ROOM FOR IM­PROV

To ex­pe­ri­ence the cre­ative rush of Keith Jar­rett is to ap­pre­ci­ate the frag­ile in­ti­macy that de­vel­ops be­tween au­di­ence and per­former, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

IT was a Fri­day night in Cologne, and ev­ery­thing was go­ing wrong. Keith Jar­rett, not yet 30 and al­ready known for his elec­tric ex­per­i­ments with Miles Davis, was feel­ing aw­ful. He had come to play a con­cert of solo piano, and even though it was be­ing recorded it wasn’t clear whether there would be a show at all.

He had hardly slept the pre­vi­ous night. He had spent the day on the road. At the venue, all seemed fine ex­cept for one de­tail. Jar­rett’s re­quest for a Stein­way had been ig­nored and the piano pro­vided sounded “like a very poor im­i­ta­tion of a harp­si­chord or a piano with tacks in it”. The clock was tick­ing.

Jar­rett and the boss of his record la­bel, Man­fred Eicher, dashed off to eat at an Ital­ian restau­rant. The food was late, the restau­rant was hot, and when Jar­rett walked out on stage a few min­utes later, hav­ing quickly gulped down his meal, he was fall­ing asleep. Then he be­gan to play. His per­for­mance that evening, Jan­uary 24, 1975, be­came known as the Koln Con­cert. It has sold more than three mil­lion records, a re­mark­able fig­ure for im­pro­vised piano mu­sic, and is gen­er­ally re­garded as Jar­rett’s most suc­cess­ful al­bum. Some of his other al­bums may scale greater heights from an artis­tic point of view, but there’s some­thing about this one that res­onates to all kinds of lis­ten­ers.

A few min­utes in, and it’s clear some­thing spe­cial is hap­pen­ing: the mu­sic has a warmth that is wel­com­ing, and within the folds of a vir­tu­oso at work is a folkie sense of aban­don and charm and mu­si­cal sto­ry­telling of the high­est or­der. It makes it even more re­mark­able to con­sider the fric­tions be­hind the scenes, how Jar­rett pro­duced 70 min­utes of magic de­spite all that dis­com­fort. The con­di­tions could hardly have been worse; he plays mostly in the mid­dle reg­is­ter be­cause the rest of the piano sounds so tinny, but still pulls it off. His bi­og­ra­pher, Ian Carr, says Jar­rett was tak­ing refuge in mu­sic from ex­ter­nal stresses. Or maybe he just got lucky and played well de­spite ev­ery­thing.

All this is rel­e­vant when you con­sider what has taken place in sub­se­quent years. A child prodigy, a mas­ter of the jazz and clas­si­cal realms whose im­pro­vised con­certs have a de­voted fol­low­ing around the world, 69-year-old Jar­rett also has be­come known for his in­tol­er­ance for sub-par per­for­mance con­di­tions. His con­certs come with rules that go well be­yond the qual­ity of the acous­tic and a reg­u­larly tuned (Stein­way) piano. The au­di­ence is bound to spe­cific stan­dards of be­hav­iour: no pho­to­graphs, no cough­ing. In other words, ab­so­lute si­lence.

When this com­pact breaks down, the re­sults can be dis­as­trous. In 2007, Jar­rett be­came ex­as­per­ated in Peru­gia, where he was play­ing with his trio as part of the Um­bria jazz fes­ti­val. It was an out­door venue, and Jar­rett shouted at the au­di­ence to stop tak­ing pho­tos. He called them ass­holes. Or­gan­is­ers banned him from the fes­ti­val, only to in­vite the trio back last year. By all ac­counts, that show was equally bizarre. Spot­ting some­one tak­ing pho­tos, Jar­rett de­manded the lights be low­ered, and the trio played two sets in near dark­ness.

It’s easy to mock this stuff, and Jar­rett does him­self no favours with his of­ten im­pe­ri­ous man­ner. His an­tics mean no Aus­tralian pro­moter would want to take the risk of bring­ing him to town (even if that were an op­tion: Jar­rett is un­likely to want to make the long trip). Few per­form­ers com­mand such rev­er­ence on stage. Even the most for­giv­ing fans roll their eyes when he starts to com­plain — yet they keep go­ing back, again and again. I know this be­cause I was there in Peru­gia in 2007, hav­ing trav­elled across the world for a con­cert spoiled by ar­gu­ments with the crowd. Five years later, I flew to Ja­pan to hear him play solo piano. It was a trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, so last month I went back to Ja­pan for more, only to find my­self watch­ing, yet again, an­other melt­down.

Be­fore con­demn­ing Jar­rett as pre­cious or pre­ten­tious, per­haps we should pause to con­sider the broader pic­ture. These con­certs raise sub­tle but im­por­tant ques­tions about the na­ture of live per­for­mance, the process of im­pro­vi­sa­tion and the ex­tent to which au­di­ences and artists can rea­son­ably make de­mands of each other. How do you de­fine that re­la­tion­ship be­tween him and us? Is Jar­rett an en­ter­tainer, a ser­vant to a pay­ing au­di­ence? Or does the bal­ance fall the other way, where the priv­i­lege is ours to hear him play?

