The Adorable Mr. Jarrett

AAJ Staff By

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Dear Mr. Nerd,

I think Keith Jarrett is an extraordinary jazz pianist and I really enjoy his playing, but what I don't quite understand is why he regularly bounces out of his seat, makes contorted facial expressions and produces long, constipated whining noises that sound like NNNEEEAAAAAHHHHHUUUUUGGGGHHH!!! when he's playing. What's that about?

Francisco Cruz, Boston, Mass

Greetings Francisco,

The pained facial expressions, quirky body language and primal respiratory ejaculations of jazz musicians have been linked recently to the equally curious behavior patterns exhibited by various endangered members of the animal kingdom. In the case of Mr. Jarrett, his on-stage histrionics are surprisingly similar to the peculiar mating call and dance of the male kakapo. A rare flightless parrot found on a handful of islands off the coast of New Zealand, the male kakapo mates only once every three or four years, emitting a loud SSSKKKWWWWEEEEAAAAUUUUWWWWKKKK!!!, similar in pitch and length to the NNNNEEEEAAAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHHHHHH!!! often attributed to Mr. Jarrett. The kakapo is also known to bounce in a jerky up and down motion while squawking, not unlike Mr. Jarrett in the midst of an especially compelling improvisational passage. Whether or not the male kakapo actually produces contorted facial expressions while in the act of bouncing and squawking remains a topic of fierce contention among modern biomusicologists.

A valuable case-study of music-related behavior characteristics in Homo sapien jazz keyboardists can be observed on Mr. Jarrett's 1989 Standards II video recorded live in Tokyo, Japan. Here Mr. Jarrett is truly inspired as he bounces, grimaces and whines through 90 minutes of American songbook classics, accompanied by Gary Peacock (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). This trio is much admired by the Japanese, who, among other things, recognize the difference between a gifted pianist and a horny kakapo.

All this is well and good, but it doesn't begin to answer your question. Why does Mr. Jarrett act so strange when he plays? What is going on in his head? What, for example, was running through his subconscious mind while performing "With a Song in My Heart in front of a capacity crowd in Hitomi Memorial Hall back in '89? No one but Mr. Jarrett (who has yet to return my calls) can ever know. However, I will venture a few educated guesses.

In 1952 Mr. Jarrett was a 7-year-old boy growing up in Allentown, PA. That same year "With a Song in My Heart became a hit for a popular post-WWII singer by the name of Jane Froman. It's therefore possible that Mr. Jarrett heard Ms. Froman's version of the Rogers and Hart classic. It's also quite possible that young Mr. Jarrett learned of Ms. Froman's tragic past by watching the 20th Century Fox production of "With a Song in My Heart, featuring Susan Hayward as Jane Froman (a role which earned Ms. Hayward the Oscar for best actress). The movie's biographical plotline follows a young Ms. Froman (born in University City, OH, in 1906) as she finds success as a singer for a Cincinnati radio station. Jane's piano accompanist/love interest at the station soon becomes jealous of her growing popularity coupled with the fact that she's taken a fancy to a handsome pilot in charge of flying her overseas to tour with the USO. The climax of the film is reached when Ms. Froman's plane crashes into the Tagus River near Lisbon, Portugal (the crash occurred on February 22, 1943). She suffers permanent injury to both of her legs and is unable to walk without crutches; nevertheless she continues to tour and sing for the troops who adopt her as a symbol of American courage. The movie's soundtrack, with Ms. Froman dubbing in the vocals, became a smash when it was released. In 1952 patriotic post-war America couldn't get enough of Jane Froman singing "with a song in my heart / I behold your adorable face. So it's conceivable that, for a fleeting moment during his performance of "With a Song in My Heart in Tokyo in 1989, Mr. Jarrett subconsciously recalled to mind the horrible plane crash that robbed Jane Froman of the use of her legs 46 years earlier, which would account for his contorted-in-pain facial expressions, his turbulent up-and-down body bouncing, and his barreling out of control NNNNEEEEAAAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!

Another perhaps more plausible theory is that Mr. Peacock and Mr. DeJohnette were partially responsible for Mr. Jarrett's extrakeyboardical activity on that day in Tokyo, if you accept the premise that Mr. Jarrett was simply responding to Mr. Peacock's decision to carve out the mother of all bad ass bass lines, while, simultaneously, Mr. DeJohnette played with the time like it was a frickin' Xbox.

Finally, Francisco, some jazz musicians will tell you that their behavior while in the act of playing is simply an exponent of the music. In other words, the musician doesn't play the music; rather the music plays the musician. If so, then it follows that the song in Mr. Jarrett's heart is evident in his movement, his breathing, and each facial contortion, which some of us find adorable.
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