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In 1999, in a major broadsheet feature, Geoff Dyer, author of the critically acclaimed jazz novel But Beautiful, referred to Keith Jarrett (b.1945) as “The greatest living jazz musician.” It was not the first time, and it certainly will not been the last time, he has been referred to in such terms. He is, after all, one of just a handful of jazz musicians who have become a legend during their own lifetime.
Jarrett’s recording career neatly divides itself into three periods, the early Atlantic years, the Impulse! years and his ECM years. While it is fair to say his Atlantic and Impulse! years (plus a dalliance with Columbia in between) represent a portrait of the artist as a young man, his career, from Facing You from 1972 to the present day, documented by the ECM label, reveals the flowering of an astonishing talent, not just in jazz, but in improvised music and classical music as well.
1:39 The Night We Called It A Day (Matt Dennis/Tom Adair – 1941) 8:58 I Love You (Cole Porter – 1944) 14:17 Things Ain’t What They Used To Be (Mercer Ellington/Ted Persons – 1942) 23:21 Sound (Keith Jarrett) 31:18 I Loves You, Porgy (George & Ira Gershwin – 1935) 36:54 There Is No Greater Love ( Isham Jones & Marty Symes – 1936) 43:23 Round About Midnight (Thelonious Monk – 1944)
50:38 Solar (Miles Davis – 1946) 58:28 Keith plays with the towel and makes the audience laugh (he’s so cute!!!) 59:13 Then I’ll Be Tired Of You (Arthur Schwartz/Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg – 1934) 1:07:18 Sweet And Lovely” (Harry Tobias/Charles N. Daniels aka Moret or Lemare – 1931)
1:11:50 The Wind (Russell Donald Freeman/JerryGladstone – 1953) 1:21:37 Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me (Duke Ellington/Bob Russell – 1940) 1:30:15 I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” (Duke Ellington/Paul Francis Webster -1941) 1:35:16 Summertime (George Gershwin/DuBose Heyward – 1934)
The piano solo concert format, almost single-handedly popularized by Jarrett in the 1970s, has led to some of his best loved recordings, including 1975’s Köln Concert, which has now sold well over three million copies. In 1988 a Bach/Jarrett keyboard cycle was initiated by ECM’s classical imprint the ECM New Series, beginning with The Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 (piano) and Book 2 (harpsichord) and in 1991 he went on to record Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues to world-wide critical acclaim.
In 1983 Jarrett embarked on a new venture in the jazz field, the formation of a jazz trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. For some while he had been playing “Over the Rainbow” as an encore at his solo concerts and he decided to form a group to explore the American Songbook – and beyond – explaining to Musician magazine that year, “Some of the things you hear with the group are fun: the fun of being able to relate to something and not care what it is, and just take it. But when you play alone, whatever you hear, you can’t have fun with it because you just have it to yourself.” After travelling the world performing solo concerts for eight years, Jarrett, it seemed, was missing interaction with other musicians.
In 2008, ECM celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the formation of the trio with the re-release of their first three albums as Setting Standards in a specially packaged and priced box set. As the Swiss jazz writer Peter Rüedi shrewdly noted in the liner notes, “From the very beginning Jarrett emphasized two imperatives: they must take the standards seriously as great if unrecognized art on a small scale, and they had to do so from an up-to-date and radically improvisational vantage point.
Once the musicians entered the studio, the effect was astonishing. The old tunes unleashed a rush of emotions, a delight in streams of collective communication, without preconditions, following not only the skeletal changes but the melodic lines of force in the originals.”
After recording enough material for two albums of standards, the trio felt so elated they decided to try something else. It resulted in the third album in the ECM box set, Changes where other than Jarrett’s composition “Prism,” the music was spontaneously conceived. Since then, what has become known as “The Standards Trio” has built a substantial discography on the ECM label, including two further albums of spontaneous interaction.
With the recent release of Yesterdays, a session capturing the trio in top form from 1991, it seemed appropriate to begin my interview with Keith Jarrett by discussing this latest release and then briefly reflect on a over quarter of a century of music-making with the trio, in both the “Standards” and free collective improvisational contexts. Other issues he talks frankly and engagingly about are the importance of melody and meaning in jazz improvisation, the transferability of skills from classical to jazz, his practice regime and more.
