Keith Jarrett’s return from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome early in this decade led to his first solo piano concerts in 2002, released in 2005 as Radiance. These concerts, recorded in Osaka and Tokyo, Japan, departed from Jarrett’s pattern of long sprawling composition — and they were spectacular. Conceiving his fully-spontaneous improvisations in shorter chunks, the pianist created something new: a series of freshly-minted musical tiles that locked together with hard-edged beauty.
This new ECM release chronicles Jarrett’s first US solo piano concert since his return — an evening at Carnegie Hall in New York that drew fans from all over the country. The concert found Jarrett mining the mosaic technique heard on Radiance, again playing a series of logical miniatures. Again, the musical styles conjured by Jarrett here steer mostly clear of the vamping rhapsody that is associated with the pianist’s most popular disc, The Koln Concert. Punching and carving the instrument in sharp angles, Jarrett blows the expectant crowd out of its seats.
If Keith Jarrett once represented a kind of nearly-New Age romanticism dressed in meditative clothes, that is no longer the case. Where Koln and its kin were lyrical and/or grooving, these recently concerts are abstract and edgy. Many of the pieces in the ten-section concert have a severe sound that is more “classical” than “jazz” in tone. But why not? Jarrett has played plenty of straight classical music in recent years, and who says an improvisation must sound strictly like jazz?
“Section One”, then, has a busy eighth-note pace — the left hand jumping in ragged counterpoint to a right hand that studiously avoids blues feeling. Jarrett is careful to bring the eighth-note feel back occasionally, alternating it with a rolling figure that dissolves the distinction between left and right-handed playing. This is a strategy that asks plenty from the audience but also rewards in spades.
“Section Two” is a more conventional Jarrett groove section, with the left hand playing a repetitive funk figure that invites blues riffing galore. But despite the chance to indulge, Jarrett keeps things concise. The crowd eats it up, but they are then treated to a searching ballad section that is among the most gorgeous things Jarrett has ever played — a series of lyrical chimes over rumbling pedal point. “Section Four” is a spring shower of tinkling abstraction, Jarrett using the high octaves to create the aural image of swirling snowflakes, perhaps. In transferring the musical motion to the lower octaves, the pianist creates contrast without sacrificing logic. Needless to say, the composition eventually finds its way back to its own start — as everything at this concert is conceived with a hard-edged sense of connection.
I don’t want to bore you by narrating every section of the composition, but suffice it to say that Jarrett continues to apply specific pianist strategies to each of the ten sections — “Section Six” uses the motif of darting lines played in unison by both hands; “Section Seven” is a smile-inducing pop-gospel exercise; “Section Eight” is a ballad aching with feeling; “Section Nine” is a syncopated conversation between left and right hands that sounds like cubist ragtime; and the conclusion is a long, quietly lyrical, meditation on a single tonal center, with the left hand dancing on one note in the middle of the piano’s register while the right plays graceful melodies that slowly fade away.
As on many of Jarrett’s live discs, producer Manfred Eicher allows the audience’s long and thunderous period of applause to overwhelm the end of many tracks — particularly the pre-encore ovation after “Section Ten” and the applause and brief dialogue between the crowd and Jarrett after one of the encores. Folks tend to be divided about whether this is indulgence (Jarrettt’s, the arrogant artist) or psychology (Eicher’s manipulation — you are there) or simply padding out the CD’s length. I don’t object, at least on this recording, where part of what you’re buying is the event itself — Jarrett’s return to the global capital of jazz after a long absence. The audience — patient and concerned during his illness, then expectant and hopeful upon his return — should have its say.
What he gives them for encores are five pre-composed themes that seem to express Jarrett’s appreciation for an audience that — even as he may have been chastising it for coughing during his work — has sustained him for over 30 years. “The Good America” is the kind of hopeful ballad lyricism that made whole careers for several ECM artists but that Jarrett does better than anyone. “Paint My Heart Red” presents the kind of winning melody we might associate with Pat Metheny — just one great phrase that Jarrett spins into an eight-minute piece of chocolate cake like it was nothing, like he was a magician, which maybe he is.
The highlight for the crowd, I’m sure, was the third encore, “My Song” — the title track to one of Jarrett’s most enjoyable and popular quartet records from the 1970s. “My Song” is simple enough to be a lullaby and harmonically rich enough to be the signature song of one of the five most influential jazz pianists — and the audience receives it with a gasp of pleasure. Jarrett is not known for playing — and is not expected to play — any semblance of his “greatest hits”. And so the gentle turn on “My Song”, loose and easy and conversant with the melody as if Jarrett played it every night, about makes them insane — to the point of actually calling out to the known-to-be-testy musician from their seats in the hall. Jarrett seems to feel the good will and asks if anyone has anything else to say before he starts the next encore. “Thank you!” a woman calls.
This induces two more encores — a straight roadhouse blues, heavy on Jarrett’s trademark moaning and “singing”, and seven meditative minutes of the standard “Time on My Hands”.
And you hope that is Keith Jarrett’s state of mind as he returns from a potentially career-ending illness. At just over 60, he is a mature pianist in full-bloom, a jazz pianist who has etched his influence on a full generation beneath him but who still sounds like no one else. The years stretch ahead generously. No jazz artist has been more indulged by his audience and by his record company, but no artist has more fully repaid that indulgence either. Keith Jarrett — fully 30 years after his breakthrough — remains singular and uncynical, chasing after acoustic patterns of beauty using an open mind. In that sense, he’s beyond “jazz” or “classical” and in — natch — a category all his own.
The Carnegie Hall Concert is neither his greatest recording nor even a recording plainly better than Radiance, but it is reason enough to say it, even out loud in Carnegie Hall where you risk the wrath of the man himself:
Thank you, Keith.