Keith Jarrett's eternal balancing act
Almost two years ago, pianist Keith Jarrett shared publicly that he had suffered two strokes in 2018 and would likely never perform again. That revelation, which I reported in a piece for the New York Times, shook Jarrett's worldwide audience, eliciting sympathy and concern along with sorrow over the end of an illustrious concert career.
Jarrett's longtime label, ECM Records, cushioned the devastating news with some extraordinary music: Budapest Concert, recorded at the beginning of his final European tour. The conclusion of that tour had already been chronicled the previous year, on an album titled Munich 2016. Now, in addition to those bookends, ECM is preparing to release Bordeaux Concert. Recorded on July 6, 2016, a few days after Budapest, it's another balancing act of consonance and dissonance from a pianist whose blank-slate solo improvisations have always been valorized.
That legend has continued to grow in Jarrett's absence; there's even a film now in pre-production titled Köln 75, about the circumstances around his best-selling album The Köln Concert. As for the man himself, he's been quietly rehabilitating at home in rural northwest New Jersey. He's an avid reader — among his recent recommendations is Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane by Paul Auster — and a conscientious objector to internet culture. "Everybody's looking for the next technological leap," he said this week. "But all I need is two chairs and another person."
I reached Jarrett by telephone to talk about Bordeaux Concert, and in particular the deeply lyrical track "Part III," which ECM has made available prior to the album's release on Sept. 30. We were indeed both in chairs, if not in person, and Jarrett spoke not only about the recording but also his changed (and still-changing) relationship to the piano. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Nate Chinen: It was September of 2020 when we last spoke. How are you feeling now?
Keith Jarrett: I'm doing fine. I'm presently sitting on my front porch, which I now have called my office. And we've got a stream. We've got flowers, plants, butterflies, birds, everything. Oh, that's right — you were here.
It's a beautiful place in the summertime. That sounds really nice. And how has recovery been? Have you been doing a lot of physical therapy?
Well, I don't know if I'd call it therapy, but I've been using my legs more. And walking with and without a cane in different circumstances. So today I went walking down our private road to the beach across from the road, where there's a lake. As for recovering, I mean, I'm not sure. My right hand is not like my right hand was, and my left hand is not at all.
Well, I know that with these things, progress comes slowly.
The only thing I can relate this to is the chronic fatigue syndrome problem that I had [in the late 1990s]. And I usually was fairly Christian Scientistic about it. My mother having, and father having been that — and my grandmother.
When you say that you relate this to chronic fatigue syndrome, how would you differentiate the two experiences?
Well, that was the pure feeling of: if I look at my piano, I shouldn't play it. I should just look at it. Compared to what I have now, which is a right hand I try to assume is capable of something. The fatigue is not the same. I had a good doctor for that.
Good. I've thought about calling you a few times to check in, and then I had an excellent excuse, because ECM is about to release Bordeaux Concert. How much have you listened to the recording in preparation for the release?
The something I succeed at is to not prepare.
I didn't focus much on it before now. But I did listen to it several times along with the other concerts I did not release [from that tour], which are Vienna and Rome.
This was the concert right after Budapest. Last time we spoke, we talked about the Budapest concert quite a bit. Do you feel that the two are in dialogue with each other in some way, musically?
Well, I'd have to listen to both of them again. I think I'm always in dialogue with something other than what I've just played. That's the essence of improvisation.
Right. What do you remember about Bordeaux during that tour?
Not much — just the room I had in the hotel, which was unsatisfactory. The food, which also was unsatisfactory in a way. I don't want to say this to the Bordeaux-ians. Bordeux-esians? What do you call a person from Bordeaux? Bordeaux-ics. No. [Laughs.] Anyway, I remember there was a river next to the hotel, or across the street. And I walked along that. That's what I remember. 'Cause every day I was doing walks wherever I was. I hope it's Bordeaux that I'm talking about. I don't really know.
I'm still thinking about that unsatisfactory meal. I would think that's a national crime in France — to serve an artist an inferior meal in Bordeaux.
Ahh. I'm not even sure I was saying what I actually experienced. My memory — one thing you have with two strokes is, you're a two-cycle engine instead of a three-cycle engine.
Yeah, that makes sense.
I just remember that the audience was extremely graceful, and I assume the hall was fine.
How recently did you listen to the recording?
It was a while ago. At this moment in time, I don't even have anyone who can work my stereo system, because my wife is in Japan. And I don't usually compare them one-to-one. I just take my time and listen to them when I want to hear myself play solo.
There's one movement that will be released with this album announcement. It's "Part III" — so, obviously, early in the concert. But I'm really struck by it, because the first two pieces are fairly atonal and searching.
