Keith Jarrett: The Art of Improvisation
While he can often engender all manner of contention and argument, it's unquestionable that Keith Jarrett is one of the most significant pianists to emerge in the second half of the 20th Century. An artist who has done it all performed his own sometimes lyrical, sometimes free-spirited compositions with two groundbreaking quartets in the '70s; taken solo improvisation to a whole new level with a series of important recordings including the classics Facing You and The Köln Concert; contributed a fresh spontaneity to the Great American Songbook with his Standards Trio; tackled the challenging classical repertoires of Bach, Mozart and Shostakovich and composed his own classical works; and played in landmark groups including Charles Lloyd in the '60s and Miles Davis in the '70s Jarrett is also more than a little enigmatic. Fastidious, perfectionist and, some might argue, highly controlled in his life, Jarrett paradoxically defines the concept of pure abandon in his playing.
With a life's work that, classical repertoire aside, has always been about spontaneous creation, Jarrett is in an especially capable position to shed light on the true meaning of improvisation. And so, British producer/director Mike Dibb, responsible for '02's The Miles Davis Story, has fashioned a new documentary which, while never explicitly defining what that elusive meaning is, nevertheless manages after 85 minutes and a series of remarkably erudite interviews with Jarrett and those who have been close to him over the past 30 years to create a vivid impression that is both inspirational to aspiring musicians and uniquely clarifying to others who want to understand the process of how musicians create something out of nothing.
Rather than present a chronological examination of Jarrett's life thus far, Dibb chooses, much like Jarrett's own work, to use a seemingly non-linear approach that focuses on Jarrett's improvisational process although, in the final analysis just like Jarrett's extemporizations there is an arc. Beginning with the Standards Trio, then jumping back to his early days and ultimately ending with his European Quartet including saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen, what becomes evident is that Jarrett's goal has essentially been the same as when, precociously, he would add both his own original compositions and spontaneous creations to the classical repertoire of recitals dating back as early as when he was only eight years old.
Amongst the many interviews with past and present collaborators including Garbarek, Danielsson, Christensen, Charlie Haden, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, Gary Burton and Dewey Redman, perhaps the most significant footage is that with ECM label owner and producer Manfred Eicher, with whom Jarrett found the perfect creative partner early in his career. Jarrett goes as far as saying that his albums are the product of two people himself and Eicher which is a significant distinction. That Eicher has recorded far more Jarrett performances than have ever been or will ever be released in order to catch those moments of pure magic, those performances where Jarrett alone or with a group is truly in the moment, also demonstrates the high standard and level of discernment that both he and Jarrett apply to deciding what will ultimately be commercially distributed. That Jarrett has, for 20 years, chosen only to document live performances, rather than record in the studio, is another distinction, one that points to a belief that the audience is, indeed, an integral part of each and every performance.
Jarrett comes across as deeply committed, albeit unquestionably idiosyncratic and unapologetically purist; while he admits to enjoying his time with Miles Davis the only time in his career where he totally gave up acoustic piano for electric instruments he also dismisses his electric work by calling such instruments "toys. Few, if any, pianists other than Jarrett insist that a choice of pianos be provided for each performance, so that he can choose the best one for the concert hall. And the sheer physicality of his playing, along with his total and absolute involvement with the music to the exclusion of anything else, paints a unique picture as does his level of communication. Virtually all concert footage including performances with Lloyd, Miles, the Standards Trio, and the American and European Quartets demonstrates the incredible interaction that exists at every performance.
Jarrett has, in recent years, come under criticism with regards to the Standards Trio which, at over 20 years, is the longest-lasting group of his career and, with rare exception, is one of the longest collaborations in jazz period. Some say that the group has lost its creative edge. But watching the footage of the trio, and listening to Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette discuss how little rehearsal takes place in fact, rehearsals typically only occur in sound checks before concerts, and it's not uncommon for the trio to work on something at a sound check and never actually play it in concert one is truly drawn into the sense of adventure applied to every performance. And the performance footage, in concert with the interview clips, manages to demonstrate the kinds of risks the trio take with each and every tune; how any one of the members can suggest a new direction with complete confidence that the others will follow.
By the time Dibb's documentary reaches its end, one may not be able to explicitly define the art of improvisation, but there are profound conclusions implicitly reached. And the documentary compels one to either play some Jarrett recordings or, if Jarrett's music is new to the viewer, to go out and find some. The level of excitement and discovery is so vivid that even those who have become jaded with Jarrett in recent times may find themselves with renewed interest. While some bemoan Jarrett's abandonment of writing, what becomes clear and Jarrett articulates this at one point is that every performance involves the act of composition. And that, perhaps more than anything, is the true meaning of improvisation.
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Interviews with: Keith Jarrett, Manfred Eicher, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette, Steve Cloud, Scott Jarrett, George Avakian, Gary Burton, Tashinari Koinuma, Chick Corea, Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, Rose Anne Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Jon Christensen, Palle Danielsson
Chapter Listing: Essentially an Improviser; Three is Not a Crowd; Small Hands; A Potential Star; Moments to Echo; Solo; Invader in the Ranks; Sounds and Pulses; Musical Seduction; The European Group; Sacrifices; Epilogue Bonus Features: The Keith Jarrett Trio, Live in Concert perform "Butch and Butch ; Extra interviews with Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette