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Keith Jarrett Speaks About Reinventing His Approach to Solo Piano, Before Carnegie Hall

Solitude can be a complicated proposition for Keith Jarrett. He’s the most celebrated improvising solo pianist in the world, and has held that distinction for the last 40 years. But he will be the first to inform you that his concert performances are a social interaction — an experiment in which he responds to the mood and psychic energy of a room, like a sensitive instrument. Jarrett will play his only North American concert this year at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, and in a recent conversation he reflected at length on his still-evolving process, and on the new archival release that he considers a pinnacle of his recording career. 

I met with Jarrett at his longtime home studio in rural New Jersey, not far from the Poconos, in the fall. Our two-hour interview was conducted for a cover story in the February issue of JazzTimes, which is on newsstands now. Jarrett was eager to talk about A Multitude of Angels, a 4-CD boxed set on ECM, which he’d engineered and produced himself, from a series of solo concerts in October of 1996. 


There’s enormous subtext to this body of music. Just as Jarrett embarked on this particular tour — performing in relatively small concert halls in Italy — he was stricken by what would later be diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome. He pushed on, willing himself to perform, as if each concert might be the last: “I didn’t know if I’d play again,” he recalled. 


  At the time, Jarrett was traveling with a DAT recorder and tending to the mix and microphones himself. “There was the audience and there was me, wanting it to be good,” he said. “But in a special way, where it wasn’t going to be trammeled by any digital echo-mania or anything like that. So guess I had more artillery for what I was doing. Of course I was always thinking, 'I hope the tape recorder didn't eat the tape.'” 


The resulting recordings took him 20 years to properly assess, because he so strongly associated them with the experience of illness. (After the tour, he disappeared into recovery, making his next statement in the form of a hauntingly intimate solo recording — The Melody at Night, With You — recorded with the same DAT recorder in the home studio.) When Jarrett finally listened to the concerts from Italy, he was startled by the intensity of their lyrical achievement, and by their thematic coherence as a group. He decided that instead of releasing one concert, he had to issue four of them, recorded within the span of a week. 


One striking thing about his playing on A Multitude of Angels is the variety of sounds and approaches Jarrett pulls out of the air. There are pellucid, glacial ballads, shot through with the muted suspense of a master harmonist plotting his next move in real time. There are stark, percussive digressions that feel rooted in meditative ritual. One passage, which begins at around 23:30 in the Ferrara concert, is jaw-dropping in the depth of its groove: it involves a syncopated vamp all the more startling for the sparkling, churchly quietude out of which it emerges (and to which it returns, before getting even funkier from 26:30 on). 

As those time markings indicate, Jarrett was still working in the rhapsodic, long-form mode that he’d made famous with The Köln Concert in the mid-1970s. (That first track from Ferrara runs almost to 44 minutes.) “I mean, I’m known for energy,” he said. “I’m sure the people that come to my concerts, they know that I’m jumping around. And I probably was doing that then. But somehow the illness caused there to be a spatial difference — the way I deal with space is so different.” That difference was only underscored by the resonant yet crisp acoustics of these smaller concert halls, which allowed Jarrett to access to a broad range of overtones.

As in almost any Jarrett solo concert, there are encores that convey a palpable sense of relief, and release. One example occurs in the Genova concert, when he follows two intense half-hour inventions with an untitled barrelhouse blues. The penultimate track on the set — preceding a poignant, valedictory "Over the Rainbow" — it can be streamed exclusively here.


“It’s almost impossible to avoid playing the blues sometime during a concert,” Jarrett told me, wryly. “I don’t want to; I really would rather not. But it’s a challenge to start anything.” We had segued from talking about A Multitude of Angels to discussing his most recent run of solo concerts, featuring a concert-length succession of short bursts of invention. 

“There’s a whole new idea I’ve been working with,” he said. “The first one was an experiment, and I don’t know if it worked or not. I was practicing for 400 nights in a row at home. And I was practicing by improvising, which I don’t normally do. I usually either avoid the piano or stay with Bach or something just to move my fingers — because I want the music that I improvise to be coming from this pure place. In this case I reversed the whole idea and basically screwed myself, in a way. Because I found out how much enjoyment I was getting out of the playing, but then when I listened to a tape of the concert I would think ‘Who would want to listen to this twice?’ It’s pure energy, and it maybe has no center. And it’s my involvement in the keyboard, and letting my hands play without thinking much about it, and without thinking about melody or chords or anything.”


  Of the recent concerts he has recorded, there’s one, from San Francisco, that strikes Jarrett as a potential for release. What he likes about it is a strong sense of spontaneous harmonic architecture. “The structure is astounding in that concert,” he said. “It’s consciously choosing the most difficult possible thing to do at a certain spot, where it seems like the listener’s just about to breathe a sigh of relief. It looks like it’s going to resolve. And maybe it does — for a second. That’s what I was working on in the studio.” 


He paused. “So I believe that concert is more like what I was trying when I was alone in my studio. And I don’t think that translates into concerts very easily at all. Because first of all, I’m not thinking about the audience. At all. Just the music.”


A Multitude of Angels is available from ECM RecordsKeith Jarrett performs on Wednesday at Carnegie Hall.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.