What gradually emerges is a portrait of an intensely dedicated musician, restlessly challenging himself to achieve the highest standards he can possibly attain in creative music making.
Q: Yesterdays was recorded in 2001 and to me it’s at once intense,
creative yet playful and seems to encapsulate your remarks in the
LA Times that jazz musicians don’t have to break down doors all the
time. So what is your rationale when you select pieces to perform
with the trio?
KJ: Rationale? I don’t have one, I don’t have a conscious concept.
Just to give you an example. Tribute [the double CD set of
standards – plus two Jarrett originals – recorded October 15, 1989
at Philharmonie, Köln] was a tribute to Nancy Wilson, Charlie
Parker, Coltrane and people like that in jazz. There was quite an in depth
review of it, I’m not sure if it was a German reviewer or could
even been British, anyway, it was very in-depth, and he had
developed this theory that as we were playing each song we were
quite aware of whom the recipient of this tribute was.
I had to debunk his whole theory when he talked to me a little bit, I said not only have you developed this theory, painstakingly probably, and worked it out, but I have to tell you that you’re absolutely not correct. There was no thought of these singers and players at the time, we did the
playing – that came after the fact when I realized there was a connection between the songs and what someone had done, for example, when I think of “All the Things You Are” I think of Sonny Rollins, and so on. So there is no rationale, no game plan with the trio.
Q: So you just hit on songs?
KJ: That’s about as in-depth as you get! I hit on them, like baseball
or something. For example, if you take Yesterdays, if I were to
analyze the different facets of it and say what was the rationale for
those particular choices I couldn’t – I remember we were coming
out of three or four concerts that were all free music [with the trio],
and then we did a soundcheck in the hall [April 30, 2001, at
Metropolitan Festival Hall, Tokyo] and it seemed like songs would
work better than free stuff, and we had not played any tunes at all on
this trip, yet.
So one of the things you hear [on the album] is relief, we were just relieved not to have to be in charge of every split second, so answering your original question, we didn’t feel we had to push the envelope as we had been pushing the envelope at those other four concerts for every split second.
Rather than rationale there are reasons that provoke us into saying yes, this works, no this doesn’t work, this hall is good for this, it’s not good for this, and then the music arrives in a certain package. For example, the whole
music of The Survivor’s Suite [recorded Ludwigsberg, Germany April 1976 and released by ECM] was written – and this is something that’s perhaps not known widely at all – that suite of pieces were written specifically for Avery Fisher Hall in New York, because I knew we were going to play there, I think it was opposite Monk as part of the festival.
I knew from playing in Avery Fisher Hall many times the sound was not precise enough onstage to play fast tempos, [the sound] got blurred – so I decided to write the music for that evening.
I felt it was important as an evening of music and that’s the first place we played it, and it was written for that hall, and then it became something we did at other places. So there was a rationale to that, but I think very few people would ever say, “Would you conceive, Mr. Jarrett, of writing for a specific hall?” I probably would say, “No.” But the answer lies in the fact that I knew the hall to be very poor for certain kinds of things and if you
listen to The Survivor’s Suite you’ll notice there are no fast tempos.
Q: Interesting. Religious music, of course, is conceived entirely with
the acoustic space in mind.
KJ: That’s right. Anything on that record was “free” speed, not
tempo speed, so that was that story. I think that explains more or
less how we go about this stuff.
Q: Yesterdays – you mention you did four free concerts beforehand,
but 2001 was actually a very rich period for the trio [four albums
were recorded from the trio’s 2001 tours]
KJ: Ah, yes. I was the first person to notice, of course, because I
have a list “must come out” releases. This tape must come out, this
tape – forget it, we don’t need this. So I had recordings from all over
the place from a few different years, and I made list on a couple of
sheets of paper in case my plane went down or something silly like
that, and someone would see that and know what I wanted next.
And it’s a funny thing. I noticed that in the end, although I was
choosing from over several years, I kept choosing pre-9/11 on the
year 2001. And I have no explanation for that.
Q: Well, I was going ask if the inner man was celebrating putting
that awful illness behind you [Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, popularly
known as ME, which afflicted Jarrett from the autumn of 1996 for
over two years].
