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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2007/03/21
by Pat Buzby

Jarrett in Chicago

My credit card had its holiday burden, but I realized I would have to put it to use yet again one Friday morning in January. An announcement on the gossip page of the Chicago Tribune, of all things, mentioned that Keith Jarrett would be playing a solo concert in Chicago on February 17.
By then there wasnt much left on my list of live music experiences yet to be had, but a Jarrett solo concert was still on that list. Jarrett made his name with these entire nights of solitary piano improvisation (aside from an occasional standard or original in the encores) in the 70s, but sometime in the 90s he stopped doing them in America. He broke this silence with a 2005 show at Carnegie Hall which came out on CD a year later.
Jarrett changed his solo concert format in 2002. In earlier decades, most of his solo concerts consisted of two improvised sets of around 45 minutes apiece followed by encores. Now, it seems that if he thinks a musical path has reached its conclusion, he stops the piece, and he often follows it with something entirely dissimilar. Judging from Carnegie Hall and a few earlier recordings, he seems to have three favored improvisatory modes: abstract pieces in which a stew of notes could form into a modern-classical piece or a Monk/Taylor-esque jagged bebop, ballads where he seems capable of seeing into the very core of melody, and rousing, crowd-pleasing gospel/blues exercises.
What has not apparently changed for Jarrett, though, is his expectations of his audience. This became clear with the no late seating warning stamped on my ticket, and became clearer as my usher presented a longer list of concert-going terms and conditions than Id experienced at any other show. For better or worse, its rare to come across a report on Jarrett that doesnt bring his demanding specs for pianos and audience members into consideration. Before Jarrett came onstage, an announcer said that the show was being recorded and asked for no coughing from the audience, which prompted an amused round of coughs.
As the first set of the concert unfolded, though, I got a new perspective on all that. Jarrett began, to my surprise, by speaking briefly to the audience, and then sat down for his first piece. It was of the abstract variety mentioned above; his hands leaped over each other in fascinating motions and music was being born as I watched. At a quiet moment, though, someone in the crowd coughed loudly. More quiet, more coughs. Finally, Jarrett stopped, the coughing fit played itself out, and Jarrett restarted. He took a busier, ostinato-laden variation on an idea from the first piece and made that the foundation for the second piece. It was propulsive and rewarding in its own right, but the first piece was snuffed before it could live its full life, and I spent the second piece wondering if the need to stand up to the noise was influencing Jarretts music.
Jarrett talked more than I expected, sounding congenial, despite the initial incident. Unfortunately, one person in the audience seemed to think this was James Taylor appearing on VH1-Storytellers and kept shouting out things like youre great. Jarrett responded to most of these comments, although I suspect ignoring them would have led to there being less of them. It was as if he expected the best from us, and chose to treat every action as if it was our best effort, even if, from my point of view, it wasnt.
The fifth piece in the first set was a ballad of the variety mentioned above. It reminded me of a condensed version of the KConcert, the 1975 recording which earned these improvisatory events the surprising fame they have had since. Jarrett had been playing for at least 30 minutes, possibly 40. He could have left the stage at that point. Instead, he remarked about how hard it could be to follow himself, then he played another short, free piece where it seemed as if he was having trouble finding something, and then he left the stage. It was among the least calculated moments Ive witnessed in a concert.
The second set was excellently played, but lacked the drama of the first. Jarrett came out for five encores. He plays few concerts these days, and it was as if he did not want the Chicago Concert to end. By then, I was thinking of it as the Chicago Concert, with images of the CD that might result. If there was one, though, it would probably lack some of the audience contributions of the actual event, good and adverse. And it would lack the tension of not knowing what music was going to come into being.
Some have asked why Jarrett doesnt work more in the studio if hes so touchy about the circumstances of concerts. However, theres an energy in improvised music that can only come from the presence of a group of concentrated listeners. And, although I can accept that factors beyond someones control can sometimes prevent him from showing up on time or staying silent, theres an idealism in Jarretts view of the event that should not be defeated. Everyone has standards to meet, but everyone contributes.

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