Piano Spotlight: Keith Jarrett

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Keith Jarrett is one of few established pianists to bridge the gap between mastering improvised jazz and classical concert performance.

Life

Keith Jarrett was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on May 8, 1945. Keith was born with absolute pitch — the ability to hear and name/identify a single pitch, or a group of pitches, immediately without a reference tone — and began piano lessons before his third birthday. Within only two years of playing the piano, Keith was considered a prodigy, playing musical pieces that seemed to surpass his physical capabilities. At age five, he made his first television appearance for a talent show special; at age eight, he debuted his first public recital. The recital included two of Keith’s original pieces, which he later admitted were completely improvised. Keith continued to study classical music with Eleanor Sokoloff, a famous teacher of piano at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Keith didn’t hear much jazz until his early teens. As soon has he began to listen to pianists like Oscar Peterson, Andre Previn, and Ahmad Jamal, Keith dedicated much of his time to learning and mastering jazz. Upon completing high school in Pennsylvania, Keith attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. Keith played jazz in restaurants and clubs around Boston during his time at the college, before moving to New York after graduation. Soon afterwards, Keith played the Village Vanguard and was hired by Art Blakey to play with his group, The Jazz Messengers. His presence in New York soon expanded as he joined The Charles Lloyd Quartet, which released Forest Flower, one of the most successful jazz records of the mid 1960s. Keith’s first release as a band leader was Life Between The Exit Signs (1967).

In 1968, Keith Jarrett left The Charles Lloyd Quartet to join Miles Davis’ group. Alternating with Chick Corea, Keith played with Miles Davis and expanded his keyboard doubles to include the Fender Rhodes, organs, and other keyboard instruments. Later, Keith said that his time in the Davis group was somewhat frustrating because it was the first time in his career that he stepped away from the acoustic piano. Following his time in Davis’ group, Keith returned to the acoustic piano and began a solo piano tour, and Keith’s manager began to record every performance. Because every performance was completely improvised, many of the separate “pieces” Keith played could be sold under separate titles. It was during this streak of solo performances that Keith found perhaps his most loyal following in the people of Tokyo.

During the 1970s, Keith was involved with many different aspects of music; he often toured with trios, appeared with orchestras to perform own classical works (including some originals), and performed on the soprano saxophone, which he began to integrate into his trio concerts.

Keith is very adamant about having no noise from the crowd during performances, including sneezing and coughing. He is known to stop playing or even walk offstage if there is too much noise from the audience. Keith is also very much against audience members taking personal videos and photographs, leading him to walk off stage during several performances; Keith Jarrett wants nothing to get in the way of his musical inspiration.

Keith is now a strong advocate against the use of electronic instruments (Rhodes, Wurlitzer, synthesizers, etc.). In the liner notes of one of his albums, he is quoted: “I am, and have been, carrying on an anti-electric-music crusade of which this is an exhibit for the prosecution. Electricity goes through all of us and is not to be relegated to wires.”

Keith has said that the one thing he sacrificed the most for his music was his health. In 1996, he was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which completely stopped Jarrett from playing the piano. It took almost an entire year for Keith to seek out medical help, and he feared he would never play piano again. It took years to build back his health to the point of being able to play in public again. As a result of his illness, Keith does not compose any more, and he feels that his ability to play again is somewhat of a miracle.

Influence

Jarrett is considered one of the most influential pianists to emerge after Thelonious Monk. Aspects of Keith Jarrett’s playing can be found in the musical styles of pianists like Brad Mehldau and Marilyn Crispell. Keith’s influence comes from his vast array of work with so many different artists, genres, and idioms of music. He has much influence on improvised music because most of his repertoire has been entirely improvised.

Style and Technique

Keith Jarret’s technique is considered almost perfect, though some would argue that his physical expression while playing hinders his technique in some way. Keith says the physical expression he exhibits during performance is necessary; much of his playing is driven by his eccentricities. Keith is so experimental with his playing that he cannot be boxed into being either a simple or complex musician. He has recorded everything from slow blues tunes to Eastern-European influenced recordings, African inspired compositions to “out” improvised performances. His technique shifts to support the kind of music he is playing. Keith’s ballad playing — particularly the shaping of melodies within these improvised ballads — is tender, gentle, and patient. Through the late ’60s, Keith was known to break out into a frenzied attack of the keyboard; harmonically ambiguous and extremely percussive, Keith said he never knew what he was going to do when it happened, but it always happened.

Below are examples of Keith’s playing, improvisation, and composition, including a documentary on improvisation.

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          February 11, 2017