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Keith Jarrett - The Art of Improvisation Top 25 icons in Jazz history

Keith Jarrett: The Top 25 pearls in Jazz history

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    Keith Jarrett: The Top 25 pearls in Jazz history

    Born on May 8, 1945, in Allentown, PA; son of Daniel (a real estate salesman) and Irma Jarrett; married Margot while in high school; children: two sons. Education: Attended Berklee School of Music for one year.

    In the February 1989 issue of Down Beat, Josef Woodward described the unique artistry and career of Keith Jarrett: “Like an unruly, self-determined river, Keith Jarrett’s pursuit of musical truth has taken him in a multiplicity of directions, either coursing a wide swath or branching off into tiny tangential reivulets. Similarly, his audience has been alternately swept up by the current, carried into the sidestreams, or has been left behind on the riverbanks.” Celebrated for his virtuosity and eclecticism, Jarrett has continued to experiment with the possibilities of the keyboard.

    Jarrett was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1945. When his parents’ marriage dissolved, Jarrett and his four brothers were raised by Irma Jarrett, his mother. A child prodigy who became a professional while still in grade school, he began to play the piano as a child, and started formal composition training at 15.

    Keith Jarrett spent a year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston but moved to New York to perform. Participation in Monday jam sessions at the Village Vanguard led to his first engagements. He toured with many of the most important ensembles in 1960s jazz, including Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and experimental saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and became the acoustic pianist for the Charles Lloyd Quartet on its successful tours of Western and Eastern Europe, the centers of popularity for American jazz.

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    Played with Jazz Innovators

    Jarrett’s compositions “Days and Nights Waiting” and “Sorcery” were given premieres in Europe by Lloyd’s Quartet. His own experimentation in these early years included one album of songs, Restoration Ruin, on which he played and overdubbed parts on the soprano saxophone, recorder, harmonica, guitar, piano, organ, electric bass, drums, bongos, tambourine, and sistra.

    When Lloyd’s group disbanded in 1969, Jarrett played with other jazz innovators, most notably Miles Davis, but he also travelled and recorded with his own trio-Ornette Coleman veteran Charlie Haden on bass, and Bill Evans sideman Paul Motian on drums–adding saxophonist Dewey Redman in 1971 for their first album, Birth.

    The quartet’s second album, Expectations, was awarded the French Grand Prix du Disque for Jazz in 1971. Jarrett began his recording collaboration with German producer Manfred Eicher and Editions of Contemporary Music (ECM) Records in 1971. As of 2002, Jarrett, Eicher and ECM had produced over 50 records together.

    Remaining devoted to the acoustic piano, despite the contemporary fashion for the electronic keyboard, Jarrett continued to write music for his own group. He has also composed for larger numbers and has integrated existing classical music ensembles into his works, as he did with the American Brass Quintet and the string section of the Stuttgart Philharmonic on his double album In the Light. His most popular albums are the solo piano recordings Facing You, Solo Concerts, and The Koln Concert, which was the best-selling piano record in history as of 1995, according to the Keith Jarrett official website.

    Jarrett’s reputation grew during the 1970s in Europe and the United States. His honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition and being named Rolling Stone‘s Jazz Artist of 1973 and Down Beat‘s Composer and Pianist of the Year in 1975. Solo Concerts–recorded in 1974–was named record of the year by Down Beat, Stereo Review, Jazz Forum, Time and the New York Times. Jarrett began to split his time between his American quartet and the group of Scandinavian musicians–Jan Gabarek, Jo Christensen, and Palle Danieslsson–with whom he recorded Belonging. He brought them to New York in 1979 and sold out the venerable jazz club, the Village Vanguard, for five nights.

    Returned to Classical Piano Performance

    A return to classical piano performance began in the early 1980s as he performed the solo parts of concerti with orchestras. His repertory included the classics of twentieth-century composition, such as Concerti by Samuel Barber, Bela Bartok (2nd and 3rd) and Igor Stravinsky (Concerto for Piano and Woodwinds), as well as commissioned works by Lou Harrison and Peggy Glanville-Hicks.

    He has also given piano recitals of the classical repertory, favoring Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, and Shostakovich; and has recorded Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. Crossover critic John Rockwell wrote of Jarrett’s first recital in the New York Times:

    “His interpretations had much to recommend them…. He has a venturesome musical mind, eager to embrace new music and new ways of playing familiar music.”

