do solo albums, typically what you hear is, ‘Where’s the bass? I’m waiting for the rhythm section.’ Only recently did I become a good enough player to use both hands properly under those circumstances.”

In the process, Jarrett morphed his solo aesthetic away from grandiose expansiveness towards (relative) brevity and concision. Munich 2016 and Budapest 2016, recorded two weeks apart during a fruitful European summer tour, mark the most recent instantiations of this shift. Each album comprises a de facto suite of 12 immaculately executed, melodically rich, formally cohesive movements for which, as Jarrett once put it, he “dredged up stuff from nowhere, or seemingly nowhere.”

The raw materials reference elements culled from his entire recorded corpus — blues, gospel, folk-song, vocabulary culled from a broad swath of the Euro-canon, pensive tone poems articulated with classical touch, fierce polyrhythmic explorations that exemplify the notion that a piano can constitute 88 tuned drums. On both albums, Jarrett offers “standards” as encores — deliberately paced, achingly melodic readings of the ballads “It’s A Lonesome Old Town” and “Answer Me.”

Now 75, Jarrett retired from public performance in 2018. He has recorded everything, and ECM will have an embarrassment of riches to select from in years to come. That said, if Jarrett doesn’t rescind his retirement (and anything is possible), Munich 2016 and Budapest 2016 should stand as lodestars of the late-career artistic production of a musical genius who took no shortcuts and didn’t stint in the course of his creative journey.

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