On an incredible rendezvous with a master jazz musician


CULTURE SHOCK:Musician Keith Jarrett played Carnegie Hall in New York last week where his audience witnessed him almost pluck music from the air

FOR A devotee, going to see a concert of solo improvisations by the great pianist Keith Jarrett is almost as risky as it is difficult. Jarrett mostly plays these days with his superb trio, alongside Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. He plays solo three or four times a year, mostly in Japan, where he judges the audiences to be sufficiently well-attuned. And it is in the nature of his high-wire act that these solo concerts tend to be either blindingly brilliant (and thus to end up as part of the series of legendary ECM recordings) or to be marred by a grumpiness that extends to walking out because someone has coughed at just the wrong moment.

I felt almost unbelievably blessed, therefore, not simply to get to see Jarrett perform solo in Carnegie Hall in New York last week, but to catch him on a night when he was in inspired musical form and, probably as a result, in love with his audience. There is no finer experience in contemporary art than to be there when, from moment to moment, a genius is plucking music from the air and making it suddenly and in some cases violently audible.

Anyone who has heard Jarrett’s solo recordings will be aware of the way in which, like the great Glenn Gould, he punctuates his playing with yelps and groans, and with little snatches of hummed melodies. What you don’t get until you actually see him, though, is the sheer, primal physicality of his performance. He moves like a shaman. It is not just that he shifts constantly between sitting, crouching and standing, but that the whole sequence of movements is a dance. In a sense, he plays the piano, not primarily with his hands, but with his feet, the rhythm and energy moving upwards through his taut body and working their way outwards from his fingers.

And this shamanistic shuffle is not for show. It literally embodies what he does. Just as the shaman tries to become a channel through which the voices of the invisible spirits can make themselves heard, Jarrett works in these improvised concerts from the notion that he is not so much inventing music on the spot as becoming a conductor for the unheard sounds that are waiting to become audible.

As he wrote 15 years ago, “A master jazz musician goes onto the stage hoping to have a rendezvous with music. He/she knows the music is there (it always is), but this meeting depends not only on knowledge but on openness. It must be let in, recognized, and revealed to the listener, the first of which is the musician.” It may seem preposterous to suggest that this process is consciously and deliberately anti-capitalist, in the sense that it represents a profound protest against the culture of commodities. It might seem even more of a stretch to suggest that one of the reasons Jarrett’s New York concert was so electrifying was that it was situated in the world’s financial centre at a moment of deep crisis. But this was precisely the way Jarrett himself presented and understood the event.

“If,” Jarrett asked at the start of the concert, “certain things slide off the edge, what good is bolstering the economy?” The “certain things”, he implied, were creativity and spirituality. Later, he mused that “consciousness is a flow of multiple points converging from all directions. Money is linear.” The contrast he was setting up was essentially one between the music he was playing – with its flow of multiple converging inspirations – and money. His ambition was to create nothing less than a celebration of the spontaneity, slipperiness, evanescence and freedom of art against the mechanised logic of capital.

None of this would have been more than a gesture if Jarrett did not have the power to make it real. But somehow the political edge and the acute awareness of the context seemed to make him determined to create an act of communion with his audience. Instead of seeing the audience as a nest of potential coughers and shufflers who might fall below his very high standards of attention, he seemed to see it as a pool of energy on which he could draw. And the audience responded with a kind of alert rapture. This made him both startlingly communicative and, at the end, effusively grateful. He even asked, before launching into one of his six encores, “how about a ballad?” – a question, as he joked, that no one will ever him ask again.

He used this collective energy to push himself, after a composed and contained start, into that miraculous zone in which everything seems to be at stake. The opening salvo in each of the dozen or so pieces he performed over two 45-minute improvised sets felt like a sonic challenge, a summoning of the music that is “out there” to come and reveal itself.

And it came, through densely textured atonal sequences and rolling boogie-woogie stomps, gorgeous, meditative ballads and funky blues, a music that seems to exist far beyond the divisions between modernist classical and popular African-based forms.

Like every great high-wire artist, Jarrett even managed the slight stumble that reminds us of the danger, with one piece ending in a frenetic flurry that included a bum note and the pianist asking, with a sheepish grin, if he could try that bit again. He was, presumably, thinking of the CD of the concert that will be released later this year, but it would be a pity to edit out the fluff. Amidst the wonders of an amazing night, it captures the sense of a performer working at the edge of possibility, where the fingers are the fallible messengers of a flawless imagination.