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Keith Jarrett At The National Concert Hall, Dublin

Ian Patterson By

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Keith Jarrett
National Concert Hall
Dublin, Ireland
November 17, 2015

Following a solo performance in Dublin's National Concert Hall in 1982, Keith Jarrett's Irish fans would have to wait thirty one years for his return—another solo gig, in early 2013. Therefore, the news that Dublin was on Jarrett's short European tour 2015 was met with surprise and delight in equal measure in the Irish capital. Inevitably enough, tickets sold out in the blink of an eye.

Following the official announcement requesting the audience to desist from photography and to keep a clamp on the coughing, a reverential hush—perhaps unique to Jarrett gatherings and examination halls—descended on the auditorium.

An aura of mystique has surrounded Jarrett since The Köln Concert (ECM, 1975). That landmark million-seller set a benchmark for solo piano improvisation—relegating the excellent brace of albums Facing You (ECM, 1971) and Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne (ECM, 1973) to overlooked footnotes in Jarrett's discography—and created expectations of every Jarrett performance since that a transcendent experience would and should be had by one and all. That Jarrett never quite reached such rarefied zones in the NCH was perhaps in part the fault of unreasonable expectation but also due to the fact that he rarely seemed to stretch himself—to his own extraordinary limits—for extended periods.

In a relatively short program of improvised pieces Jarrett conveyed the full range of his vocabulary, from aching balladry and folksy lyricism to gospel vamps and dashing glissandi. Yet it was with an angular, abstract improvisation that he began. Roving the keys restlessly for twenty-five minutes with—in hindsight—his boldest and most dynamically diverse playing of the evening, Jarrett's touch, tone and tempi oscillated unwaveringly in a fascinating excursion bookended by storm and tranquillity.

A five-minute barrel-house stroll of bluesy design lightened the atmosphere and paved the way for some beautifully impressionistic balladry inspired in essence by the Great American Songbook. The opening set ended with a roller-coaster improvisation that was as breathless as it was fleeting.

The second set began with another quietly bewitching ballad, followed by a trademark Jarrett blues-funk vamp of pounding left hand and flowing right. A change of key then directed Jarrett to the upper registers of the keyboard where he immersed himself in a ruminative passage of neo-classical play.

Jarrett was in jocular mood at the standing mic, bemoaning the limitations of a mere eighty eight keys and imagining an entirely new scale that could unleash the possibilities of an as-yet unborn pianist. Returning to the stool, he then teased out a lyrical air of subtle beauty that grew in substance and dynamics. A slow, gospel-infused hymnal number evoked Ray Charles at his most lyrical, though while Jarrett's dazzling runs the length of the keys were—and always have been—thrilling, his spirituals generally fall short of the soulful depth of Charles.

A gently grooving "Summertime"—the first of three encores—was in tune with the light-hearted banter that Jarrett brought with him for most of the evening. A gorgeous version of "Shenandoah" felt like a heartfelt tribute to the late Charlie Haden—born in the Iowa town—but alas, the feel-good mood unravelled slightly when an audience member took a photograph right under Jarrett's nose, prompting the pianist to ask the person to leave the auditorium. It wasn't a Perugia-style meltdown, far from it in fact, but it did slightly sour the tail-end of the evening.

To his credit, Jarrett pushed on with a gentle interpretation of "Danny Boy" that eschewed virtuoso grandstanding in favour of the ever so sweet melody. Following a sustained standing ovation Jarrett returned to acknowledge his fans: "I don't say this often but you've been an excellent audience" he announced generously.

Earlier in the evening Jarrett had walked to the standing mic to address the audience, describing the action as like moving from one room in his house to another. "It's so comfortable in that spot," he said, indicating the gleaming Steinway Grand piano to his left. "It's been sixty seven years of comfort."

The prevailing sense this evening was that Jarrett played well within his comfort zone. There have arguably been more impressive solo, improvised piano concerts in Dublin this year—namely from Iiro Rantala and Alexander Hawkins—and maybe it's the case that Jarrett, at seventy, has a little less fire in his belly and understandably less stamina than before. This wasn't a transcendent performance from the piano icon, merely a good one. Perhaps, however, we should be thankful for that much.

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