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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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Bud Powell didn’t write something down to the detailed extent that it could be delivered intact to a future generation. What the emulation has to be, for that to continue, is to somehow understand what in life would bring up such an intensity. So with Mozart, while it helps immensely if a player can do that – because of how intense he must have been – it’s not a mandatory thing. It is mandatory with Bud. You can’t take Bud with you, but you can take Mozart with you. I’m not following in the footsteps of Mozart by playing Mozart.84 Christopher Hogwood’s “mouthpiece” description of Jarrett’s classical playing (p. 32) is an accurate metaphor. In Jarrett’s mind, performers who impose their own individual “interpretations” on classical music, music that already exists on paper and that was most likely written many years prior to the performance, are robbing this music of its essence. Of Bach’s music, for instance, Jarrett has said, “This music Liner notes to Jarrett’s recording of the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues (ECM 1469/70, 1992 (trans. by Maria Pelikan).

Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 9.

does not need my assistance.”85 This ever-present temptation to “color” musical interpretations with emotion and feeling, which in terms of piano performance is perhaps most associated with Romantic music, is what Jarrett desperately attempts to avoid in his classical playing.

In the liner notes to Jarrett’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (his classical recording

debut), writer Wolfgang Sandner quotes from the composer Ernst Bloch:

Unfortunately, feelings – to which we are so much attached – adhere also to the music which is entirely innocent of them, our privately colored pictures or hackneyed phrases which pretend to interpret the music only succeed in painting it over. Endless discussions grope for meaning and explain nothing.86 Jarrett’s reluctance to impose “individual interpretations” on classical works stems partially from his feeling that adding external touches to these pieces might in fact subtract from their beauty.

You don’t have to be emphatic when you’re doing something beautiful.

You do not have to emphasize the beauty of a thing. If you emphasize the beauty of something, you might step on it. Here, I’d like to show you these flowers – no, no, you’re not in the right – you have to come closer… no that’s too close. You just stepped on these flowers.87 Jarrett seems to find expressive value in the very mathematical precision of Bach’s contrapuntal writing. He also suggests that those who are not in touch with the Liner notes to Jarrett’s recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (ECM New Series 1362/63, 1988), translated by Rolfe Heron.


Keith Jarrett, transcribed from recorded ECM promotional CD interview with Timothy Hill, my italics.

“consciousness” of Bach’s compositional process and therefore feel that they should “add” something to Bach’s music, are guilty of self-indulgence.

The melodic lines themselves are expressive to me… In most of what I have heard in the interpretation of other pianists, I feel that too much is imposed on the music. The very direction of the lines, the moving lines of notes are inherently expressive. Without the consciousness of what those lines really represent, one may feel that it needs an expressive addition.

The way the notes of a fugue follow each other cannot be predicted. But they have to follow certain laws. If you add something to make the fugue more valuable, you destroy those laws. When I play Bach, I do not hear the music, I hear almost the process of thought. Any coloration has nothing to do with this process, one contributes only one’s emotions. That may sound quite nice for a moment, but then the entire thought is gone.

If I play music which is composed for a rather limited instrument like the harpsichord on the piano, I have to tell myself that the piano should not go beyond a certain limit of expression. And a piano version should not be played with this intention: “Look here what the piano can do for this piece.” The piece is better than the piano.88 Other modern interpretations of classical music

Jarrett’s views on interpretation bring up the tricky issue of “intentionality” in music:

can modern performers ever know what a composer’s “intent” actually was, if indeed the composer ever had one? And is this knowledge even desirable, or necessary? If not, do modern performers have the “right” to do whatever they want with classical music, to interpret music written in, say, 1700, with “contemporary” phrasing? Of course, no one right answer exists; Jarrett’s stoic, reverential attitude toward classical playing represents only one perspective.

