Keith Jarrett: Setting a New Standard for Standards

Victor L. Schermer By

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All in all, the trio gave the audience more than it could have asked for.
Keith Jarrett, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums
Mellon Jazz Festival
Verizon Hall | Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Philadelphia, PA
April 7, 2004, 8PM

There is little new that anyone can say about Keith Jarrett- and his remarkable, multi-faceted output of music- but some observations are perhaps worth repeating and/or seeing in a new light. And having greatly appreciated his trio recordings with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear them in person. So here is a report from the grandstand.

The upshot is that Jarrett. Peacock, and DeJohnette gave an awe-inspiring and electrifying performance. They were in top form. They chose their tunes- nearly all jazz standards- to form a coherent whole meant to lure a diverse audience into the music. And they showed a level of musical accomplishment and professionalism that would be difficult to exceed.

We know that Jarrett- as person, composer, improviser, and performer- is a complex figure. I will doubtless irritate some of his multitudinous fans when I say that, in my view he is not a true “original” as a jazz pianist. (When I think of originality on the piano, I think of W.C.Handy, Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and others who created unique styles which others have imitated and elaborated but never equaled.) There is no Jarrett “signature” that I can identify; he does not represent a milestone in the development of jazz, but rather he pushes the limits of what is already there. His virtues, in my opinion, include his remarkable mastery of the piano and of music, along with his extraordinary ability to invent new lines, uncannily avoiding lapses and clichés. He has taken the art of improvisation to a level unkown before him. And he is an excellent group leader. With Peacock and DeJohnette, he has fashioned a trio that is in itself an art form, an expression of the highest aspiration possible within the mainstream of contemporary small group jazz. Unquestionably, Jarrett is one of the greats, a truly remarkable musician. In terms of “unstructured” solo improvisation, as in the Koln Concert album, he is indeed a groundbreaker who derived inspiration from a lesser known pianist, John Coates, who played often at the Deerhead Inn, a favorite haunt of Jarrett. As a jazz pianist, he is a master, but- again- not truly novel. And there’s no reason he ought to be.

I suspect that the secret to Jarrett’s astonishing improvisational capacity, in addition to his consummate musical skill and erudition, is the sheer force of concentration. His playing is totally “mindful” and present in the Zen sense. On stage, Jarrett appears almost delusionally convinced that jazz is an art form rather than light entertainment. He treats the music with utmost respect and (properly, I think) expects the audience to do so. (At one point in the Kimmel event, he admonished the audience to turn off their cellphones and put down their flash cameras, something they ought to have known to do themselves. Jarrett is known to make off-the-cuff comments that appear outright alienating to some audience members. Here, he made some political remarks with which I happened to agree but felt were out of place. Jazz should unite mankind in a spiritual sense; not fragment audiences politically.) The wonder of his playing is that he throws himself entirely into the music, bringing to bear his body, mind, and spirit as a creative force. His physical gyrations and vocal utterances would be disturbing in other performers, but it is obvious- to me at least- that he is using them to generate intensity within himself, and his passion comes through in the music, for which he is able to make himself a purified vessel.


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