KJ: Yes. That could be. If that’s true then there’s something going
on now too. It started at the end of  at Carnegie Hall with the
trio and everything jumped, skyrocketed!
Q: Well, I hope it’s being documented. Can we go back to the beginning of the trio, and the ECM three CD box set Setting Standards which documents its beginnings [Standards Vol. 1 and Standards Vol. 2 and Changes recorded January 1983]. What was the ethos of the trio then, and how it has evolved?
KJ: Well, interestingly it evolved all by itself, as long as we keep the
same principles, just not possessing the music as though it’s ours, and just going in as a player in a group. It evolved like that, it depends on the purity of Gary and Jack and me at that time, and that’s all it depends on – plus our health of course – but really the purity of intent.
There’s not another group that has this MO, at least I’ve never heard of one, but it’s not that we’re casual, we’re the exact opposite. I’m not hearing anymore, like I heard ten years ago, “Why are they still playing standards?” I’m not hearing this from critics.
I’m seeing them saying just listen to them playing, not so much “that’s the third time they’ve played this song,” but the fact we’re changing without any preconceived notion of what kind of that change should be.
Q: Equally, the Standards Trio has always had its alter ego, The
Q: And later albums such as Inside Out [recorded at London’s
Festival Hall in July 2000] and Always Let Me Go [the two CD set
recorded in Japan in April 2001] prompt me to ask about this aspect
of the trio’s performances. Sometimes you impose form, sometimes
the roles of the instruments change and I was wondering if you get
the same degree of fulfilment playing in the freer realm as you do
playing – for want of a better word – inside.
KJ: Well, we’re a little bit busier, so it’s a little harder to feel fulfilled! But Gary told me something interesting after he heard Always Let Me Go, he said, “Really this is the only group I’ve ever played with” – and he’s had a lot of free experience, he was with Albert Ayler and playing with a lot of guys playing free music – he said, “this is the only group where it constantly changes inside the freedom and it’s not boring. It isn’t like you start out in high gear and that’s where you stay, and no colors ever shift.”
But it’s not something I’d want to do constantly, because it’s like going outside your planet, at some point you’ve got to come back.
Q: Can you expand on how you collectively approach this area of
KJ: Well, to me, it’s like applying the solo gestalt to three people, and
trying to lead, without being a leader – if the bottom feels like it’s
going to fall out finding some little spice to throw up in the air, so
there is some element – it isn’t typical free music, it’s more like
I’m more in charge when we’re playing free stuff than when we’re playing tunes because I’ve had such an enormous amount of experience playing from zero in solo concerts, so I know I’m hearing the guys looking at me as little road signs, it’s good because what it means is those are the moments when the music does shift and the color does change, otherwise it would be just be like sweating and playing triple forte!
Maybe Jack starts it by playing something and I have to find a way in, and since I have the only instrument that has to do with harmony per se, I’m the one who has to deal with structure also, they don’t necessarily.
All through my jazz listening life, I was always more interested in listening to piano-less groups than with piano, so it’s hard to be a pianist in a free situation because the instrument itself is looking at you and saying “Why aren’t you using combinations of my notes?” So it’s a kind of give and take, a lot of free players will probably not consider those albums really free music, but my answer to them, if they were ever to say that, is the answer I gave someone when I gave a Bach transcription as an encore for a solo concert.
He came backstage and decried the fact that it was not completely
improvised, and I said, “Yes it was.” And he said, “No, it was a Bach piece.” And I said, “But I didn’t plan on playing it!”
Q: Touché! One important aspect of your playing is your respect for
melody, both written and improvised. I wonder if you could let me
have your perspective on the importance of melody, which, to me at
least, is often being lost in jazz in favour of patterns.
KJ: Yes, I agree. I would say the “cleverness” syndrome has taken
the place of melody. It’s like everyone has come down with this
terrible disease in jazz. First, you are always expected to do your own material, which is a strange thing to do if you’re a poor composer but a great player. If you are a great player, and luckily you know what great melody is about, things can happen that can’t happen otherwise. There was a class on melody when I went to Berklee school, I didn’t learn anything in that class, but I thought it was an immensely innovative idea.
