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Keith Jarrett Returns to San Francisco

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Keith Jarrett
SFJAZZ Spring Season
San Francisco, CA
March 19, 2006

Standing ovations and good music are considered par for the course at a Keith Jarrett solo piano concert.
But jokes?
"I guess my reputation is to complain about something, Jarrett said while retaking the stage after an intermission.
The crowd whooped.

"So I'll complain about government in general, but I guess I don't have to do that, he said with the practiced timing of a seasoned comedian as the audience burst into laughter.

The March 19 concert, one of the premier events in the 2006 SFJAZZ Spring Season, marked Jarrett's first solo, San Francisco performance in over a decade. It was also his first performance in the War Memorial Opera House in over 25 years.

Much has changed for Jarrett since his last appearance in the Bay Area. His main group, the Standards Trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, focus on standards or free improvisation instead of his composing, which figured heavily into his American and European quartets. In the '90s, Jarrett suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome, forcing him to stop playing for two years before re-emerging with his health and vitality restored.

On Sunday night, Jarrett took the stage 20 minutes past 8 p.m. in a blue and green, formal vest with a slight golden shimmer. He wore a burgundy shirt and black slacks. After acknowledging the applause of the crowd, he launched into a dense improvisation based on a dark, very low, bass ostinato he slowly and systematically developed over time.

His usual tics remained intact, including the Stevie Wonder-like head bobbing, the standing or thrusting of the hips at unexpected moments, and, of course, the grunts and nasal humming. For a crowd that seemed more intent upon the social aspects of attending a jazz concert, Jarrett must have appeared a bizarre figure, especially when surrounded by the abstract sound of his playing.

Being San Franciscans, the crowd gave him a polite-enough response. The next piece, however, won their hearts.

Jarrett launched into a dazzlingly beautiful ballad — the kind of moment that makes his solo albums such a popular attraction for jazz and lay listeners. All the hallmarks of his playing were there — the subtle swing, the warm tone, the sharp articulation of his melodic ideas — even as the cavernous spaces of the opera house robbed the moment of its intimacy. As the last chord faded away, a woman's voice, plainly audible, sighed, "So beautiful.

The rest of the concert followed the same sort of template. Ballads, with gorgeous, languid melodies would follow the abstract pieces. But Jarrett threw a couple of curveballs too. In the first set, he played a Scott Joplin-esque rag that appealed to the Baby Boomers in the crowd. A straight, virtuosic turn on the blues appeared in the second set. Both offered an interesting counterpoint to his critics who often call his solo performances vague and directionless. Jarrett had no problem improvising within the bounds of both these time-honored forms, while staying concise and economical.

Indeed, he was so successful throughout the night that the crowd began giving him standing ovations between improvisations. They were so warm that they drew him back for four encores, the last marred by Jarrett's angry retort to an amateur photographer's flash during his third encore. None of that spilled over into the final improvisation—another ballad.

Maybe that's what you should expect with the mercurial pianist. Within his sharp and precise facade, there remains a musician looking to tell a story.

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