The sec­ond stop on his Ja­panese tour this year was Osaka. Ex­pec­ta­tions were high: be­fore the show, au­di­ence mem­bers even lined up to take pho­tos of the poster out­side the venue. His first piece was thrilling. It lasted about 20 min­utes, and con­tained traces of Rus­sian clas­si­cal styles in his elab­o­rate com­po­si­tion. But then the cough­ing started, and Jar­rett lost his con­cen­tra­tion. There were false starts. He walked off the stage. He pre­tended to cough on the piano. He played chop­sticks. Af­ter an au­di­ence mem­ber called out some­thing about the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of ge­nius, he re­turned to the stage and said: “Find me a ge­nius who isn’t dis­tracted. You won’t. I’m only hu­man.” False starts and in­ter­rup­tions and coughs con­tin­ued. The at­mos­phere was gone, and Jar­rett set­tled into first gear to round off the show. His ver­sion of first gear hap­pens to be pretty re­mark­able, but the an­gry crowd that de­manded an­swers at the of­fice door af­ter the show clearly felt cheated.

Three days later, in Tokyo, was an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. Word had trav­elled from Osaka: the woman next to me ner­vously drink­ing cough syrup be­fore the show, the an­nounce­ment in two lan­guages ask­ing us to stay silent and not to cough. The au­di­ence obliged, and it was im­pres­sive to hear sev­eral thou­sand people barely mov­ing, barely breath­ing, for two hours.

Jar­rett re­turned the favour with an in­spired ex­plo­sion of cre­ativ­ity — and four en­cores. It felt like he was in the zone. There were fren­zied flights of pas­sion up and down the key­board, mo­ments of yearn­ing, mo­ments of whimsy, pas­sages of deep gospel grove and an­gu­lar at­tacks. Sev­eral seg­ments were brought to an end as soon as ideas had run their course. I held my breath dur­ing si­lences and savoured the lot: the har­monies, the atonal­i­ties, the way he let his left hand dance, how he ca­ressed the up­per notes of the piano, how he let notes ring out around the room. Jar­rett’s reper­toire has broad­ened con­sid­er­ably since the 70s, and he drew on mul­ti­ple tra­di­tions and styles to take us on a mag­i­cal odyssey that ex­tended for more than two hours.

And it’s here, in the na­ture of the mu­sic, and the process be­hind it, where some in­sights into his be­hav­iour can be found. For this is not jazz, where im­pro­vi­sa­tion takes place over a spe­cific frame­work, nor is the con­text a clas­si­cal one, where per­form­ers tend to in­ter­pret the notes of oth­ers. Jar­rett is unique in his abil­ity to pro­duce in­stant com­po­si­tion at this level with such el­e­gance and crafts­man­ship.

He has spo­ken about how he tries to achieve a med­i­ta­tive state in these con­certs, to clear his mind be­fore play­ing. There’s an alchemy at work, to be sure, and the de­mands on the per­former, men­tally and phys­i­cally, are im­mense. And Jar­rett re­mains ut­terly ex­posed, cre­atively, from be­gin­ning to end.

In 2006, he gave a re­veal­ing in­ter­view to The New York Times to co­in­cide with the re­lease of The Carnegie Hall Con­cert, a solo al­bum. Asked about au­di­ence in­ter­rup­tions, he said it was like be­ing com­mis­sioned to dive into wa­ter and then, as you de­scend, you panic as air gets into the mask: “It’s not a per­son­al­ity fail­ure on my part.” He went on to say of the Carnegie Hall per­for­mance that the au­di­ence was a part of the mu­sic, and al­ways is. “There was a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the au­di­ence and my­self over the en­tire span of my ca­reer,” he said.

It’s true. From the au­di­ence, there are times when you feel right up there with him, sit­ting by his side as he searches in the dark for what to play next. Ours is a highly strung in­ti­macy that makes it rel­a­tively easy to trip him up with a cough, a rus­tle of paper or, god for­bid, the flash of a cam­era. So per­haps, for us, the price for ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the cre­ative rush is the ac­knowl­edg­ment that some­times this bal­ance will be off, and that the thread will break away.

With Jar­rett, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween au­di­ence and per­former is tense but vi­tal. Jar­rett knows this, too. Why else would he keep invit­ing us to join him? It’s the rea­son most of his solo al­bums are recorded in front of an au­di­ence. The record­ings, af­ter all, are only of sec­ondary im­por­tance, since they can never repli­cate what it’s like to be there, as wit­ness to the ephe­meral magic of spon­ta­neous com­po­si­tion. It meant I was right up with him, close to the stage in Tokyo last month, as he searched his mind af­ter play­ing two sets of mu­sic. He stood blank for a few sec­onds, looked at the au­di­ence, then turned back to the piano. Still stand­ing, he leaned in­side and whis­pered to the strings: “What next?”

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