Flying Solo With Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett concerts often unfold like a running feud: with his piano, with the venue, with the acoustics, with the audience, with his own precarious emotional state.

The piano player is notoriously temperamental, thorny, moody. Jarrett is a compulsive artist, if not a perfectionist, and he can be petulant. He has singled out audience members he suspects of recording his performances (often wrongly) and has been known to stalk off the stage at the disruptive sound of coughing in the crowd—once, in Paris, with Alexander Cockburn and Alya Rea in attendance.

Like Thelonious Monk and Glenn Gould, Jarrett hums and grunts and groans as he plays, often annoying audience members more accustomed to the solemn postures of classical musicians. Like Jerry Lee Lewis, he gyrates and fidgets and squirms on his bench, emphasizing the rhythmic flow of his playing.

This is not primarily, I think, the behavior of a diva or a pampered virtuoso, though he is certainly the latter and shows tendencies of the former. Instead it is evidence of a kind of existential anxiety as the artist confronts the stark keys of the piano, waiting for inspiration to guide his hands toward unformed melodies. “I want my hands, particularly my left hand, to tell me things,” Jarrett once said of the creative experience at his solo improvisations.

His solo concerts, which he began performing in 1972, are excursions into the unknown. They are perilous long-distance improvisations without a map, each chord charge flirting with chaos, each spectral melodic run careening toward potentially fatal cliffs.

Alone on the stage, there’s nothing to fall back on. Jack DeJohnette isn’t there to drive the music through the dull patches. Gary Peacock isn’t around to shift the mood when you’ve played yourself into a thematic cul-de-sac. There are no notes on a page composed by Shostakovich or Ellington to guide you forward. It’s just you and the piano and the sounds running through your head at that precise moment. This is spontaneous music and remarkably most of it is as beautiful as it is daring.

Jarrett’s solo concerts are as close as we are likely to come to a stream-of-consciousness style in American music. At his best—Bremen and Lusanne, Köln Concert, Vienna, Radiance—Jarrett’s audacious improvisations unfurl in long Joycean cadences, expansive melodic soliloquies that shift and weave, whisper and sing, repeat and mutate, until ultimately coming together in a dazzling coherence.

“If I’m not a jazz player all the time,” Jarrett explained. “I’ve at least been cued in to what I do by jazz. Because people needed to survive, they were in the cotton fields and they sang because otherwise they would not be able to handle their lives at all. If you play music from that same position, then what you have at stake is your own survival. Which is really what I’ve been saying about solo improvisation for 30 years. It’s dangerous as hell because if you fail you feel like committing suicide.”

* * *

When I began listening to Keith Jarrett in the mid-1970s, I assumed he was black. He had a dark complexion, hair like Billy Preston and his playing blazed like a wild blend of free jazz, funk and gospel. I wasn’t alone. Ornette Coleman had the same impression.

“Are you sure you’re not black?” Ornette asked.

“Pretty sure,” Jarrett laughed.

“I don’t know, man.”

In fact, Jarrett, who grew up in Allentown, Pennsylavania, is of Hungarian and Scottish descent. He was a prodigy, who started playing piano at the age of three. He held his first recital at seven, started composing at eight and was playing for money before he entered high school. It’s said that his voice—which so many find grating at his concerts—had perfect pitch. At the age of 17, Jarrett was studying composition at the Berklee School of Music. Two years later he was in New York playing hard bop piano with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the legendary launching pad for a legion of top-notch jazz musicians in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1966 Jarrett hooked up with the Memphis tenor player, Charles Lloyd, and the young drummer Jack DeJohnette. This quintet produced one of the most progressive and influential records of the 1960s, Forest Flower, which remains a landmark of the soul jazz movement. The Lloyd Quintet was one of the first American jazz groups to play Moscow and Jarrett, in particular, developed a devoted following in Europe in his early twenties. The Lloyd group splintered in 1968 over disputes about money. Jarrett went to Paris and began playing in a nightclub with local musicians. One night Miles Davis walked into the club and sat alone in the corner, unnerving the young pianist. The next night Miles came back with his entire band. “I want these guys to hear this,” Davis rasped.

Later Miles invited Jarrett to join his fusion ensemble. Miles had gone fully electric by then and Jarrett became a reluctant pioneer in the use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano and Fender Contempo electric organ, sometimes playing both instruments at once. Jarrett’s work with Davis can be heard on three stunning live sessions: Live at the Fillmore East, The Cellar Door Sessions and Live-Evil. He plays electric organ on Get It Up With and a haunting vamp on the Fender Rhodes on a tune called “Konda,” which can now be found on the brilliant Complete Jack Johnson Sessions.

Jarrett was no devotee of electronic keyboards, but acquiesced in order to work with Davis, whom he idolized. “I can’t even tolerate my own playing on electronic keyboards,” Jarrett snapped. “It’s not about the musical ideas. The sound itself is toxic. It’s like eating plastic broccoli.”

He finally renounced the electric keyboards for good in 1972. Jarrett didn’t need any more juice. His psyche was already hot-wired, just one charge away from shorting out.

That same year Jarrett embarked on his first extended solo improvisation. The 50-minute session, recorded in a studio for ECM, was released as Facing You. Miles was reportedly stunned by the recording. “How do you play from nothing, Keith?” Davis asked Jarrett. “I don’t know,” Jarrett said. “If I knew, I’d probably be in trouble.”

