I resisted the name Keith Jarrett for years. Totally convinced I would be unimpressed, that he would simply be another jazz pianist like the rest doing random improvisations on songs I didn’t love. More than any other pianist he seemed to inspire a love him or leave him reaction, I thought I would sit comfortably with the leave him camp. My wife gets particularly irritated when I turn up some music of his and she hears him humming and grunting.
Then I looked more closely at his Vienna cd. I saw it was a live recording consisting of only two pieces. The first 42 minutes long and the second 26. This intrigued me. So I did the only logical thing. Not wanting to spend my own money on something I still barely thought would actually interest me I asked my sister to buy it for me for Christmas.
Listening to that cd was the first thing I had to do after the gift giving. That was another reality altering moment in my life. That instantly became my favorite cd, one that I often return to and still boggles my mind. How did he do that?! From the sweetly gentle chords of the opening to the four handed madness of the middle to the triumphant octaves of the conclusion of just the first piece, I have loved, idolized, and slowly acquired everything I can of his. If I ever buy a proper phonograph again, it will be his albums I repurchase first.
I used to love to listen in wonder and read along with the scores to all my favorites, like Liszt’s sonata in b minor, or Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, or Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto, or Prokofiev’s fifth piano concerto. Keith Jarrett’s Vienna concert dazzles me equally much. To me it is as coherent and transcendent as my favorite classical pieces, but it is instead a live recording of an irreproducible improvisation. That is amazing. It is technical wizardry, theoretical mastery and an in the moment creative explosion.
There are several extraordinarily wonderful classical pianists since the age of recording devices, but I can’t say one is really unique to the rest, one that can do things no other pianist can do. There is only one Beethoven or Chopin, but there are literally thousands of pianists that can play any of their pieces. That can be a big factor in why classical music is struggling so much, nothing and no one stands out. It is not possible to stand out anymore, it is just pianists sitting at pianos playing pieces that have already been performed to perfection.
There is however, no other pianist like Keith Jarrett, I think he stands alone amongst pianists. I contend that in two hundred years Keith Jarrett will be the only pianist anyone still cares about from this era. You can tell me all you want you don’t care for his music, but I can’t imagine anyone actually arguing coherently that what he does isn’t mind bogglingly brilliant. There is no one that can do what he does, maybe everyone knows better than to even try, or as I feel, he is as unique as Chopin.
There exists even an excellent authorized transcription of his equally wonderful Köln concert recording. I had no idea there were people that could transcribe something so complicated so well. What a labor of love. That is a beloved, best selling recording of an extraordinary concert, certainly not out of reach of a trained pianist to learn, but still no one is making the effort because it has been performed to perfection already, any other attempt would be truly futile.
Just like I imagine most pianists have at least a pang of self doubt when they decide to take on the Goldberg variations after listening to Mr. Glenn Gould’s recordings.
Several years ago I purchased the Sun Bear recordings. A multi album collection of various recordings from several concerts in Japan in the fall of 1976. Another collection of his I love and listen to regularly. There is an encore on that album I was particularly floored by. It is basically a rather simple repeating four measure chord progression which he improvised on. I found a good transcription of it online and thought I would go about learning that piece. It quickly occurred to me that is a useless thing to do. It has already been performed so exquisitely. But I do think it is a fine chord progression so I would occasionally mess around with it. After I got comfortable with it I decided to try to record it. I think it is more in the spirit of the piece to play around with it rather than to try to duplicate it. I don’t know if Keith Jarrett would approve, but I am pleased with the result. It is a very satisfying chord progression to improvise on. I would like to think that chord progressions like these grow on trees so to speak, but it is quite a challenge to create an equally beautiful and serene chord progression. It is almost eerie in how the use of the dominant and secondary dominant makes it a little unclear as to what the tonic is, it starts to feel like a never quite resolving little infinite loop of transcendent beauty. That one piece made the price of the entire box set worth it, though I love the whole set.
Lest there be any doubt on the subject, I will state here, Keith Jarrett is my only music idol, piano hero. The only pianist in the 20th century that represents where music for the piano should have gone, or at least could have.
I know, I know, there are probably a good handful of giants upon whose shoulders he rests on.