After four decades, a piano giant still plucks inspiration from thin air

By Jeff Tamarkin

Jazz is in part the art of improvisation—and legendary pianist Keith Jarrett takes the concept to its extreme. Up until the moment he presses down the keys, he hasn’t a clue as to how he will begin or what will follow. “There’s this nanosecond, or maybe it’s an eternity, between sitting at the piano ready to play something and actually playing something,” Jarrett says. “People say to me, ‘It’s hard to believe that was improvised,’ and I don’t believe it either, although I know it’s improvised and I know that I did it.”

Such brilliance comes with its idiosyncrasies—in his four-decade career, Jarrett has been known to berate audience members who distract him. His animated and verbal performance style—he often hums aloud while playing—is certainly unique. But his genius is never in dispute. The Allentown, Penn., native grew up a piano prodigy who was giving formal recitals by age 7. After a stint at the Berklee College of Music, he played with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis (for whom the acoustic-focused Jarrett briefly and reluctantly went electric) before focusing on a full-time solo career.

Much of that work truly is “solo”—Jarrett, alone with his piano, improvising. Rio, recorded last April in the Brazilian capital at a gig Jarrett calls one of his best in years, is one such offering. Its two CDs are broken up into 15 numbered parts, each under 10 minutes apiece. But since 1983 he has also worked with a trio featuring bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. One-off pairings like 2010’s Jasmine, with bass giant Charlie Haden, are a rarity. “I’m not against the idea of playing with other people,” says Jarrett, 66, who does most of his studio recording at home in New Jersey. “But I don’t think it’s all that wonderful to meet someone and make an event recording and have that be the hook.” We recently enjoyed a rare conversation with Jarrett about Rio, his trio and the endlessly challenging psychology of improvisation.

What do you recall of the Rio show?

When I walked onstage for the Rio concert I was at ease. There was something warm and glowing about the hall. It was a little funky, and there was something inviting about it. But I wasn’t aware of my radical feelings about it until I listened back to it. I couldn’t stop listening to it, and that had never happened to me before.


What makes a show stand out?

In my case it has nothing at all to do with musical thought. It’s just, am I in the right place? Did I have the right meal? I somehow realized that there was a connection with the audience that grew as the Rio concert continued. It was a nice feeling. There is nothing edited out of Rio. That’s true of most everything I’ve released solo, but Rio has a structure that was so tight I surprised myself. One of my biggest questions to myself after that gig was how do I play again? How do I play anywhere else? Where else does the music of the culture have some very close association to jazz? This has happened in other countries, but not so perfectly.


You’re known for long pieces, why are you playing shorter ones now?

It was a major change. I’ve heard people say, “He had chronic fatigue syndrome and his endurance isn’t as great as it was when he was younger, so that’s why he does these short pieces.” Obviously they didn’t know the backstory. I kept hearing myself going to the same places and playing things that my fingers were used to playing, but I honestly didn’t like those things anymore. So I told myself, “Every time this happens, just stop.” Then I would wait a minute and start again, telling my hands, “Just go somewhere, just do something.” The idea that I should have been playing forever was never my idea. That’s just some critic thinking, “That’s the real Jarrett.”


What is the single most challenging aspect of improvisation?

The hardest thing to do in improvising, for me or for anybody who would do what I’m doing—although I don’t know anybody who does—is beginning. On Rio there are 15 difficult moments that wouldn’t exist if I played constantly. It’s an affirmation of my state of mind being so open that I can start over 15 times and create a structure that more or less seems unimprovised.


What guides you?

In Buddhism, an empty mind is the real music. It’s that first choice of sound that brings you back into the world again. When I began that format, the audiences didn’t know what the hell to do: “Do I applaud? Is he OK?” When I came onstage for the second set in Rio, I had no idea I was going to play an F-major chord. As soon as I played that chord one would think, how does he know what to do from that? But it was the chords that told me what to do. It’s life or death. It isn’t even a decision.


How about in the studio?

I hate studios. The only reason I can record in my own studio is because I live there. It doesn’t feel like a studio. It has a window that looks out at trees and a lake and is very small and cozy. But in general, if I could stay away from studios I would. I need the audience. They think I don’t like them, but actually I know how much more they’d get under slightly different conditions that they can control. They think, “Oh, how come he’s so sensitive?”


How do you adapt to the trio?

You just stay out of the bass player’s way. (laughs) It’s not so different, but we are in a category of music I’m intimate with when I play with the trio. When I play alone I’m not in a category, I don’t think I am a jazz player. In the trio, that is what I do. There’s a different psychological and musical makeup that we’re dealing with.


Is that format restrictive?

It’s restrictive to be playing too many concerts in any format. When you’re young and need the work, you have to play a lot. But I saw the Duke Ellington band when they were doing one-nighters for 30 days in Europe and they looked like ghosts. I remember thinking, “This is a lesson.” Also, musicians don’t listen to their own music enough when they keep playing. They don’t realize what they’re doing, they’re just getting to the gig. But I wouldn’t say I’m a different kind of player in either situation. If I can use the whole piano, then suddenly I’m not a jazz player—because most jazz players have a right hand but no left hand. I grew up playing classical.

What did you learn from that?

Mozart helped me realize that I could be doing a lot more with ballads, because there’s a certain touch that’s required that jazz players don’t have. Most jazz players don’t even have a touch. It’s an idea music, and I wanted to play everything music. Maybe it is jazz that I’m playing, but it’s also involved with touch, which is why classical listeners come to the concerts. It doesn’t have to reside in rhythm all the time.


What did you learn from Miles?

I learned some smart ways of leading a band. I was already doing that, but I hadn’t seen it—the fewer words the better, that kind of thing. Don’t tell anybody what to play unless you’re forced to.


When did you find your own style?

In Belgium, in the middle of the forest outside the city. It had to be in the late ’60s. We took a break, and up to that moment I thought I had been working on my “voice,” which is what you’re supposed to be doing in jazz. But then I came back onstage and thought, “Wait, I found it. Now I can just play the piano.” That was the moment. People think you find your voice and then everyone knows who you are. But that’s only a stage, not the final stage. The final stage never comes.

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