    In addition to Barber, Bartok, and Stravinsky, his classical repetoire has also included Hindemith and his billings include performances with the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Beethovenhalle Orchestra Bobb, as well as with well-known classical performers and conductors.

    In a 1989 Down Beat article, Jarrett analyzed the differences between playing the fully realized Bach compositions and the jazz standards. “In the case of the Well Tempered Clavier, I can see so clearly the process. The logic and motion of these lines makes beautiful sense…. I’m just more or less following his weave. He’s woven this thing and I’m reproducing it by hand…. In standards, there’s only a sketch, this single line with harmony. So I have to invent the rest of the rug.”

    He described “My Song,” which Down Beat called his “most hummable” work, this way: “If somebody can write ‘My Song,’ then either they have [a] brainstorm and wrote this deceptively simple piece that everybody likes when they hear it, or they know what they’re doing.”

    In 1983, Jarrett grouped with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette to form the Standards Trio. The group has stuck over the years, playing mostly standards for both large crowds and small houses, and recording in the studio. Their work resulted in two Grammy Award nominations, eleven critically-acclaimed recordings, the Pris du President de la Republique in 1991, and birthed 1996’s critically lauded Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note, a live recording of 37 songs with only three repeats on the whole album.

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    Describing the way in which the group successfully plays together, Jarrett told John Ephland of Down Beat, “We need pro, con and mediator; otherwise, everything falls apart.” When asked by Ephland if they communicated through their instruments–and not through vocal commands or hand signals–Jarrett replied, “That’s right.”

    While their communication onstage and in the recording studio makes them technically superior as a group, there’s more to it. “Every time we play, we might be playing the same material, but it’s a new planet.” Jarrett told Ephland. DownBeat.com said, “[the] acoustic trio … remains one of the most durable and dynamic in jazz today.”

    Struggled with Illness

    In 1996, Jarrett was struck with a severe case of chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating bacterial disease. He caught the airborn parasite while on a tour of Europe. He said that “Playing the piano has been my entire life,” according to Down Beat‘s Dan Ouellette, but Jarrett was forced to cancel all his engagements and even seriously consider whether or not he would ever play again.

    And for over two years, he didn’t. He was, in fact, confined to his house during those two years, unable to play the piano even inside. Still unable to give the type of “athletic” performance he was known for when he returned to a trimmed-down touring scene, Jarrett learned to exist under a “roof” of physical ability, forever knowing he could hit that roof and relapse back into chronic fatigue. In 1999, Jarrett recorded The Melody at Night with You, an album for his wife as a Christmas gift, and his return to the music world.

    Jarrett is best known for his improvisational performances; a musical genre that owes much to Baroque keyboard composers such as Bach and Scarlatti and to the traditions of jazz. In an article by James Lincoln Collier in the New York Times Magazine, Jarrett described the depth of his “Tabula-rasa approach to jazz improvising” as “I like to turn off the thought process. I’d like to forget that I even have hands. I’d like to sit down as if I’d never played the piano before.”

    He got this idea when he was in his teens, and he heard his brother play the piano in a way that inspired him to play freely. He told Ted Panken of Down Beat, “Practicing usually gets in the way of my performing. It’s like it sets up patterns or makes my ears less open. I’ve often said the art of the improviser is the art of forgetting.”

    And he claims to have had to work long and hard to put imperfections–“soul”–in his music. He told Ephland, “If I’m filled up, then all I can do when I play is throw up. But if I can get to some place and be real empty, then I can be available.” It’s a philosophy that has taken him far. He told Ephland, “If you own anything, you’re not free.”

    Jarrett’s jazz–of a style and a level of talent all his own–has made him what the Keith Jarrett official website called “an improviser of unsurpassed genius and a master of jazz piano.” He performs and records music solo, with other musicians, and with his Standards Trio, improvising at the top of his game and growing even more influential. He has had more than 30 years of important accomplishments, working with the “imperfect instrument” to create the stuff that improvisation is made of.

    by Barbara Stratyner

    Keith Jarrett plays a solo improvisation at “Molde Jazz Festival” in Norway, August 2, 1972.