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«Title of Document: A DEEP JOY INSIDE IT: THE MUSICAL AESTHETICS OF KEITH JARRETT Jason C. McCool, Master of Arts, 2005 Directed By: Dr. Richard G. ...»

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The one thing that struck me about Keith, that made him stand out from other players, was that he really seemed to have a love affair with the piano, it’s a relationship with that instrument… I’ve never seen anybody have such a rapport with their instrument and know its limitations but also push them to the limits, transcending the instrument.69 Indeed, Keith Jarrett possesses a closer relationship to his instrument than almost any other major figure in contemporary music. Jarrett even goes so far as to say that “some pianos have more personality than some people.” Yet what is strange is Jarrett’s continual frustration with pianos, as if he were always in search of the perfect instrument, but never able to find it. Jarrett’s most famous recording, The Köln Concert, was recorded live on a piano that Jarrett himself describes as “a sevenfoot piano which hadn’t been adjusted for a very long time and sounded like a very poor imitation of a harpsichord or a piano with tacks in it.”70 This opinion is in fact verified by the recording; what Jarrett is able to draw forth from this clearly inferior instrument is astounding. In addition, Jarrett has continually claimed that the piano does not provide the most faithful representation of “the music he hears” when he improvises. This provides a good example of the often paradoxical and idealistic nature of Jarrett’s aesthetics; his relationship with the piano is clearly a love/hate affair. “Once I’m playing the piano, it’s a relatively, in my opinion, boring instrument! That’s why I work so hard to get more out of it.”71 Thus, Jarrett’s 1986 recording Spirits, performed almost entirely on “ethnic” instruments, was made partially to remedy his rather arbitrary and externally enforced dependence on the piano.

Detractors in classical music It should be noted, however, that although Jarrett is almost universally accepted as a jazz player, his classical recordings are by no means without detractors. What surprises a good deal of reviewers is what they take to be a rather “straight-laced” performance style in Jarrett’s classical performances, coming from the fingers of an Carr, Keith Jarrett, 46.

Carr, Keith Jarrett, 71.

artist known in the jazz world for his risk-taking and experimental nature. Jarrett’s activities in the classical world are marked by sober diligence and moral exactitude, qualities that seem diametrically opposite to his free-wheeling, unrestrained improvisations in jazz. This common perception that Jarrett’s interpretations are sterile and flat has in fact turned away some fans away from Jarrett’s classical recordings. Some of his behaviors, of course, may be attributed to Jarrett’s battle to “prove himself” to a world that he does feel entirely at home in, yet to assume that this completely explains his rather restrained vision of classical interpretation is to discount Jarrett’s formidable intellectual capacities.

Jarrett’s offers his own justifications for his recordings of Bach’s music, music that has of course been recorded numerous times.

I’m trying to find a place between the dryness of Glenn Gould and the approach embodied in the idea that each prelude and fugue is like a cathedral window, which is rubbish. Bach is about ideas, not grand flourishes.72 Reviewer Dermot Clinch, from the New Statesman, compares Jarrett’s performance of a Mozart concerto with versions by pianists Daniel Barenboim and Sviatoslav Richter, and claims that Jarrett plays Mozart “so prosaically as to sound comic.”73 The work begins with seething orchestral syncopations, builds dark, halflit operatic climaxes, and sets a mood of brooding urgency, until the piano drops into sudden calm a sentence of recitative-like plainness. Daniel Barenboim colors the phrase gently. Sviatoslav Richter nudges it urgently. Keith Jarrett pronounces it with grim monotony, deflating the orchestra’s entire enterprise thus far. Why? Why does a great jazz Keith Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 4.

Keith Jarrett, “The Well-Tempered Jazz Band.” Dermot Clinch, “Mind Over Mozart,” New Statesman, June 14, 1999.

improviser, one of the technically best-equipped of jazz pianists, whose technique in classical music is not in doubt, do this?74 In the context of Jarrett’s aesthetics, Jarrett’s response to this is that he does not believe in adding external “emotion” or “feeling” to music that is not his. In the words of Jarrett’s producer Manfred Eicher, what Jarrett seeks is an “evocation of emotion determined by a resistance of emotion.”75

Musician magazine said the following about Jarrett’s Bach recordings:

When we listen to Jarrett, we get the feeling that we’re seeing past the accretions of history directly into the essence of Bach.76 Conductor and early music authority Christopher Hogwood, on Jarrett’s recording of

the Well-Tempered Clavier, writes:

Very nice. Some people love it; other people say it’s boring and dull.

Some say it’s underplayed… Keith would aim at what I would call a nonGrand Maestro type of approach, not putting up too big a wall between the composer and the public, but being more transparent… [like] him [Jarrett] as the mouthpiece of Mozart. Which I like.77 In this remark, which contains a bit of his often biting humor, Jarrett comments on





those who criticize his “straight”-laced classical performance style:

What their thinking is… now this to me is egotism. They assume they know who I am by what I’ve recorded already. To me that’s ridiculous. I don’t know who anybody is no matter how many recordings they make.

… When you assume things you apply those on the following act. When you read someone’s book and you think it’s great, and you buy their next Dermot Clinch, “Mind Over Mozart,” New Statesman, June 14, 1999.

Liner notes to the Vienna Concert (ECM 1481, 1991).

ECM promotional sticker on Jarrett’s recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I.

