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The Jazz Martyr

Keith Jarrett is attracting a new audience, thanks to his classical recordings. But he still considers himself the conscience of jazz, and he doesn’t hesitate to tell you why.

Keith Jarrett has a serious post-whiplash condition right now, which he views as an occupational hazard. Most pianists do not have his back and neck problems, but most pianists, even if they draw on the full weight of their bodies, manage to constrict the ostentation of movement to their hands and arms and shoulders and feet. Keith Jarrett takes on the piano with all his self, the self of a raging spirit and of a small body, like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord. During his solo improvisation concerts of the 1970’s, he would go into a state of what appeared to be ecstatic pain. While playing the notes urgently and self-referentially, he would slide off the bench so that he was sometimes on top of the piano and sometimes beneath it and most often wrapped around it. His face could not possibly have gone through a more anguished and peculiar range of expressions; he grunted and groaned audibly, periodically shaking with spasms and shivers. He looked as though he were giving birth to a square baby.

“Nobody was ever as wild as I was for as long,” he explains one wintry afternoon as we sit in his tidy house in rural New Jersey. “You know, the stress of playing has to come out somewhere, and my body just does it. I really have no choice. The piano is such a bull: it will not dance with you unless you force it. I don’t understand why other improvisers sit still. And how can they not make a sound? When you’re improvising you’re bringing this stuff up, literally bringing it up, like you’re vomiting the music. You don’t sit still when you’re nauseated and throwing up. My body’s in the way. Get it out of there!”

The child born of Jarrett’s convulsions is some of the most striking music of the last three decades — original and multilayered, both passionate and cerebral. Jarrett became famous in the 1970’s and somewhat irrelevant in the 1980’s. Now he is fully relevant once more: first, for a recent spate of classical recordings that have been critical and commercial hits, and second, as a purist critic of what he sees as the degenerate new jazz.

Jarrett now plays in three modes: the solo concerts; variations on standard tunes (in a trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette) and interpretations of Bach, Mozart, Handel and Shostakovich. “They are like mirrors at an angle,” he says. “You know, when you want to see how your hair is and you have only one or two mirrors, you can’t possibly do it. But these three things give me all the right angles to work from.” During conversation, he agonizes over every question, no matter how inconsequential. He answers you 11 times. He makes statements and then retracts them. His energy, focus and concentration are so excessive in relation to the subject as to be nearly suffocating. A good bit of what he says teeters on the brink of incoherence, but the force behind it gives it a resemblance to great truth. Similarly, even when his music is off — and he has recorded a lot of indifferent material — it has vitality.

For Jarrett, nothing is more important than being earnest. “My job over the years has been not to make great music but to become ever more conscious of what it is I’m doing and what I’m perceiving,” he says. “I’m allowing the music to be played, and if there’s something that needs to be done, I’ll do it. If I play a poor concert, I’m ruined. I’ve just given myself toxin. I make myself the victim of my music. I truly feel that my last tour — it was heroism, you know? If someone’s in the trenches, and they’ve just been shot, and they go and save somebody — where does that energy come from? That’s what those concerts were to me.”

Jarrett is “proud to be difficult.” He is given to stomping off the stage if people crinkle the cellophane of their cough drops, and he will yell at individual audience members. Jarrett once went all the way to South America and then refused to play because the promoters had ignored his specifications for the piano. “I was one of the earliest jazz pianists to request and demand acceptable pianos,” he says unapologetically. “Everyone hated me, but we raised standards a little bit.” Raising standards — both of what is given and of what is demanded — is Jarrett’s stock in trade. Being hated is also part of his stock in trade; though he can be very generous, few have ever said that he is a pleasant man.

Jarrett, born in Allentown, PA., manifested prodigious talent when he started playing at 3 and studied with local piano teachers for most of his childhood. He hated practicing; he’d put Corgi cars on the music stand to keep himself from being too bored. But he also loved to play. “For my 8th birthday, I wanted a walkie-talkie, an elephant — but I knew I wasn’t going to get that — or a real piano instead of our little upright. I walked into the living room, and all the teachers from school were there, my best friends, too, and it was this baby grand. I fell on the floor, and I couldn’t believe it. I slept with that piano for at least a week: I’d sleep under it and get up in the night and play it.”

Jarrett played at his own senior prom, but he was not yet really a jazz musician. “You couldn’t hear jazz in Allentown,” he says. “Then one day I found this album called ‘Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal.’ I was completely fascinated by it.” So jazz crept in. Jarrett studied briefly at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and in the mid-1960’s turned down an opportunity to study with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger. “I kind of had to make a choice,” he says. “I would have learned theory and nomenclature from her, but what I wanted was to dig into the mystery. I’m glad I did. I needed every minute of my life to get this far.”

Jarrett moved to New York at age 19 and played with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, then with Miles Davis. The solo improvisational concerts he began giving in the mid-1970’s became a huge success; the recording of his 1975 concert in Koln, Germany, is the best-selling solo-piano album ever (nearly three million copies).

