I spent the 90’s pretty much only interested in classical music. I quickly became a classical music snob once I got turned on to Beethoven and Rachmaninov for good. It wasn’t very difficult at that point to leave the hard rock I loved from high school behind as the 80’s degenerated into the over the top big stadium hair bands. At some point everyone seemed to reject that music as grunge and rap emerged so confidently shortly thereafter.
I did one day however, happen to see Nirvana’s video for ‘smells like teen spirit’ at a friends house, I found it quite mesmerizing. It remains one of the few pop songs from the 90’s I enjoy, and it turned out to be sung by an enduring pop icon, surely enduring for more than just the obvious reason.
I have now seen several pianists do their own interpretation of the piece on YouTube. Of all the videos I have seen I find the most interesting to be Brad Mehldau’s interpretation of it in a live recording from a concert in Vienna.
That video has sadly disappeared.
Brad Mehldau’s solo recordings are quite captivating as he jazzes up some beautiful and beloved pop songs. I can warmly recommend his cd ‘Live in Tokyo.’
Well, while you are at it, check out Eric Lewis practically destroy a grand piano slamming out his own variant of the piece.
So I thought why not try doing my own take on the classic. As I try out various songs and melodies as an improvised fugue some melodies go easily into a fugue and others I struggle with and many I give up on. The beautiful melodies from ‘smells like teen spirit’ it turned out seemed to be begging to receive a contrapuntal treatment. I especially appreciate the opportunity to get away with some parallel fifths. 🙂
Sometimes I don’t know whether to feel sorry for or to feel grateful for Beethoven. Practically every little student of mine wishes to play ‘Fur Elise’ and nothing else of his. They aren’t interested in knowing his name, or even that they are playing classical music, they just, boy and girl alike, want to play the opening melody to the little love song. Would he be proud to have a little piece of his sit so firmly in the hearts of millions of children, or would he be irritated? I can imagine him being irritated.
The gentleman wrote so many timeless classics and it is that little ditty that captures the imagination of so many. To be fair, it does, several years later into their studies open up the possibility of other pieces of his, and for that I am grateful every time I yet again have to work with the little infinite loop. One such piece is the ‘Pathetique.’
It is a well known staple now, but can you imagine a gruff young Beethoven performing that piece live for the first time after a couple of decades of lovely little Haydn and Mozart sonatas. I can imagine half the audience wigging out.
My first idea was to find one melody from each of the great composers that I can use for fugal improvisation. I will probably scratch that idea soon as I have already found several melodies of certain composers I wish to use before even looking at others. Beethoven will probably be a rich source of melodies I am already anticipating.
I love the Pathetique sonata, but I especially love the final movement. I understand it is in a minor key filled with pathos but I find this theme rather ebullient and full of life. It was incredibly fun to pass this theme around, playing the melody in various keys in either hand at about the fastest tempo I could handle. I tried making several recordings of this piece using several melodies from the final movement but finally deciding it was enough to use only the main theme from the opening of the movement. I find it such a perfectly formed melody creating the perfect mood to wrap up the beloved Beethoven staple.
Here is a nice and energetic interpretation of the piece.
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.
It is a moment in my life I look back at in wonder. A couple of decades ago, I went along with a girlfriend of the time and her roommate to her roommates boyfriend’s house simply so she could pick something up. The boyfriend lived with a couple of brothers or friends at the time. We were just supposed to be there a for moment and then continue on with our planned evening. As I waited with the brothers or friends in the living room and got to talking I mentioned I was studying music. They immediately got interested and then one of them took me straight to his room and said sit down, close your eyes and listen to this. I think he had recently upgraded his stereo system, so he may have been particularly excited, but he played for me at a very high volume the “Friday night in San Francisco” album of Paco DeLucia, Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin. Such an extraordinary work of art. As I sunk down into the beanbag and closed my eyes I was immediately struck by the depth, the warmth, the virtuosity, this incredible sound and style of music making I had never heard before. The extraordinary comfort and control one has to have to improvise like that while listening to and cooperating with other musicians is astounding. It didn’t really seem possible. This is on the top of my list of concerts I wish I had been at. The sheer technique, musicianship and cooperation is outstanding.
The first piece on the album is Mediterranean Sundance. At that point in my life I had mostly only listened to hard rock as a teen and then switched abruptly to classical in college. I had not heard anything like that before. I really was a classical music snob at that point in my studies, without that shock to the system introduction to this whole other genre of music by this incredibly generous stranger with whom I had only talked with briefly and then never saw again, I may have never fallen in love with so much other music. Had he been feeling slightly less jovial and generous that evening, I don’t think he would have bothered offering to introduce to some stranger some of his favorite music on his stereo in his room. I think it is just such chance encounters that opens us up to whole new avenues and interests in life, if we are present enough to notice them.
Back in the old days, before the internet, I spent way too much money on recordings and scores of my favorite music, it was the only thing I wanted to buy. I had stopped doing that some time around the mid nineties. Then one day several years ago I had decided to try to do a piano version of the ‘Mediterranean sundance’ for the fun of it. I like playing as fast as possible so that was an obvious choice to try to do an own interpretation of. When I searched online for a little help with transcribing it I was shocked to find someone had actually transcribed the entire concert. I placed my order for the book and found myself rushing to the mailbox every day until it came. A beautiful labor of love that someone successfully transcribed that thunderous display of sixteenth and thirty-second notes.
I kick myself for thinking I still had plenty of time to catch Paco de Lucia live, he had come by Uppsala for the annual guitar festival in the autumn of 2013 and I had let life get in the way of making sure I got tickets to that. There is perhaps no other musician who breathes life into, and creates a pulse one can just sink into and enjoy the rapturous Spanish infused melodies and rhythms like Mr. Paco de Lucia. May he rest in peace, as his name is constantly invoked as the greatest guitarist ever.