I already felt I knew what melody was and what good melody was. It was held by a guitarist and I can’t think of his name, I think he was from the South West, the deal was you’d go in, and it was like a melody class, melody
writing – and it was like Jeez, what’s this about? And that was exactly the point, it was boring in its concept, but it provoked the awareness that – in other word, if you need to be made conscious of something the only way to do that is by finding how bad you are at it.
One of the first exercises we were given was eight bars, and you could only use whole notes and half notes, and you’re supposed to write a melody and bring it in.
It’s almost what I’d tell piano students, they’d play a lot of licks, I could tell they were not coming from them, they were coming from mechanical patterns. And they would say, “How do you do what you do?” And I would say, “Don’t even ask that question, ask yourself why do you do what you do? Do you like what you just played or not?” “Well no. Not really” And I’d say, “Okay, I want you to play a fifth in your left hand, C and G, any fifth, anywhere, in your left hand.
And just wait and if you don’t hear anything in your head to play don’t start playing and when you do start playing, if it’s not something you like, stop.” And they come back and say, “You know, I never discover anything I like, and I wait forever and nothing happens and nothing goes through my head.”
And I’d go, “Okay, that’s the first stage. Keep doing it.” With melody Ornette is a good example, there’s naivety in his music, but there’s
something natural there that you can’t teach. It’s either there or it’s not, and I’m not sure if there are rules, like there are in architecture. If you graph a good melody, it probably looks good as a graph. I’m working on the Bach violin concertos now to play with a violinist and some slow movements, if you just look at [the sheet music] the intervallic motion and the immense amount of juice that’s there is in the shapes, something very, very meaningful in the shapes even on the page.
When I look at music, I can tell by looking at it if there is anything to do with melody in this music, because there should be a shape there that gets you intrigued, and it has to be asymmetrical, a really good melody stands out as a perfect thing, and it couldn’t be bettered. If it can’t be bettered, then it’s a good melody. And then there’s the harmony. It depends on how a person writes, but what I used to do was I’d have the melody start on paper, I just was so involved in getting it down the way I heard it I’d just
write a bass note just so I’d know what the contrapuntal relationship is.
I would say that people who write using chords and melody as a guide are most of the time going to be bad melody writers.
Because chords are vertical and melodies are lateral, so if you start thinking of chords too early in the writing of something, you may overlook the one great thing you could have come up with in the melody. And then there is this mystery place in the melody where you don’t know what chords should be there, and that’s what you have to discover later.
You just have to come up with voice leading or some chordal – there’s a piece I wrote called “So Tender,” which is on a couple of our albums, the trio recorded it, and I did it with Airto and when I did it with Airto, Ron Carter was playing bass, and it was in the studio, and he looked at the music and said, “This can’t be right.” And I said, “What do you mean, Ron?” And he said, “Well, the second eight bar phrase starts with a dominant chord,” and I said, “That’s right, Ron.” He said, “How can that be? It’s just not…”
He was thinking from his rule book. I said, “Ron, wait until you here the whole piece, you’re looking at the chords. Wait until you see how the melody and chords connect, and then tell me it’s wrong.”
And he didn’t say a word after that! It’s a matter of how the multiplicity of elements connect that makes the melody and the voices below the melody make perfect sense, and that is something you might never guess from only looking at one of those elements.
Q: One of the problems for pedagogy, of course, is that there is no
such thing as a definition for “a beautiful melody.”
KJ: Many, many great composers – let’s say Prokofiev, for example. An incredible melodist, he strings the melody out over a longer period of time than you would expect, and because of that you become intrigued. Like, we thought this would resolve itself last week! But it’s still going on and there are still more chords to be found there, more groundwork that somehow makes sense. That’s a certain kind of magic, and I don’t think you can teach it.
Q: I think so too. Today you have to have the instant melody, or
instant hook, for instant gratification. We have spoken in the past
about Mozart, who was a supreme melodist
Q: And I wonder how his concertos have helped in terms of touch
and expressivity in your jazz work, the transferability of skills from
one discipline to another.