“I guess I’m the world’s expert on playing for an hour and a half with no material on different pianos,” Jarrett says. “It’s like this: If I have a concept or sound in my head, the chances are that it will not be easy to get out of the beginning of the concert in an organic way. So, A, I have to have no musical thoughts. B, I have to be in no mood. I’ve learned over time how to go deeper than mood. I put my hand somewhere and play something. Fast, before my brain starts telling me what it’s going to do. There isn’t enough time to be the creator of the actual music and the interpreter, to get my hands to accomplish the performance in the same microsecond I make up the music, but I do it anyway. So that explains the grunting. Actually, I feel the music like I was a horn player. It’s not da-da-da-da with my hands — it’s breathing, yelling, screaming.”

Listening to these concerts is like watching the tide come in, or like seeing a great heap of wood consumed by flame. There is a brooding quality to the whole procedure — phrases that repeat, shapes and colors in lulling mimicry and infinite variety, outbursts of passionate playing that subside back into steady harmonies. Melodies come in and disappear; tension builds and collapses, builds and collapses. The notes seem to be choosing one another and not to be chosen from outside — but vast structures, subconscious and abstruse, unite them: the solo concerts, abstract as they are, seem to proceed in movements as orderly as any Mozartean theme and variations.

For Jarrett, it’s all suffering and vomiting — he is as uncomfortable being a conduit for greater forces as Linda Blair. But the sound itself is joyful, celebratory, invigorating. For the listener, it is like being in dialogue with rapture; it is as if tentacles of pleasure are stretching through the notes.

Despite all of its affectation, Jarrett’s music is always heartfelt. “You know, nobody else does this,” he says. “This format ganged up on me in my early years. It’s like I’m asking for trouble. People say that it must be easier to do the solo concerts than it used to be, because I’ve done so many, but it’s exactly the opposite. You know — why would I ask for this trouble again? The music’s in the way and I have to get rid of it. And the audience hears me doing that. Let’s say you know something and you’re sitting in your room knowing it, and you feel that your friends would benefit by knowing this if you explained it to them. But you’re going to lose all the calm you have if you try to express it. But you express it anyhow.”

Jarrett often speaks of his solo piano work in the same vocabulary he uses to speak of his meditation — he is an intense spiritualist who has been much influenced by G. I. Gurdjieff, the Armenian mystic. Of course this kind of musical rhetoric gets rather exhausting, just as Jarrett’s concerts do. In conversation, he fixes you with an intense, narrow-eyed stare; in his studio, he fixes the same stare on the piano, as if he could hypnotize it too. His words take on that rhythmic and relentless quality of the music.

When Jarrett plays with Peacock and DeJohnette, the sound is completely different. The trio plays such familiar tunes as “When I Fall in Love” and “Little Girl Blue” and “Just in Time” as easily and casually as a group of friends singing in a car. But the harmonies and variations flow one after the other, the melody floating up to the surface, plunging down again, obscuring itself in the depths, then returning to light. Their playing never loses the charm of cocktail music, but it’s also art. An 11-minute version of “How Deep Is the Ocean” is like a clown car at the circus: out of that compact little Irving Berlin song comes a team of notes and consonances and rhythms you wouldn’t believe could fit there. And just when you get used to the spectacle of them all dancing in front of you, they begin climbing back in and you end up back at pure melody.

The classical recordings and performances are the most recent development in Jarrett’s career. That does not mean that he has only just learned classical material. “I am not a crossover artist,” he says irritably. “I started as a classical pianist, the way all so-called legitimate kids playing the piano start. I was a crossover artist when I made my first jazz album. Now I’m just living in both worlds. But I keep them separate. When I’m an improviser, it’s what I do. When I play Mozart, I don’t improvise.”

Some of Jarrett’s classical recordings, on ECM Classical, have sold as many as 30,000 copies, quite strong for a classical record. His Handel and Mozart are highly competent, but his Bach and Shostakovich are outstanding. (His next classical recording, of C.P.E. Bach, will be released in the fall, and he will be performing at Avery Fisher Hall in April.) He’s a meticulous player, and his centered energy and precision work beautifully in this material. His training as an improviser gives a subtly unconventional air to his interpretations, though there is nothing jazzy in them.

“The only reason that some dynamics can be so good in the blend and end of a phrase is that it’s a pinpoint of concentration of my energy that the cosmos is offering me,” he says. “My way of approaching these phrases is as though I will never, ever do them again. It’s not like being a repertoire pianist. Playing other people’s music is a relief, but the one thing it isn’t is a protection. When you’re improvising, you can play anything and you can make it work somehow. But in a written piece you can play only those notes, and that’s a heavy restriction.”

As much as he maintains distances among his modes of playing, they do affect one another. “When I did the Shostakovich recording, the concerts that I did solo were affected not so much in the music but in my use of the technique I had needed to do the Shostakovich,” he says. “Mozart has helped tremendously in the trio, playing ballads.”

