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Keith Jarrett: A Biography

Ian Patterson By

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Keith Jarrett: A Biography
Wolfgang Sandner
215 Pages
ISBN: 9781800500112
Equinox Publishing
2020

Given his impact on jazz and solo improvisation this past half century, relatively few are the books on Keith Jarrett. This is surprising, considering all the critical acclaim, the phenomenal influence he has had on countless musicians, his colossal commercial success and the headline-grabbing outbursts. Perhaps so few biographers have attempted to tackle Jarrett out of fear of failure to do his artistry justice. Wolfgang Sandner, whose Jarrett biography was first published in German in 2015, shows no such timidity in grappling with the complex musical and personal traits that have made Jarrett, the musician, surprisingly difficult to pigeonhole, and Jarrett, the person, difficult to fathom.

By curious happenstance, this updated English language version was translated by Chris Jarrett, the youngest of Keith Jarrett's four brothers, who has long resided in Germany. Translation is something of an art in itself, and Chris Jarrett's precision and deft feel for phraseology bear the hallmarks of one successful in his own right as a pianist and composer. His fine translation contributes hugely to the flow and lyricism in Sandner's pen.

The author's background in musicology and modern history both play into his reading of Jarrett's music, which is the primary focus of this study. Detailed and colorful are Sandner's descriptions of Jarrett's playing, and the abundance and variety of metaphors employed underline the possibilities of words—as much as their limitations—in describing music so multi-layered, so sublime. On more than one occasion Sandner correlates Jarrett's playing with the mystical: "like a sorcerer's apprentice in wonder at his own abilities..." or "like the divine promise of an afterlife," comparisons that seems to mirror, to a degree, Jarrett's own belief that the music comes through him from some higher power.

By contrast, Sandner employs more sober language to describe the processes behind Jarrett's idiosyncratic grapples with the piano and the bodily contortions: "they shouldn't be mystified—they are feats of the mind, and feats mean hard work."

Sandner also relates Jarrett's musical language to just about every major classical composer and performer in history, though again, such references merely echo the range of Jarret's deeply imbibed influences. For conciseness and imagery, however, the following description perhaps works best: "It is a as if the stylistic traits of the virtuoso Art Tatum, the highly sensitive Bill Evans and the cryptical Paul Bley had been united into Keith Jarrett's personal style."

Keith Jarrett was born in Allentown Pennsylvania on May 8, 1945—the day Europe celebrated the end of World War II. Jarrett's parents were of Hungarian- Slovenian and possibly German stock, though Sandner contests fellow Jarrett biographer Ian Carr's suggestion that Jarret's mother was from a Hungarian Roma background. Interestingly, Sandner points out that "Keith Jarrett himself has perpetuated the myth of his partial ancestry from Hungarian gypsies—perhaps in order to make it appear as if his affinity to the music of Béla Bartók was somehow a gift of nature."

What is incontestable is Jarrett's affinity for both American and European musical vernaculars, be they jazz, folk or classical in nature. Sandner describes the "Euro- American hinge" that emerged post-World War II—as the old European order gave way to a new world order led by America—as a definable trait in the life and work of Jarrett. The pianist may have come to prominence in the bands of Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis, but it was in Europe, on Manfred Eicher's ECM label, that Jarrett made his name, not just as a leader, but as a multi-faceted artist.

One of the book's strengths is the emphasis the author places on Jarrett's multi-dimensional musical personality. To see Jarrett as a jazz pianist who dabbles in classical music is to miss the point. For Sandner, Jarrett belongs to a tradition of American mavericks such as Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles: "It is certainly no accident that Keith Jarrett has shown sympathy for those musical rebels and has studied the works of many artistic loners who scorn dogmas and patriarchal scholarship."

The author's astute analysis of Jarrett's albums throughout his career support the picture of him as an experimentalist who only ever followed his instincts. The one- man-band albums Restoration Ruin (Vortex Records, 1968) andSpirit (ECM 2013, recorded in 1986), the pipe organ improvisations of Hymns/Spheres (ECM, 1976) and the recordings of his contemporary classical compositions with symphony orchestras, appear not as oddities in Jarrett's discography, but as a clear line of stepping stones.

Jarrett's embrace of the classical cannon in the 1980s and '90s divided critics, but Sandner stresses Jarrett's life-long association with the idiom and praises him, not only for upending stereotypes about jazz and classical musicians, but for his bravery. By boldly venturing into the world of Mozart, Bach and Shostakovich with his rhythmic panache and improvisor's spirit, the author intimates, Jarrett had more to lose than most.

The major groups in Jarrett's trajectory, the American Quartet ("one of the most diverse, most innovative and most creative jazz combos of the seventies...") and the long-running Standards Trio are covered in ample detail, but Sandner reserves his keenest eye for Jarrett's voluminous solo work. The use of performance venues as his solo album titles, and numerals as song titles, Sandner suggests, were to discourage any assumptions being made by fans or critics about Jarrett's personal life or to second guess his psychological make-up.

Jarrett's guarded persona, his reluctance to "explain" his music, and his eschewal of liner notes, has helped construct a cult-like status around both Jarrett's music and the man himself. The cult around Jarrett owes much to the runaway success of his live solo album The Köln Concert (ECM, 1975), which would go on to sell around four million copies. Sandner provides fascinating insight into the circumstances around the fabled concert at the Cologne Opera House on January 24, 1975. Jarrett considered refusing to play when he was provided with the wrong piano, a frayed baby grand with defects in the right pedal and some of the keys. Despite the handicaps Jarrett produced a performance that has transcended jazz/improvised circles, with the author noting sagely that "limits can often set the fantasy free more efficiently than limitless freedom can."

Jarrett's ambivalence towards that multi-platinum recording is summed up by an anecdote in the book's forward. Sandner describes the pianist's initially positive response to his proposal for a biography turning abruptly cold when, in conversation with Jarrett after a solo concert, Sandner referred to The Köln Concert as one of the pianist's greatest successes—an evaluation that prompted Jarrett's "energetic disfavor..."

Jarrett quotations, which in any case are few and far between in these pages, are therefore drawn from other sources, though the sparsity of Jarrett's voice in no way diminishes the author's often thought-provoking analysis.

If Jarrett has proven to be prickly on the subject of the success of The Köln Concert, then dozens of audiences around the world have felt the lash of his tongue for coughing, taking photographs and generally disturbing his concentration. Sandner does not shy away from this side of Jarrett the performer, dealing in some detail with his notorious meltdown at Perugia in 2013, though falls short of outright condemnation. On his sometimes abrasive or provocative confrontations with audiences Sandner reasons: "One should be prepared for such behavior in Jarrett's case, from someone who expects no less of his audience than he does of himself, namely unconditional focus on the music."

Whilst Jarrett clearly did not invent formally free solo playing, it is hard to contest the author's summation that no other musician has done so as consistently, as rigorously and as imaginatively. It is therefore particularly sad to read of the "haunting stillness" surrounding Jarrett since his concert in Carnegie Hall in February 2017. At the time of Sandner's writing, Jarrett's health problems were but a rumour. Since the publication of this book, it has become public knowledge that the strokes suffered by Jarrett in 2018 seem to have called time on an extraordinary career.

Yet if Sandner's penetrating account of Jarrett's life and works teaches us anything, it is that nothing can be ruled out from the mercurial, innovative, artistically fearless and determinedly single-minded Keith Jarrett.

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