New York, NY
February 9, 2016
Watching fans eagerly photographing a player-less piano, as if in hopes of visualizing forces only Keith Jarrett can translate at the keyboard, I couldn't help wondering what it was all for. Neither could he.
Anticipations were nevertheless high as the audience prepared for a night of fully improvised music by that format's most widely heard practitioner. Jarrett took to the stage in blood-red shirt and black pants, cutting a figure as vivid as everything he was about to play. Before he began, he compared his process to a game of shuttlecock, the Native American variant of which he recounted playing with his two sons. Together, he said, they'd been "committed to keeping this thing in the air," and hoped to do the same for us. Still, it was difficult to feel airborne in the overlapping currents that eddied from his fingers in the first three pieces. It seems the piano discloses further complexities every time Jarrett engages with it, and in these initially treacherous journeys he seemed to be tilting a magnifying glass in search of that angle at which the sunlight yields flame.
Jarrett's notecraft was thick and fascinating. There was a groove in there somewhere, struggling against the weight of its own body, drowning in memories of early jazz and prophetic visions of spontaneous composition. I wish it had gone on, but the applause and atmosphere of the room told him this wasn't what the audience had come to hear. In response, he eased into a byzantine blues with downright aggressive consonance. Here he sowed long rows of musical crops. As if to confirm the metaphor, he took a sip of water during the more enthusiastic response that followed, quipping, "I don't know what I would do without water. Yes I do. I would die." One might substitute the word "music" for "water" and pull no punch from the statement. He'd reaped life from that soil.
After the next piece, he went to the microphone, explaining how he wanted to "avoid everything I've ever done." Sadly, this audience didn't agree. "I'm not that guy, man," he asserted against a tide of laughter, but proceeded to become that guy for our benefit. Like a singer wanting to try out new material for those who crave only the classics, he bowed under pressure and went full melodic from thereon out, but not before opening the keyboard to its possibilities, unpacking future gifts with the glee of the present in a towering, glassine monument. It made me want to listen in on his private sessions to know what other doors he opens when shut in behind his own.
The tension between what he wanted to play and what he thought we wanted to hear had the benefit of variety. From architected bass lines and adlibbed overlays, he spun some of the magic one hoped to see revived from his classic recordings. This was enhanced by his uniquely edible blues, which in contrast to many of said recordings found him abstracting his way through the genre's rudiments, turning the blues into an acute spectrum of greens, yellows, and other colors besides.
There is something inevitable about Jarrett's playing. Also inevitable were those who, even in the wake and knowledge of his Carnegie woes in 2011, to say little of the incident at Umbria in 2007, chanced a photo. Were people secretly hoping
he would melt down? Did they just not care? Was it the possibility of being called out on their indiscretion that thrilled them? I'm inclined to think the latter, for when Jarrett berated the crowd for its technological dependencies and said, "Okay, here's your photo op, take it now," not a single flash went off in the auditorium. My sense is that no one has taken Jarrett seriously enough on this point. And the point, really, is not about the distraction. It's about giving less than full attention to the art. Not that anyone is required to do so, but it's a simple courtesy, easy enough to follow. Is the lure of a cell phone really so impossible to resist for two hours when one of the most legendary musicians of our time fills those hours with something infinitely more sublime than a text message or status update? The camera is a surrogate method of appreciation for such a performance. It's the instrument of a tourist who wants to show off having been there, when that time and energy might have been spent listening undividedly. If this sounds pretentious, then we might want to rethink our reasons for attending in the first place. (As Jarrett put it: "If you don't like my music, maybe you shouldn't be here.") A photo feels permanent, but it's the perishability of a memory that makes it beautiful.