In contrast to Jarrett, quite a few other jazz performers have recently treated classical music as raw material, freely interpreting this music in a modern jazz context. On his 2001 recording A Fine Line: Arias and Lieder, jazz clarinetist Don Byron performs “updated” versions of Schumann and Puccini. Pianist Uri Caine released an acclaimed jazz version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2000, as well as two albums of the music of Gustav Mahler, all featuring his collaborations of “downtown” avantgarde musicians and DJs. Keith Jarrett’s approach to classical music couldn’t be further removed from these types of projects. Jarrett is nothing if not incredibly respectful for what at least he sees as the original “intentions” of this music. It seems then, perhaps surprisingly, that his positions fall in line with those who advocate “authentic” performance practice, even as he ponders the utter impossibility of ever achieving this goal.

Classical composers as improvisers An additional link between Jarrett’s aesthetics and classical music exists in the fact that much of what is now known as classical music contained improvisation at the time of its initial creation. Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and Mozart are the four composers Jarrett has most heavily focused his own energies on, and not coincidentally, these same figures were the great improvising keyboard masters of their own times. Over time, the impulse for and even expectation of improvisation in classical music faded, and with very few exceptions, the artists traditionally recognized as the greatest “interpreters” of classical music have not been improvisers.

As perhaps the foremost keyboard improviser working in today’s vernacular, Keith Liner notes to Jarrett’s recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (ECM 1362/63, 1988).

Jarrett is at least somewhat drawn to the music of these four masters because of their

relationship to improvisation:

I think the music is better because their relationship to improvising was so strong. I wouldn’t say I like their music because they were all improvisers, but there was something in their music, and I would say it is the ecstatic knowledge that comes through in Bach’s music and Beethoven’s music. It is the knowledge of the ecstatic state… this is what I give back to all the composers I play, who I believe were familiar with that state. Within their own language I might be able to give them just a little gift of having understood how tremendous their struggle was with a particular note.89 Jarrett insists that Handel’s keyboard music is deserving of more attention, and he

speculates on the relative anonymity of much of this music:

I think there are a few reasons for this, but none of them legitimate. One is that we think of Handel as an orchestral, choral, or chamber ensemble writer. Another, is that because of his popularity in the “big scale” works, it’s hard to hear the quality of the solo pieces. A third reason is that these solo pieces are, in general, non-dramatic and non-virtuosic.90 Non-virtuosity as virtue It is worth noting that Jarrett’s musicality, although equal to the technical level of any of his peers, is emphatically not based upon instrumental virtuosity. The obsession with technically demanding, instrumental showpieces is a familiar element of classical music, and with the possible exception of the violin, repertoire for the piano boasts perhaps the largest literature of this sort. Indeed, the most famous classical pianists – one thinks of Horowitz, Van Cliburn, even Franz Liszt – have been renowned as much for their technical prowess as for their musicality. However, as Carr, 151.

Liner notes to Jarrett’s recording of the Handel Suites for Keyboard (1993).

Hogwood mentions, Jarrett seems to shy away from displaying any grand gestures of the self-consciously virtuosic or even “pianistic” sort. For example, though Jarrett’s technique is certainly up to the challenge, it is difficult to imagine him taking on the piano music of Liszt or Rachmaninov, composers of music prized by pianists at least in part for its potential for displaying virtuosity. Jarrett has made comments regarding his hesitancy to perform the music of Frederic Chopin, another hero of the Romantic piano.

–  –  –

In jazz terms, this reluctance to rely on easy virtuosity has manifested itself in Jarrett’s playing as a re-focusing on “non-virtuosic” musical elements such as listening (which, though not commonly recognized as such, is a musical element just as important as any other), pianistic touch and creating forward musical motion.

Jarrett’s 1999 release The Melody At Night, With You, startling in its simplicity, provides perhaps the best example of his rejection of virtuosity. Regarding this recording, Stereophile reviewer Richard Lehnert remarked, “It is remarkable to hear someone with chops as awesome as Jarrett’s so consistently not use them.”92 Keith Jarrett, “FI Interview: Keith Jarrett,” interview by Larry Alan Kay, FI, October 1996, 36.