KJ: Well, if you take a slow movement in a concerto by Mozart,
almost anyone! There are phrases that are so simple and so profound at the same time that you realize that if you can apply this to a song – I discovered something recently that took me my entire life to get to this realization, I’ll tell you what this was in a second – if you take this concept that maybe you have learned from playing Mozart where you realize it can sound like nothing, or it can sound like the most beautiful thing in the world, and it depends on your touch and phrasing on, let’s say three notes that are basically quarter notes ascending in a, let’s say, a C# minor triad up to the octave.
If you discover the secret in that music, its meaning, you can
apply it to other things. So if I want to play a ballad and I know the
words, then I can – I discovered this recently – I can actually do
more to the song and the meaning of a song on piano than a singer
could do if they are singing it and using the words.
For example, it’s hard to know what to do with this one phrase in “Over the Rainbow” where you have to go down low, and you say, [sings] “Birds fly over the rainbow,” how do you get anything out of “birds” as a singer?
And you have to go down for a low note! But on piano, since you’re
doing an instrumental version, you can actually continue to keep the
whole meaning of the song intact while you’re playing the note that
would be the word “birds.”
No mater how good the singer, they’re always going to be stuck with the sound [of “bird”], as an instrumentalist you’re not stuck with that sound, so the integrity can come closer to the song than anybody could sing it. So I guess one of the things I took from Mozart is that it further refined my
touch to the point where I could play “words” without having to say
“birds” or, say, “if.” It’s hard to sing “if” as anything other than a
short sound, but on piano you can make “if” mean something – the
meaning of “if,” not the sound of “if” – and I just discovered that,
let’s say three, four months ago.
I was doing a private project for myself in the studio, trying to get into a state of mind that would provoke – I was intending a state of mind, let’s put it that way – and I realized that much of what I was doing was from pieces I had heard sung, so I knew the words.
So I’m not playing these songs like a jazz musician wanting to play jazz on them, this was an attempt at playing them even straighter than Melody at Night, With You, for example [the 1999 album which marked Jarrett’s return to performing after suffering the debilitating effects of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome] and have it be the loss of love and have it be this rubato place that was sad and lonely, like the Frank Sinatra album Only the
Lonely, which I consider one of his greatest things.
Almost all these songs came to me from vocalists versions, in other words I heard them sung by somebody, and this is the weird thing. I brought the
tapes into the house, then I played the record – it was mostly records – and then I put the tape on [I did of the same song] and then I thought, “Keith, this is idiotic. It’s going to blow your thing, and you’re going to give up the project because the singer is always going to beat the piano out, the piano goes ‘clang, clang, clang’ and the singer is singing the words, and I always wanted the piano to sound like a voice.”
I’m getting ready to get depressed, but I think it’s worth it, I have to persevere, I have to listen to this. And in every case I tried, the reference singing version of these songs was inferior to what I had just done with it on piano in the sense of the meaning of the song. My whole theory all along had been to try and get as close to the vocal version as you can because the words are what the song is about, and the words describe the entire feeling, and you have to get that right, but I never realized you can surpass the words.
Q: That is very interesting, because you tend to think of the voice as
being the most direct expression of human emotion.
KJ: Yes, and I still think it is, but the problem, I think, is we’re stuck
with words and I was playing this clanging semi- percussive
instrument called a piano and it was more convincing than the
references I was reviewing
Q: In terms of emotion
KJ: In terms of emotion. I just thought I don’t even have to release
this stuff, I have just performed an experiment that nobody else has
performed – to my knowledge – and succeeded in challenging
myself to a challenge I didn’t realise I was challenging myself to!
Q: Just returning to Mozart’s slow movements, and there is a
problem for me with young and not so young musicians rushing for
the sanctuary of double time when playing ballads as soon as
possible, it seems
KJ: Yes, oh yes. And also like in conversations, people don’t know
when to be quiet, including me. When I had Chronic Fatigue
Syndrome, you brought that up earlier, I had the unfortunate luxury
of listening to everything I recorded – if I wanted to! And I found
out I was not at all impressed and not at all satisfied how things had
– it wasn’t that I didn’t like it, there was so much more I had to do
that I hadn’t got around to correcting, and that takes a lot of
experience. [So when I returned to playing after the illness] I’d hear
myself play something on the piano, and I’d think, “No, that’s not
me that’s sitting at the piano, that’s the previous me that liked
that chord so much, and kept playing that chord forever.”
