Keith Jarrett: No End

[4 April 2014]

By Will Layman

I love the music of Keith Jarrett. He has been a distinctive titan of jazz piano since the late 1960s, forging a style and a philosophy that has lifted the music higher in several ways. From his protean sideman work with Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis to his iconoclastic and fully improvised solo piano recitals, from his two daring quartets in the 1970s and ‘80s to his classical experimentations—and most recently in his determined and breathtaking playing with his trio—Jarrett is a master, a great musician, and a hero in the music.

Except when he is self-indulgent.

In the 1976, he famously released a 10-LP/6-CD box of solo piano music, The Sun Bear Concerts. More times than can be recounted, he has lectured audiences about their inability to control coughing or other involuntary noise while he is playing. And, some might argue, much of his classical crossover music (such as his 1980 release The Celestial Hawk) is only for completists.

No End lives at the far end of the self-indulgent portion of the Jarrett canon.

Two compact discs. One musician, our man Keith, playing drums, electric bass, electric guitar, hand percussion, recorder, and—occasionally—some piano. These 20 segments of music were recorded as cassette overdub jams in 1986 in Keith’s home studio, and they sound just like what they are: aimless jams that don’t really go anywhere, that don’t represent real-time interaction between listening musicians like, say, a Grateful Dead jam ought to, and that sat in Jarrett’s junk drawer for nearly 30 years.

Now this music is available to you, the crazy Keith Jarrett completist. Pull out your bong and start swirly dancing, I guess, because the only way you’re likely to dig this is if you like a hypnotic jam that loops around and around without much interesting melodic content and without much in dynamic change or rhythmic syncopation. Ommmmmmmm.

Aside from the monotony of the music, which seems undeniable and hard to form a written analysis of, there is the sense that you are listening to a great pianist play lots of not piano. In section “XII”, the start is a fairly interesting set of chord changes assayed on electric bass and electric guitar. But a few minutes later,  the interest of the chord pattern has passed and you’re just wondering, “Uh, why is this guitar playing so uninteresting?” Well, because it’s being done by an amateur guitarist with a limited ability to turn his musical ideas into music—and the guitarist is named Keith Jarrett.

Some of the pieces here might boast a certain interest because they sound like some of the more avant-garde music with which Jarrett has been associated. “XIV” has a rolling, free-drum pattern that doesn’t really lock in with a bass line, and Jarrett’s guitar rambles over the top of that as other lines and repeated licks seem to muddy up the water. If you want to be generous to it, you might compare it to some of the Miles Davis open jams of the 1970s or to some of the AACM music we might associate with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But that music always contained compelling voices who were crying their souls over the web of sound. No End lacks that urgency or skill in a lead voice. When “XIV” finally straightens out its rhythm into a funk groove and fades out, it’s little more than a bad rock jam that fades away.

None of this music was “composed”, Jarrett writes in the liner notes. And that much is obvious. Every track is just a simple vamp, groove, or short pattern. There are no “found” melodies that recur as themes or ideas. Jarrett explains his interest in releasing the music this way: “Is it somehow therapeutic to go through 93 minutes of listening to something and come out feeling uplifted? [...] Music is the strongest medicine I know.” He calls listening to this music “a healing experience.” But to my ears, this music is far less healing than, well, good music. No doubt it serves to have some personal meaning for its maker, Mr. Jarrett.

The obvious questions follow, with answers:

How is the piano playing here? There is an utterly unremarkable, playable-by-anyone-on-this-planet acoustic piano part on a single track, “X”. Maybe on some tracks it is sitting under the surface creating texture or laying out simple chords. I think I’m hearing Fender Rhodes electric piano, which surprises me because Jarrett’s tirades against electric instruments are flat-out legendary. (And dumb.) The main sounds on this record are electric guitar, electric bass, and percussion. There are no “Keith Jarrett piano solos here.” None.

Does Jarrett moan on this record like on most of his other records? No. And I kind of miss it here—it would probably turn out to be the most interesting thing happening. There is some wordless chanting at times. And I could do with more of that, because the long jams are monotonous and cold. Some human cry would be nice. “V” contains a quiet vocal thing that sounds kind of like a hip little calypso backing vocal.

Why would ECM, which is such a brilliant label, release a bunch of crap—doesn’t Manfred Eicher know better? I’m sure that Eicher doesn’t love this record. But Jarrett’s The Koln Concert sold so well for a jazz record that Eicher probably financed 500 other amazing ECM records back in the day based on Koln alone. So, “Gosh, Keith, I’d be happy to release this vanity project, er, deeply personal record for you.”

Golly, Will, you really hate this record. Can I have your review copy? I’ll send you my address. I already gave it to my friend Larry, who loves Phish more than life itself. He said it contained too much noodling and fed it to his dog, Hank, like it was a Milk Bone.

Was all this snark necessary? I just spent 93 minutes of listening to something that could have been recorded by my high school music students during a random afternoon of farting around. I am neither uplifted nor healed. The snark is my way of asking for my 93 minutes back.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/180056-keith-jarrett-no-end/