In 1975, Jarrett performed an 80-minute solo improvisation at the Köln Opera House. The recording of that stunning concert became the best-selling piano album in history. I bought it immediately, as much to impress older coeds with my classy hipster tastes as for the music itself. The Köln record was reputed to radiate certain aphrodisiacal properties. The girls didn’t materialize, but the music compensated and, thirty-six years later, continues to mesmerize. For me, the Köln Concert became the music of liberation, freedom from the old strictures and formalisms. The playing has an immediacy and lyricism lacking in the tempestuous blowfests of free jazz or the cerebral, often solipsistic, pilgrimages of Cecil Taylor. It’s organic music, radiating an unflinching romanticism in an age of cynics and commercial sell-outs.

The Köln Concert was followed the next year by the sprawling Sun Bear Concerts, a 10-lp set documenting his improvised solos during a prolonged engagement in Japan. Next came the gloomy Dark Intervals and two more landmarks, the acclaimed Vienna Concert in 1991 and La Scala in 1995. The Vienna and La Scala performances reveal Jarrett’s sudden swerve into classical music, with hints of Bach, Mozart, Shostakovich and Saint-Saëns. The playing is technically proficient and often dramatic, filled with bright runs and sudden eruptions of tonal dissonance. But I find it dispassionate and emotionally remote, as if all the notes were being struck with an icy, almost thanatic precision.

Then suddenly Jarrett disappeared from view, felled by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. For several years, Jarrett was nearly homebound, restricted to his house and barn-like studio in rural New Jersey. One solo improvisation emerged from that period, the haunting, almost elegiac, Melody at Night, With You, a reinvention of jazz standards that he secretly recording as a gift to his wife.

Jarrett didn’t return to the stage for a solo concert until 2002, once again in Japan. These two performances, one in Osaka and one in Toyko, were revelations. On the recording Radiance, a new Jarrett emerges, unsheathed from his neo-classical exoskeleton, to return to the blues/jazz foundation. But it proved to be a highly experimental groundwork.

His improvisational approach is dramatically different. From Facing You to La Scala, Jarrett tended to begin with a melodic concept or theme, which then worked around, often far around, in 20 to 30 minute sets. Here the rules of engagement have changed. Now even the initial concept is meant to germinate instantaneously at the piano in a moment of Zen-like inspiration. The pieces are shorter, distinct improvisations, which nevertheless seem to flow seamlessly from one to the next. The result is a recording with an almost unbearable intimacy, where the listener hangs on each note, chasing each phrase, as the structure of the music rises level-by-level, passage-by-passage. Radiance is a dark and strange performance, at once exhausting and exhilarating, like a dream voyage to another vaguely familiar planet.

* * *

In the spring of 2011, Jarrett played two solo improvisation concerts in Brazil, one in Sao Paulo, the other in Rio de Janeiro. Jarrett was so enthralled by the performances that he phoned Manfred Eicher, head of ECM Records, from the airport before catching his flight back to the States to urge the executive to quickly release the performances as a record. This was out of character for Jarrett, who tends to pour over the tapes of his gigs for months—years in the case of Radiance—before approving their public release.

Jarrett was right to be excited. Rio is a beguiling recording, perhaps his most lyrical since Köln. The performance evolves in loosely linked segments. These aren’t songs, exactly. Neither are they variations on a theme, in the manner of the Køln concert. I would describe them with the French term pensées, which has no precise English equivalent. Call them flowing thoughts, musical impressions.

Rio opens with a squall of dark chords, pounding against each other, like a contrapuntal storm sweeping over the Amazon forest. The turbulent swirl eases, giving way to a luminous sheen of blues melodies, warm and sinuous. Jarrett’s touch is light and assured, with distinctive resonances of two of his heroes: Bill Evans and Bud Powell. Still the chromatic shadings of Rio have a horn-like quality, something akin to Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax. Indeed, Jarrett has often said that he is frustrated with the limitations of the piano, that he’d like to transform it into a more expressive instrument, such as a guitar or sax.

“Saxophone players have influenced me more than pianists,” Jarrett said. “And if you think about Sonny Rollins or Ornette Coleman or Coltrane, they’ve got a voice, they have this freedom, and they’re not percussive. They can play a river of notes and it doesn’t matter what the number is. So when I’m playing piano I don’t want to hear the attack as a percussive attack. I’m listening to this flow. That’s one reason the piano can make me mad.”

In these 15 improvised segments, Jarrett draws from many different sonic tributaries: bebop, gospel, free jazz, rock, bossa nova, funk and Brazilian folk music. The playing on Rio seems at once less ambitious and more rooted, less technical and more spirited, less abstract and more sensual. It’s as if Jarrett had opened himself up to the atmosphere of Brazil, absorbing its sounds and colors and joy of motion.

The soundscape is earthy. It breezes and floats, it leaps and plunges, to intensely naturalistic rhythms. Some of the longer segments unwind like recursive harmonic equations; others are as short and tightly focused as a koan.

The title of the record is a bit of misdirection. “Rio” refers less to the city than to the notion of a river flowing, a wild river, running free, charting its own course, bend by bend, taking in other streams, one by one, blending them together into a single irresistable current.

The music flows as deep as you want to take it. Just dive in.

This Week’s Playlist

Keith Jarrett, Rio (ECM)
Keith Jarrett, Radiance (ECM)
Keith Jarrett, The Melody at Night, With You (ECM)
Bill Frisell, All We Are Saying …(Savoy Jazz)
Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (Rhino)

Jeffrey St. Clair’s latest book is Born Under a Bad Sky. He is the co-editor of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at:





Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3