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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2003/04/25
by Patrick Buzby

Keith Jarrett – In Search of Moments

Yet another musical figure who I discovered in my early listening days was the pianist Keith Jarrett. My initial encounter with him came via a mysterious 3-LP grey boxed set called Concerts (1982). A booklet in this set contained a few arty essays printed in both English and German and a track listing, which consisted of two cities and dates with one or two long (over 30 minutes), untitled pieces and two short songs from each city.
It took me years before the records from the second city made it to my turntable, but I did get something from the first long piece. Not untypical of solo Jarrett improvisations, it starts with tentative balladry, develops into stomping, repetitive funk/gospel with some dazzling right hand flurries and ambidextrous ostinatos, wanders away into more balladry and devolves into avant garde pounding, inside-the-piano stroking and further stomping. It has its tedious aspects, but there is much to enjoy, especially in the funk segment.
However, what gets to me the most about this particular performance is one fleeting 20 seconds or so of repeated light, open-fifth, cascading notes (if someone asks nicely, I could figure out precisely where it is) in the second ballad segment – a bit where I had been dancing around the room throwing a piece of paper (yes, I was a dopey kid) and I suddenly stopped and watched the paper fall, and the music combined with the paper falling seemed to address something about the transience of time, more than I could hope to cover in a year’s essays. Deep, man.
I feel this is worth bringing up largely because Jarrett himself seems to have devoted much of his career to the pursuit of similarly ephemeral but transcendent moments, and in an equally shameless way. His catalog, mostly on ECM, includes the million-selling 1975 KConcert (in the same vein as that 3-LP set I heard, but a bit easier to follow) and many others which have sold far less. ECM have allowed him to issue sets of improvisation on church organ and clavichord, recordings of Bach and jazz standards, and live improvised sets reaching as much as 10 LPs, and have often miked his recordings so as not to obscure the noises he makes while playing, which can include vocal moans and groans as well as the aforementioned stomping. Some of this has been controversial. I don’t get it all myself.
However, recently I’ve realized for certain that Jarrett is not part of the respected-but-never-listened-to category for me, despite those imposing boxes and essays. And, as a further demonstration of that, I had a "bit of a musical experience" (to use Mike Gordon’s phrase) when delving for the first time into ROIOs of Jarrett’s solo performances, one of them from the week after the Kconcert, one of them from a few days after the second concert from that grey box.
The later concert, one which I have not finished listening to yet (so much music, so little time), was especially out of the ordinary. One characteristic of solo Jarrett is that he tends to explore each individual idea to its fullest potential, sometimes to the distraction of certain listeners. Another is that he tends to have a prickly relationship with audiences who interrupt his flow. This concert came labeled with two "interruptions" on the first CD.
At this performance, Jarrett starts cooking almost right away, only to yell "Photography." and stop (interruption #1). Then he plays again and immediately works up to the same level with different musical material, and this time you can hear the audience groan en masse at interruption #2. Then he plays and makes it through to the end of the set, an odd performance consisting of one "wow" moment after another, but with spectacular ideas started and thrown aside in a way that seldom happens on his official releases.
Mikal Gilmore once wrote about the Deadheads cast adrift by Garcia’s passing that "we are poorer for the loss of such dreamers." Equally, I would add, we are worse off with fewer of the selfless, sometimes indulgent and frustrating, often fascinating pursuers such as Jarrett.

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