Carr, Keith Jarrett, 180.

book and instead of getting where they’ve moved on to, you’re disappointed because it isn’t like the other one. Now the privilege of the arts is that it doesn’t have to follow those rules. The rest of life does, you know? You can’t come home to your wife and be completely unrecognizable!78 Jarrett’s attitude toward classical critics here invokes the spirit of Miles Davis, who received unending pressure from critics in the 1960s and 70s who continually complained that Davis had “moved away” from the successful music of his Kind of Blue period. Like Jarrett, Davis was a tireless musical explorer, never content to celebrate his past successes, and always involved in whatever project he had undertaken at the present. As a musician, Davis was also remarkably difficult to pigeonhole, and Jarrett’s open flouting of musical categories follows this tradition.

Jarrett defends his wide range of musical activity as such:

An artist “stylizes” something by viewing it in his way and immediately this view becomes a “law” by which an audience recognizes an artist. If this “law’ changes at any time the audience must justify its lack of recognition by such things as “He’s lost his touch” or “He’s gone commercial” or “Well, he’s getting old” or “He’s trying to be mysterious” or “above our heads” etc., but never “He’s discovering and utilizing all the aspects of himself that he finds” and, of course, those aspects are numberless.79 Keith Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 11.

Liner notes to Jarrett’s double-album of original classical compositions, In The Light (ECM 1033/34, 1973).

Chapter 7: Jarrett’s Views on Interpretation Interpretation Because Jarrett’s artistic eclecticism in large part hinges upon his assuming a wide range of performance styles, it would seem that Jarrett might have a good deal to say about the question of interpretation. In fact, it is in this area that Jarrett focuses a good deal of his criticism about the performance of classical music.

–  –  –

Authenticity In classical music, disputes over the most correct or “authentic” interpretation seem unending. Given the nature of classical music, an art form that depends so heavily on the past, much of this debate seems inevitable. The term “classical music” is of course rather meaningless, as any attempt to bunch 1,000+ years of European musical history into one neatly packaged marketing term is obviously pointless. In the context of modern American culture, however, which provides the playing field for Jarrett and his ideas, “classical music” might be loosely defined as the European art music inherited from the past 400 years. The “early music” movement, originating Transcribed from recorded interview with Timothy Hill, 1994.

during the 1970s, did much to challenge assumptions and expand public awareness of pre-Classical modes of music-making, and groups like the Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can have done much to promote new music. Yet perhaps more than any other influence, it is the conservatories and preparatory schools who continue to dictate the boundaries of American high-culture. The conservatory approach to music-making, at least in Jarrett’s view, forsakes the development of individual, creative musical voice for instrumental and stylistic “mastery.” The end goals of this system are geared toward economic concerns – winning competitions, record contracts or orchestra jobs, or simply securing gainful employment as musicians – just as strongly as toward the satisfaction of artistic merits. Jarrett frequently laments classical music’s over-dependence on competition. (Even the way that Jarrett’s playing is described by the Penguin Guide reviewers supports this – “a player whose readings can hold their own against the current opposition” – which seems to suggest that by releasing a recording of Bach’s music, Jarrett’s intention is to somehow compete with other “opposing” pianists who have recorded the same material.) Thus, the classical music educational system, where individual music-making is subjugated to the restricted artistic and economic dictates of the marketplace, seems inherently structured as the antithesis of the world Jarrett dreams of. Thus, to Jarrett, debates over realizing the most “authentic” way to perform classical music are in their very nature flawed. If, as in Jarrett’s view, the most “authentic” way to create music is to “be yourself” in that music, presumably through composition or improvisation, then a system which allows only for the performance and “interpretation” of music written by others is clearly insufficient. To Jarrett, no contemporary performance of classical music, music that was most likely composed in a different culture, perhaps hundreds of years ago, will ever accurately convey the nature of the composer’s intent.

If you don’t have a relationship with the state that produced the phrase, you can’t be as good a player of the music… No modern recording is ever going to live up to the patina… it’s part of history, it came from the same time when the thing was being done.81 Significantly, Keith Jarrett made his name outside this classical arena, yet his knowledge of classical music appears to be deep and well-informed. In fact, Jarrett’s status as an outsider not dependent on “the system” may allow him to recognize aspects of the classical establishment that might not be questioned by others.82 Because his musical career does not depend on appeasing this world, Jarrett is perhaps more free to speak his mind.

Non-interpretation Ultimately, what sets Jarrett’s classical playing apart from most other classical performers is his refusal to impose an individually determined “interpretation” upon music that he did not compose himself, music that he sees as “not his.” Not coincidentally, it seems that this very reluctance to interpret is what generates the criticism of classical reviewers, who are perhaps accustomed to hearing and judging music in strict qualitative terms. Writer Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich sees this Jarrett’s impulse in the manner of an artist operating at extreme poles – in jazz, Jarrett is the freest of free; in classical, Jarrett is as restrained as can be.

Carr, 128.

In his PhD dissertation on Jarrett, Gernot Blume titled a chapter “Alien in the World of Classical Music.” The dialectical impetus of Jarrett’s freedom corresponds to its opposite pole – strict adherence to technical rules of composition, as epitomized by the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier. It is perhaps not entirely reckless to assume that in each case Jarrett was striving for “the Absolute,” better said, for its expression within a free order or an ordered freedom. To “sing” at the piano with unselfconscious spontaneity, and to render a strict Bach fugue faithfully are therefore two different, equally valid and perhaps even – sub specie aeternitatis – identical sides of the Absolute.83 Jarrett’s opinions on the pitfalls of interpretation apply with just as much relevance, of course, to modern jazz and the neo-conservative movement. When asked by pianist/interviewer Ted Rosenthal to justify why Jarrett didn’t think it was proper for a young piano player to want to learn how to play jazz piano “just like Bud Powell,” Jarrett compared playing Powell to playing Mozart.



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