Richard Lehnert, Stereophile, February 2000.

Improvising in historical context The well-respected pianist and scholar Robert Levin is one of the very few modern classical musicians who improvises, specifically, improvised cadenzas for Mozart piano concertos in concert and recordings. I once asked Levin at a seminar what he thought of Jarrett’s improvisations – he responded enthusiastically regarding Jarrett’s musical ability, but took Jarrett to task for not attempting to improvise in historical style. In Jarrett’s view, “There’s a very simple answer to that. I don’t improvise in historical context.”93 What further complicates the issue, however, is that Jarrett has recorded numerous improvisations that “sound like” historical models – for instance, portions of his 1986 double-album Book of Ways, recorded on clavichord, could very easily be mistaken for music from the Baroque era. The opening of Jarrett’s 1988 Paris Concert sounds uncannily like a Bach prelude, and portions of his 1991 Vienna Concert are reminiscent of Shostakovich. Perhaps not coincidentally, Jarrett was recording works by these two composers around the same time as these concerts.

However, Jarrett claims that, rather than making the self-conscious attempt to improvise historically, it is actually the “sound” of a particular instrument that leads him to play in a certain manner that might be construed as “classical.” Jarrett sees a marked difference between Levin’s style of historical improvisation, within which very clear-cut stylistic boundaries exist, and improvising from his own center, which allows him to dip freely into and out of historically-influenced passages. When asked by Ted Rosenthal about the “classical” sound of Book of Ways, Jarrett responded, Keith Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 3.

“When sound takes me there, then it’s not ‘improvising in a style’ to me. It’s the sound and how it relates to what I’ve heard.”94 Keith Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 3.

Chapter 8: Jarrett and Controversy Overview So many of Keith Jarrett’s aesthetic positions are divisive and contentious. What makes Jarrett’s pronouncements all the more difficult to swallow in some circles is that so much of what he has to say seems negative or dismissive, if not downright insulting. As a musician, Jarrett deals constantly, or at least attempts to deal, with the ineffable and transcendent. Therefore, when expressing himself through non-musical means, whether verbal or written, to some degree Jarrett is bound to reveal his incapacity to accurately mirror his musical expressions. Add to this mix Jarrett’s patent mistrust of not only the musical world but seemingly the entirety of modern American society, and we are left with the image of Jarrett as a cranky outsider quixotically attempting to take down the system. John Rockwell’s description of

Jarrett’s aesthetic, from All-American Music, seems germane:

[Jarrett’s] mystical imagery is impervious to rational challenge. Jarrett has often been perceived as an egomaniac, but an equally likely interpretation is that he is a genuinely romantic artist misplaced in a cynically unromantic time – defensive, temperamental, uncomfortable with the way he expresses himself in words and convinced of his higher destiny. 95 The music industry Keith Jarrett directs a good deal of his criticisms toward the music industry and its dependence on product: “Jazz is not a commodity, it’s a process of self-discovery.”96 His New York Times article makes pointed reference to the over-commercialization of Rockwell, John: "Mystical Romanticism, Popularity and the Varied Forms of Fusion," All-American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (Vintage: New York, 1983/R1997), 182.

modern society, especially in jazz – mocking what he sees as “young neo-psuedo-beboppists fresh from the convention,” “nuevo-string-quartetists in Armani-wear,” and “Deadheads who succeed by calling themselves Deadheads.”97 Jarrett rails against what he sees as a bloated and self-serving industry, ever eager to cash in on the next fad or fashion.

Listeners are swindled by the music industry’s insatiable need to stay alive no matter what the quality of the music. If it can find talented young players, the industry will tell them how great they are and give them lots of money to keep them satisfied (more correctly, buy off their souls, if they have any left). We must remember that music is not the music industry.

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