Friday, January 30, 2009

Keith Jarrett, Carnegie Hall


It was only last night, but already it rates among my most powerful memories—one I know will reverberate down time's lonely corridors, enduring where the daily slush of logistical life (thankfully) does not. Yesterday contained plenty of logistical craziness, but by 8:00 PM I was seated in the last row of the dress circle at Carnegie Hall next to my father, looking down on a stage empty but for a single piano, a bench, and a collection of microphones wired for the live recording of Keith Jarrett's solo improvisational performance. I have always loved these charged moments of anticipation before a performance, and I expected this concert to be something special—that much more so because the tickets came through a friend of a very dear friend in California, a last-minute opportunity to be seized, and because a love of Keith Jarrett was transmitted to me by my father, and this was a great way to thank him for bringing awareness of this man's music into my life. But this is all back story, not the memory. The memory is hard to put into words—music does not want your words—and I know I will struggle for days, weeks, maybe months or years, to find appropriate language for it. Nearly fifteen years ago, in notes to the ECM Complete Recordings of Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note, Jarrett himself wrote: "A master jazz musician goes onto the stage hoping to have a rendezvous with music. He/she knows the music is there (it always is), but this meeting depends not only on knowledge but on openness. It must be let in, recognized, and revealed to the listener, the first of which is the musician . . . . [This process] is like an attempt, over and over again, to reveal the heart of things." Last night, I don't think it would have been possible to see a greater openness, a greater dedication to this process; Jarrett's music was incredible genius, but just as great was the ability to not only hear the music but to have a visual experience of its creation. If you have seen him in concert, you will know what I am talking about; if you haven't, try to picture: a man for whom there is nothing else but one note and the next, the piano, the pursuit of a melody, a motif, a means of exposing the sacred. Picture a body that cannot stay seated, upright, but rather hunkers down ear to keyboard and then rises, leaning into the body of the instrument, his partner, all but folding his own inside. Picture a man playing with such physicality and passion—the stomping of feet like in a lusty Spanish dance, the vocalizing grunts and groans—you feel, despite your concert hall surroundings, that you have stumbled upon a moment of excruciating intimacy; one that you, the voyeur (Ă©couteur?) cloaked in darkness, are not pure enough to merit, yet that you are fortunate enough to experience vicariously. Jarrett played last night with his whole body, clearly from the core and despite the limitations of his humanity. He said at one point, contemplating the tasks of starting, ending, playing through, that maybe beginning was the hardest part. That may be so, but once he did begin each piece, he chased it down relentlessly—he seemed to stretch the keyboard beyond its size, to push against its extremities, particularly at the upper end of the scale—and yet sometimes with such a gentle caress of the keys. Sometimes the sounds were ethereal, and at the end of some pieces, the notes seemed to tip off the edge of sound completely, rushing into a silence that was otherworldly. Last night's music was full of depth, humor, and most of all hope. One piece in particular—and it pains me that I do not have a more technical knowledge of music that would allow me to understand or communicate how this might have been achieved—one piece, to my mind, truly epitomized that human of all conditions, hope, capturing a notion of what people could achieve and create in the world, if the world were in the hands of artists. It was the one piece that, I will admit it, brought on tears. (Jarrett, by the way, clearly has his own opinions about the people whose hands have shaped our recent history: on a tangent regarding the economy and referring no doubt to the moral decay that helped bring it down, "Why would you want to bolster that?") The other thing he said—here I am, falling back on words again for lack of an ability to capture the music—was that perhaps the hardest part of all about this sort of improvisation was playing for 45 minutes "without getting into a corner." I can imagine; I wouldn't be able to get past two minutes, if I could begin at all. But, he added, "If you redefine 'corner,' eventually you won't be in it anymore." How true this is of everything, not just of playing jazz piano! In all, he played two sets, and we left after the second encore (first "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and then "Miss Otis Regrets," two most excellent standards). And already, though this was only 24 hours ago, I could not hope to accurately reproduce any of the improvised passages. But the visceral quality of the music, the emotion, depth, humanity, and clear genius—that will last my lifetime, and I have a profound gratitude for those who made it possible for me to have this experience firsthand. For the notes themselves, I am happy to wait for the release of the recording. If you see "Keith Jarrett, Live at Carnegie Hall, January 2009" . . . be sure to listen up!

12 comments:

  1. He ended up playing six encores, unless I lost track.

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  2. i was at this concert too, and i couldn't agree more. it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. i felt like we witnessed one of the best things that ever happened on a piano.

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  3. Thanks for the comments. I'm glad that others who were in the audience agree. I'm not sure how anyone could disagree, actually—yes, it was "one of the best things that ever happened on a piano."

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  4. i was there too - flew in from Miami - Carnegie Hall, NY audience contributed to the groove he was in - "I can not thank you enough . . ." How nice was it to hear Keith say that? I'm grateful that he seems to be at peace. No need to try to find words to describe the music you heard. This kind of music cannot be translated. Right?

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  5. Good point, about him seeming to be at peace, particularly considering his battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The sense of Jarrett's gratification, also his gratitude in return . . . yes, that was really nice as well. For Jarrett fans, if you haven't heard NPR interviews, take a look and listen at the following site:
    http://www.npr.org/programs/jazzprofiles/archive/jarrett_k.html

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  6. I have seen him solo several times and he was on tonight - the Carnegie Hall audience deserves a lot of credit. KJ rules.

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  7. thanks for those wonderful words ,i came from england to watch this concert and it was worth it ,what an incredible nights music.when the lady sat next to me began to weep during over the rainbow even a hard bitten musician like myself had a lump in his throat. moving and unforgetable and on the best concert stage in the world.

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  8. I was there, just like you were, thanks to a very dear friend from Toronto. Thank you for putting words into the feelings. For me the only word that I could think of afterward was 'magical'.

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  9. Yes, it was magical. I am glad that this post is reaching others who were at the concert. Hopefully it will also convince some people who were not attending, or who maybe do not know Jarrett's music at all, to discover him for themselves. If there are other Jarrett concert stories to share, you are more than welcome to post them here! Thanks to "Anonymous" friends for taking the time to comment. It's much appreciated.

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  10. My friend and I are both pianists; he introduced me to KJ's music in 1995. It took us 14 years to see him solo, but we drove from Ohio for this show -- only to meet old friends we hadn't seen in years! Given that folks from EVERYWHERE made the pilgrimage to this concert, the audience was full of people who truly appreciated what Keith was doing musically, and I believe the audience vibe truly helped contribute to the concert's success. Keith was such a rockstar with all those curtain calls. I've NEVER seen that many callbacks that were granted from the artist. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event my great-grandkids will be hearing about!

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  11. I am delighted to see your post. I could not agree more, the concert was unbelievable. Happy to have flown in from Austria.

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  12. I love Jarrett and his trio mates Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, but the June 2010 show at Carnegie Hall was an insult to fans -- mailed it in. The drums too loud, the bass hard to distinguish, and it sounded as though Jarrett had his foot on the damper pedal most of the night. None of the clarity of his playing at Montreux, in Paris or at the Blue Note.
    In fact, Jarrett DID insult his fans -- some clowns took flash photos (despite their asking that the audience specifically not do so) and Jarrett stepped up to the mic -- specially set up so he could scold his paying audience -- and said, "We spend our lives mastering our instruments. You have toys, and you don't even know how to use them." Okay, they were clowns but was that really necessary? I wouldn't have minded his being his usual prima donna self, but if you're going to be a prima donna, at least give us a prima donna-worthy show, please, and not some bored, half-assed excuse for a show.

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