And then with "Part III," it's just incredibly beautiful and pastoral.
I heard it today, by the way.
Please tell me your thoughts, because I think it's a marvelous piece.
I didn't have any thoughts except: "Whoever played that did the right thing." That's how I listen. I don't listen to say to myself, "I succeeded at something." The something I succeed at is to not prepare. That melody doesn't conform to the kind of melody writing that one could make if they were writing it. It just conforms to its own self, which is what I want to see happen with my stuff.
And it's beautiful.
It is beautiful, absolutely. It's a ballad with this hymnal sort of progression, but also surprising, because of your chord voicings.
It's at least two things at one time. It's a melody that I could have been sitting down and writing differently, but that isn't what I am. I'm an improviser.
If I'm improvising and I play a certain voicing, that should lead me to the possibilities. Not what I've heard forever about that, but the possibilities at that moment.
Definitely. Now, this always comes up when there's any gospel tonality in your playing — but there's such an enormous audience for The Köln Concert. I imagine some people will make that connection when they hear this piece.
Well, see, that would be like somebody saying, "I want to make some popular music. And so, therefore, I want them to hear this one part." For me, it's a whole process. And that was just part of it. I mean, it connects with whatever I finished before it.
Thinking about how the previous two pieces led you to this, it's such a contrast — from that bristling atonality to this sudden beauty.
If you were driving a car and you were in an accident and it was in a very nice place, wouldn't you just take your time?
I was once asked, and I think this is appropriate for the earlier parts: "Am I going to hear you play those nonexistent chords?" And I said yes, but that might have been before a concert. During a concert, certain things are not nonexistent. For example, when I was playing atonally, what was nonexistent was harmony, pure harmony. Since that was true, let's call it the accident. And then I found myself in a nice atmosphere. Instead of saying, "Oh, no, I shouldn't do this, because I did the atonal stuff," I said, "Ah, come on, give me more."
Do you feel that it's difficult to take a moment like this and pull it out of context? Or is it OK, because it now exists, and can be heard however a listener accesses it?
Uh, generally I feel the first way, but with this, I would say if I was a listener and it just came on the radio, I would say, "I want to hear whatever that is." The person that doesn't follow me through all my trials and tribulations — if you want to call it that, the atonal thing — might not feel the same way I did when I played it.
The one limitation with my right hand is that my little finger has to play the melody. That is not true of having both hands. And the rest of my hand is there to pretend to play the chord.
It's four minutes long. I think it very much could be played on the radio and encountered as a standalone piece, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Do you have any other thoughts about the larger concert? It includes more of those "nonexistent chords," and it also includes other very melodic pieces.
I hear the whole thing when I listen to this little part. So I don't know what to say. Except I think I remember the clusters in some of the other parts. Not remembering in extravagant detail. I just remember the very basic feeling.
You mentioned the other concerts on this tour. After Bordeaux came Vienna, then Rome, and then Munich, which ECM did release. Do you think that at some point, Vienna and Rome will be released as well?
I would like it to be, yeah. I had a little trouble with the audience in Vienna, but that part doesn't have to be shown.
What kind of trouble?
Oh, just noise from the audience. I asked them: "Isn't this supposed to be the center of the European classical tradition?" I don't know, I just complained. And then I played the rest of the concert.
Sounds like it worked, whatever you said.
It did. It was a good concert.
Well, Budapest and Munich are standout concert recordings. I'm just starting to live with this one now, but it feels of a piece — like it is coming from that same place.
Well, it was a good audience, so they weren't bothering me much.
When you talk about your right hand now, have you been sitting down at the piano?
Yeah, I sit down at the piano. Last couple of days, I was there every day. I don't get much back from my right hand, though.
What do you usually play? Are you improvising?
Absolutely. I play tunes or something. Without a chordal left hand.
Can you remember any of the tunes that you've been playing?
Oh, just standards, just bebop things and standards.
Well, that's wonderful to hear. Knowing your relationship with the standards, even with certain limitations.
Well, the one limitation with my right hand is that my little finger has to play the melody. That is not true of having both hands. And the rest of my hand is there to pretend to play the chord.
So you're chording and playing the melody entirely with your right hand.
I wouldn't call it chording. I would call it choosing a couple of notes that might work.
Well, I have no doubt that you're finding solutions.
I'm not strong enough. My right hand is not strong enough.
But it sounds like you're building that strength again.
I don't know if I believe that.
I'm glad that you're playing, whatever the circumstances. And I want to offer my encouragement. I've talked with so many musicians and listeners who say some version of the same thing, which is that they hope you are finding your way to the piano. And they wish you well. I just wanted to share that.
Well, thank you. Thank you so much.
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