Now I knew that because of going through the Chronic Fatigue thing I had listened to tapes of myself and I realized I wasn’t aware of this as I wished I was, I wasn’t that conscious [of that] as I wanted to be. If there’s one thing, I don’t think young players of today realize how much more important it is to look at what they’re not doing than what they are doing. Somebody I know in London said she knows a lot of jazz players, and they go hang out, while they hang out they’re playing music and the music that they’re playing is basically what they’re learning. Like the Rolling Stones, they must have listened to hundreds of blues guys because that was what they were trying to do.
But what you have to do is listen to everything, listen to what you’ve never heard before. When I was a kid, I already knew this somehow. I think my curiosity saved my soul because I spent every penny of what little money I had on a record of a composer I had never heard of or go to the library and get something I never knew existed. If your ears are not open to everything possible, then they literally don’t know what is possible.
Q: Well, yes, in jazz the last twenty years certain area of jazz have
become very self referential
KJ: Yes. Well the same girl said “I wish I was around in the Sixties.”
And I said, “I’m glad I was!”
Q: Manfred Eicher too, has said musically it was such a creative
KJ: Yes, he has.
Q: Melody can be a lifeline to an audience in improvised music, do
you think there is any balance to be struck here, between melody
and improvisation, if at all?
KJ: I don’t think there should be a balance, everybody has a blood
stream, emotions, a heart. If musicians are open to everything they
can hear, something is going to connect to someone, everybody in
the audience will have a moment when they are connected to what
is going on, and at that moment they will wonder “What else is
going on? If that’s so great, then I had better pay attention to the rest
of this, even though I’m not sure what I think of this.
If you have some limitations, or you’re not working on your instrument or
you’re not really serious, that’s when you have to worry what you present to the audience because somehow you have to maintain a career, and you’re not doing the work. One of my friends said to me a couple of weeks ago, he said, “You know what really makes me happy, when you say ‘I have to go practice.” He said, “I don’t know if people know how much work you’re doing, but I know it’s paying off.”
That was his take on it. This is an ancillary topic to what we were talking about, but I think it is connected, musicians think in general, and what I used to think years ago, is that you have to find your voice. That is what you work on for I don’t know how many number of years. The things you like are the things you want to play and when you find yourself playing something you don’t like, that means it’s not you, so you eliminate it from who you are on the instrument, so you end up with a so-called voice of your own.
But the fallacy in that – first you end up lumping yourself in with the average audience member who will hear something they like, and they’ll hear something they don’t like, and they’ll say that was good because I liked it, and that was not good, because I didn’t like it. What a player has got to do is get the ability to drop all that stuff.
I remember walking on stage, we took a break in Belgium, it was with Aldo Romano and the French bass player J. F. Jenny-Clark, he’s not alive anymore. And as we walked back onstage, I realized I had found my voice, and now I could play the piano. And that’s really just step one. So now you have to step up to your instrument, and you have to have absolute faith that who you are, who you are.
But you can’t restrict what you play because of that, and you can’t play only things you think you like, because I had this experience, starting with Radiance [the solo concert recorded on October 27, 2002, at Festival Hall, Osaka], and from then on it’s more conscious since then, that if I don’t let my fingers find things to play that I have never heard, I’m actually not satisfied. I have to play something that surprises me too, not something I either “like” or “don’t like” but just the element of “What is that??” kind of thing.
Like you can’t freeze it in time, it has just gone by, and I started to
realize there’s a key here, that there is no freedom until you get to
that place. The rest of it is like putting barbed wire around yourself
and saying this is my voice now, I’m protecting it from all the bad
guys. And the audience is going to recognize that if I play the same
way all the time.
Q: I see what you’re saying – how can you expect the audience be
surprised with what you are playing if you’re not surprising yourself.
KJ: The audiences are pretty hip when they are sitting in their seats,
they’re aware of the fact they don’t really want to hear the same
thing. Not exactly. And if I give them an encore and it happens to be
a song they’ve heard they will applaud, but I know they’re there
primarily for an experience and not primarily to have nostalgia.
Q: You mentioned the quartet earlier, do you see a role for that
again in your music?
KJ: I am basically never thinking of the future, I actually have
things from the past, believe it or not there’s a sequel to Spirits, that
was done on all electric instruments: two guitars, electric bass,
drums, percussion, voice and occasionally something else
Q: When did you do this?
