Keith Jarrett at Carnegie Hall

posted by Tom Moon on February 01, 2009 at 7:46 pm
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January 29, 2009.... Thoughts on what it means to make something out of thin air....

There’s no concertgoing experience quite like hearing Keith Jarrett improvise solo at the piano. Usually an evening goes like this: He sits down, lunges into a seedling of an idea, and follows it for as long as it’s fruitful. After he’s exhausted that one, he recalibrates his internal GPS and begins again, in another realm. This goes on for forty-five minutes. And then, after an intermission, he does another forty-five. And then, on good nights, he offers dessert – in the form of an old song or two.

The New York Times once called Jarrett the “Proust of Jazz,” and he lived up to that billing on Thursday at Carnegie Hall – though the music was extemporaneous, it often seemed to spring from considerable thought. It was as though Jarrett had been puzzling over intricate and unresolvable philosophical conundrums, and had given up on words and was testing his notions on the piano instead. He conjured thick moods and unlikely shapes, and spoke between some selections about the all-purpose buzzword “change,” and the challenges of his particular type of improvisation. “If I had students, I’d ask them to play only things that don’t lock them in a corner,” Jarrett said, offering a teensy hint about his thought process. “If you can define “corner” differently, eventually you’re not in it anymore.”

That’s one way of appreciating what Jarrett does solo. Even when he’s working in a recognizable form – deriving structure from the blues, or a chord sequence from gospel – he will not be pinned there. He reaches a corner and then redefines the problem. At some point he leaps away, maybe for just a few measures and maybe forever; the detours become part of the route. One episode in Thursday’s second set began with a churning rhythmic motif that suggested a small boat bobbing through stormy seas. After an agitated passage, it ended with Jarrett in the extreme high register, playing a calm phrase that trailed off and evaporated, a pianissimo whisper.

On other journeys, Jarrett glanced at Bill Evans’ impressionistic chords, evoked the mystic spiritual resonances of Olivier Messaien’s 20 Views of the Infant Jesus, and generated a scarifying soul-jazz abstraction with a backbeat he stomped out like a tap dancer. He played six (!) encores, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and a version of the ballad “Where Are You?” that found him peeling back the layers with elegant slowness. Following along as he traipsed into corners and escaped, you got the sense that scientists might one day discover that these improvisational challenges are just as effective as sudoku for boosting mental alertness. Because Jarrett, now 63, is alive to possibility in a profound and strikingly youthful way; where most musicians of his peer group tend to rely on devices and ideas they’ve used before, he showed up for work armed with just his wits. He started with a blank page and went off searching, and in the process uncovered melodies that might never have reached him in the sealed chamber of the studio, music that was as poignant and breaktakingly lyrical as any he’s created before. Considering the contribution he’s made over so many years, that’s no small feat.

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#1 from Richard Prosapio, San Pedro, New Mexico - 02/08/2009 4:40

Re Kieth Jarrett, check out his piece made in Japan (can’t call up the title of the CD right now) but on it is the extraordinary presentation of “I’ll Remember April” like you’ve never heard it before. Wonder-FULL!

#2 from Sebastian Scotney, London W14 - 02/09/2009 2:31

Really enjoyed this post about improvisation.

I’ve just written a post on my blog. More people should be asking themselves the questions you raise here. How can anyone imagine that any music is conjured up out of thin air?!

#3 from MKP, Boston - 02/11/2009 3:13

I was lucky enough to be in the audience on the 29th - the day after my birthday, sick as a dog, and still loving every minute of it!  I saw the trio at symphony hall in boston back in October, and it changed the way i play music.  so, of course, i had to see the flip side.  Just amazing.

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