Keith Jarrett returns to Carnegie with his singular piano improvisations

by Howard Mandel

Keith Jarrett’s advertised program for his Jan. 16 Carnegie Hall concert is pretty basic: Keith Jarrett, piano. That’s all there is and all you need to know—because if you’ve heard (or heard of) Jarrett, it means a lot. Few instrumentalists today limit their promises and so define their audiences’ expectations to the simple fact they will engage with their instruments. Jarrett is the most famous and popular of those who do.

At age 65, he is a rhapsodist extraordinaire, arguably a 19th-century role, but one for which he’s long been aiming. Next November is the 40th anniversary of the recording of Facing You, Jarrett’s first mostly improvised solo album, which cut the path he’s traveled ever since.

Back in ’71, Facing You established the slight but intensely physical Pennsylvanian, whose cloud of frizzy hair confused audiences about his Scots-Hungarian ancestry, as a romanticist with a fine touch. Jarrett uniquely corralled unplanned sequences of gospel chords, wandering bass lines and perfectly articulated chromatic runs into highly personal statements that were as unpredictably plotted as dreams, but ached with longing and resolved in release. The album was studiously non-commercial, yet quite the success. It founded the fortunes of then-tiny ECM Records, which has subsequently released 65 albums by Keith Jarrett.

His sound, beautifully recorded, was a far cry from the breakthrough pianism of those days, characterized by the crashing, splashing fourths of McCoy Tyner, the majestic atonal assaults of Cecil Taylor and the multi-keyboard electronics of Joe Zawinul, Sun Ra and Jan Hammer. It was more akin to what grand piano virtuosi Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were doing, and Jarrett came from their same finishing school, run by talent scout Miles Davis.

He’d attended Berklee College of Music, tinkled in cocktail lounges, worked in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and forged a friendship with drummer Jack DeJohnette that led him into saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s quartet, where his fervent flow of ideas had won him considerable notice.Under Davis’ direction, Jarrett was relegated to electric piano or organ. He’d duetted (or dueled) with Hancock and Corea, all using goosed-up gear, on Live-Evil. On the DVD Miles Electric: Another Kind of Blue, Corea and Jarrett sit on opposite sides of the stage, while Davis whinnies through “Call It Anything,” a 38-minute virtually free improv that stoked the estimated 600,000 listeners at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.

Corea looks thoughtful, but Jarrett scrunches up his face as if in pain. He’s famously expressive while playing, sometimes rising from his bench to stomp or sway, often vocalizing under his breath along with his finger work. Over the past four decades, he’s performed and recorded on organ, clavichord and harpsichord, essayed compositions by Bach, Mozart, Gurdjieff and Lou Harrison, been accompanied by and written for orchestra, brass and string ensembles and led acclaimed American and European jazz quartets. But he’s never returned to electric instruments.

Despite Jarrett’s larger efforts, his “classical” compositions, his book of original jazz songs, ongoing trio performances of standards and gorgeous duet album Jasmine with bassist Charlie Haden issued last year, it’s his solo, all-improvised concerts—like the one planned for Carnegie Hall—that are his greatest art. As he told me during a 2009 interview “Someone I was talking to said, ‘Those are hard things, right? Why are you doing them?’ I said, ‘I don’t understand the question. Yes, they’re hard. I almost die sometimes doing them. But why am I doing them? This is what I do. This is who I am.’”

As he went on to explain: “It’s a ritual that I sort of invented, and also a bio-feedback mechanism for me. I don’t actually know how I’m doing sometimes until I hear what just came out from my hands, and then I realize I shouldn’t stop… Recently, it seems I open my concerts with something abstract because I don’t want to play a sound I know. I want my hands to play something and I want to be surprised. The very first sound has to be surprising. Wherever that goes, I’m monitoring the situation but don’t try to control it much… The music itself suggests to me there’s more to do, each time. An ending may sound like it’s invented ahead of time, but it hasn’t been. It happens all by itself.”

Not quite. Paris/London: Testament, Jarrett’s most recent solo live document of concerts from fall ’08, comprises more complexity, density, fleetness and contrasts than earlier outings. His artistry has matured; he’s earned it and lets it show. Which is what people come to experience: a musician of enormous scope, starting with nothing, making it up in the moment. Call it Keith Jarrett, piano.