KJ: Shortly after I did Spirits in the late 1980s, and this has been
resting in my house ever since, and I played it for a couple of people
recently, and they go, “Oh my God! This has to come out, because
nobody is going to believe this stuff!” And one of the things about it
is, I’m playing all the instruments but the thing I really get a kick
out of it every time I hear it is how tight the rhythm section is.
It’s like the best feel on some of these things I could ever get because I
knew what I wanted, when you’re with percussionists their sense of time is slightly different, every drummer is different, and you’re playing piano, and you’re trying to blend and find where the rhythmic point is, and it’s a blend of all those guys. But here it’s so contagious because [the rhythm section] was all me, and I’m not saying this from an egotistical standpoint, it’s, I guess the word is contagious, it’s like hearing Miles’ rhythm section at the Blackhawk and you hear how they are at one, every beat at exactly the same precise place, and for me, it was all my sense of time.
The reason I bring that up is there is not just a future, there’s a past. At the moment the Trio is going to go the length, the next release is going to be the Paris and the London concerts together, there was something special going on there.
Q: If you were to take this last twenty-six years of the Trio from
Setting Standards until now, what was you’re practise regime then
and what is it now, and how did it affect your music, en route, so to
KJ: This could be an entire book! Well, I’ll take it as bookends. I didn’t use to practice at all [when I was younger] as I was so busy working, and when you’re busy working you don’t notice you can’t change habit patterns when you’re gigging constantly. Most of the early time I didn’t feel the need to practice, I’d practice, of course, but when I felt like it. Now, I practice every day. That’s the bookend version. I practice at what would be concert time
Q: That is interesting.
KJ: Yes. That’s the major practice portion of the day, and sometimes
before dinner, I’m working on Bach also but now the weather is
getting nicer, it’s harder to do! It’s based on instinct. When I was
working on preparing the harpsichord recordings of Bach, the piano
got closed up, and I played nothing but harpsichord for months
because those two instruments are not even similar at all.
When I was working on Mozart, all I was practicing was Mozart, when I am working on this Bach project until after this weekend I’m not practicing anything but that, then two weeks before a concert in Naples, which is a solo concert, I will try and let my fingers remember that they are not playing Bach anymore, and the different muscle groups involved with solo they are immensely different, the muscle groups, the posture, everything changes, so really it depends on what I am about to do.
If I was about to go on tour with the Trio, which will be true when I’m home in June, I will be practicing by playing or discovering whether they are some tunes I feel like initiating with the Trio. Somebody once said, some jazz player once said, “Don’t practice, play.” And that’s what you do when you prepare for that. It’s not like you’re practicing anything, you just have to play through things forever, and you find out if you are innovative that day or not, and you have to assess yourself, “Why didn’t I have a good practice session that day?” It’s like being your own psychiatrist.
Q: And finally, solo concerts, the ultimate challenge. Can you talk a
little about your philosophy and approach to the solo concert.
KJ: Those things are like commissioned works. I’m paid to turn up
and to create a brand-new thing, that’s the most serious thing I do in
terms of focus and craziness and impossibility, and you don’t know
[in advance] if you have anything to show. People should know this.
When I won the Polar Prize [in 2003, awarded by the Royal Swedish
Academy of Music] they had a seminar there and the first thing I
said was, “I know you are all mostly music students and I want you
to know it does not get easier than it is right now.”
Because basically the freer you are, the more you are in charge, and the more you’re in charge, unless you’re willing to be a mediocre critic, you don’t put up with any bullshit from yourself. And that’s basically the essence of coming up with stuff that’s worth paying a ticket price for. The
rest is noodling, I would say, and if there is anything the world does not need at the moment it’s noodling…
It’s hard to do music and to make a mark in some way – when you get a letter from two people in Beirut saying your music kept them alive through the war there, or you get a phone call from a Swiss painter to say I saved his life, myself and Bach that is, these are not the things to take lightly.
It’s a serious job and the world doesn’t understand it because they’ve seen
entertainers so often they think musicians are entertainers, but they’re not.
Q: An important note to end on. Thank you for speaking to me
KJ: A pleasure.
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