Jarrett practices only the classical material at the keyboard, and even that is not a simple matter. He refuses to study anyone else’s technique, believing that his body must be purified of outside influence to find his own voice. He considers the influence even of Keith Jarrett to be a pollutant. “I have the need not to hear piano music before I improvise on the piano,” he says. “So what does that mean? It means I can’t practice. So what does that mean? Sometimes, it’s been a month or two that I have not touched the piano and then I go and do a concert.”

Jarrett despairs of most recent jazz. Because he was a prince of the (largely white) world of 1970’s mainstream jazz and is a million miles away from the (mostly black) Young Lions scene of the 1990’s, such emotions are unsurprising. (Jarrett looks like he could be of mixed race, but he is white, of Irish and Hungarian origins.) Over the past decade, in large part because of Wynton Marsalis’s efforts, jazz has been widely celebrated as an essential element of the African-American cultural heritage, and white practitioners have been seen increasingly as interlopers. Jarrett’s antipathy toward modern jazz is founded in authentic disdain but is also tinged with innate truculuence, with bitterness and sometimes with jealousy.

“It’s totally unrealistic to think that you’re going to be a great player just because you know how to play fast or you know how to play 5,000 styles,” he says. “I read reviews of new players who can sit in with anybody or play with five different types of band in five nights — and everybody talks about this like it’s a positive thing. If you get an audience and you get gigs and you have a name before you have anything to say, it actually wipes out the possibility of saying something later on. The people who would produce valuable things are waylaid too soon. The bigger the media, the worse it is for the artist. I’m not even sure I should use the word artist. There are some ages, I think, that don’t deserve art as much as others. I almost think we live in a time now when that is true.”

He begins to sound like some latter-day Rousseau mourning the demise of the noble savage. “The old days of jazz were much healthier for the music itself,” he says. “I think there’s a horrible thing going on now, where young players haven’t been told by the right people that there’s more to it than marketing themselves. They expend all the energy they should be using to find their voice, or work on their voice, or listen to themselves play. They’ve got to resist this stuff. I was called by Columbia at one point when I was with this little ECM record label, and they offered me a giant advance. I said no. It’s not just what’s getting exposed, but who you’re exposing it to.”

Jarrett saves his most pointed attacks on the current jazz establishment for Marsalis. “Wynton imitates other people’s styles too well,” he says. “You can’t learn to imitate everyone else without a real deficit. I’ve never heard anything Wynton played sound like it meant anything at all. Wynton has no voice and no presence. His music sounds like a talented high-school trumpet player to me. He plays things really, really, really badly that you cannot screw up unless you are a bad player. I’ve felt embarrassed listening to him, and I’m white. Behind his humble speech, there is an incredible arrogance. And for a great black player who talks about the blues — I’ve never heard Wynton play the blues convincingly, and I’d challenge him to a blues standoff any time. He’s jazzy the same way someone who drives a BMW is sporty.”

Marsalis, when asked to comment on Jarrett’s criticism, says, “I just don’t know how you respond to something that hysterical.”

In the 1960’s, the only people who had trouble with my being white were whites,” Jarrett says. “Some kinds of playing, taken to their logical extremes, can be the realm of black players, and others maybe of white players, but the whole situation wasn’t so — well, so black and white back then. I played with Miles, and he used to tell me I had to be black in some places. It was so free. It was up to us what we did and who we were, and so much of it happened in private.”

Much of it still happens in private. As Jarrett once wrote, “In some ways, jazz is exactly like the subatomic particle that changes its behavior upon being observed.” Jarrett himself is and has always been relentlessly cool.

And he is one of modern times’ great marketing triumphs, because the mystique of his work’s intellectual obscurity became its best selling point. (To have his record of the Koln concert when I was in seventh grade was to be one of the truly hip kids.) Most recent articles about Jarrett describe him as “the recluse” or “the inaccessible jazz pianist” or the artist “who chooses to live in isolation.” One Washington music critic asked me whether I had actually interviewed “the Sphinx himself.” At the same time, his music is omnipresent: I have heard the Koln concert being piped into coffee bars and even elevators.

Jarrett acknowledges all of this but strives to transcend it. “I would hope that if I leave some legacy, it would be the integrity and commitment to the right stuff,” he says. “Not even the music, you know? The legacy isn’t the music, or even the recording of the music. The legacy is what brought me to the state in which I played that music, about my scouring the let’s-see-what-we-can-get-from-nothing cave.”

We are sitting at the piano in his studio, and he plays the opening of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” He is exhausted, having talked practically nonstop for half a day, but the music is clear and lovely. Jarrett is frustrated by how cold the keys are and says that the room’s temperature is adversely affecting the movement of the keyboard. “I’m a purist, and probably a fanatic,” he says ruefully. “I’m not a perfectionist, and I’m glad I’m not. But if there were perfection, I would be.”