By Michael Ullman
Given Keith Jarrett’s current disability, this new ECM recording is an unexpected gift to his fans.
Keith Jarrett, Bordeaux Concert (ECM)
Almost exactly three decades ago, I interviewed Keith Jarrett in his New Jersey home. The occasion was his then recent CD Vienna Concert, a performance he said he preferred to his famous Köln Concert. (The resultant article, “Restless Virtuoso,” was published in World Monitor. Much of the interview latter appeared in Fanfare Magazine as “The Shimmer in the Motion of Things: An Interview with Keith Jarrett.”) The pianist said that when he listens to his own recordings he usually only hears what is missing. The Vienna Concert was different: “To me it was a miracle…I guess I am talking about the nuances of intention in the phrasing, the touch, tactile things you can actually hear.” It’s a good list of things we should be aware of when listening to Jarrett’s piano playing. He was just as eloquent about failure. Of his solo concerts, he said, almost anything can disrupt or stymie the flow… audience members that are late, a soundcheck that was so perfect he walks on stage knowing he can’t equal it, a flawed piano, or his own at times intrusive thoughts. Of his trio, he noted that they went into each performance without a plan, and without set arrangements. As a result: “If one of us isn’t playing right, or isn’t really there or is too tired, or had bad food, the chances of being incoherent are mathematically much greater than with any other group doing the same material.”
We discussed Glenn Gould’s Mozart, which I considered a failure. Jarrett sympathized. Maybe Gould needed to fail in that way, Jarrett opined, to get to the next step in his playing. Sometimes what a responsible artist does is not up to him or her. Jarrett admitted that he sometimes can become stuck in the middle of solo performances. Inevitably, a critic will point out that this or that section was boring. The pianist adds, “If it’s boring to you, maybe it’s also boring to me, but I am saying to myself, I better just find out what this is about.” So, rather than introduce an irrelevant idea to break the spell, he stays in that space until something organic happens: “What people so often make a mistake in thinking is that I’m free to play anything I want. If I can play anything, then why am I playing this boring part?.. But it’s not up to me. If I change something arbitrarily, I’m messing with the system here. But if you go through boredom, often exactly the same thing is interesting.”
As a result of a series of strokes, Jarrett can no longer play the piano, When he could perform, as his comments suggest, he played with integrity. Watching and listening to him live, I remember, it was as if we were also watching him discover how one thing could follow another as well as the way he let something new impose itself. He had a way of making a sympathetic audience virtually share in the creative process. Given his current disability, this new ECM recording is an unexpected gift to his fans.
Recorded live in the Auditorium Opera National in Bordeaux on July 6, 2016, Bordeaux Concert has thirteen separate parts (the Vienna Concert had only two). It is a varied masterpiece. “Part One” begins with a startling phrase which then seems to fade over pedalled low notes. The piece becomes active almost immediately with Jarrett playing rapid, but distinctly played, notes in an obsessive rhythm but without predictable harmonies. Later he will play long single note lines without any of those Bud Powell accents: it’s more Lennie Tristano than customary bop. There are continued surprises: Jarrett stops half way through this twelve minute piece and resumes — with thick chords out of tempo. Eventually these chords give out as he plays tinkling single notes high in the treble and later in the mid-range. It’s as if he were picking out crucial notes from those thick, walking chords and displaying them in their naked glory. A long decrescendo leads to the end, with a pedalled note gradually fading into the atmosphere.
“Part Two” begins with a short, circular phrase and a pause. This repeated phrase could be the frequently disguised kernel of this piece, but it unravels before a minute is up and a melody is carefully poked out. This is a typically lovely piece of Jarrett lyricism. His delicately dramatic approach is to play a certain fragment of melody and then listen to it recede via a series of echoes. There’s yet another twist in this less than five minute section: Jarrett suddenly starts a rocking rhythm at about three and a half minutes, but then lets it to fade in the face of the lyrical right hand. The gentler side of the pianist comes out in “Part Three”: it’s as if he were composing a folk or folkish tune before our eyes. The next section begins with an extended trill, but “Part V” turns out to be a jumpy uptempo piece that doesn’t take any obvious directions. It’s a virtuoso composition for two hands — improvising sometimes in concert and sometimes in hyperactive counterpoint.
Sometimes in this recital, as in “Part VI,” it seems as if the improvisation is generated by the bald rhythms of the left. Sonny Boy Williamson used to sing a song called “Don’t Let Your Right Hand Know What Your Left Hand is Doing.” He wasn’t a pianist. Here, in “Part VI,” what seems like the background turns out to be the subject as the right hand joins in the rhythmic pattern after a few minutes of this four minute performance have passed. There are even more surprises in this recital. “Part VIII” is a rocking, unpretentious blues whose traditional chord sequences are a deliberate, satisfying change from the often unmappable harmonies of what has gone before. The crowd loved it. With its dark opening chords, sustained almost to oblivion by the pedal, the final piece, “Part XIII,” sounds funereal. Here Jarrett has set out to explore the rich woody sound of his piano. There’s a brief flurry of excitement around the third minute. This too fades away as the recital ends quietly and, as I guess Jarrett would say, with dignity.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.