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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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We need to be smart, as listeners and musicians. Let’s not allow selfappointed jazz experts to tell us what jazz is when we can hear in their music that they have no voice. Let’s not let the appearance of names and faces over and over in the media make us think that these are the forces in music at present. Let’s remember that music is not the music industry.98 The entire music business in the West should be halted – just stop for a minute. We have killed so many things on the earth. We have destroyed nature, and we have all kinds of pollutants in the art of sound. I’m afraid we’ll destroy it too.99 Technology Jarrett has criticized the infiltration of modern technology, which he seems to equate with self-consciousness, into what he considers the realm of musical purity. Oddly, Jarrett couches this criticism in explicitly “moral” terms, as if artists who exploit technological innovations (electricity), are somehow sinning against the natural order of the world.

Gernot Blume, “Musical Practices and Identity Construction in the Work of Keith Jarrett,” (Ph.D.

diss., University of Michigan, 1998), 221.

Jarrett, “Categories Aplenty,” Sec. H, p.19.

Jarrett, “Categories Aplenty,” Sec. H, p.19.

Jarrett to Umbach, quoted in Blume, 225.

Moral considerations: I am, and have been, carrying on an anti-electric music crusade of which this is an exhibit for the prosecution. Electricity goes through all of us and is not to be relegated to wires.100 You have to leave something to become an electric player – like your skin or your heart. With acoustic piano there’s so much more of a tactile response, so much more life in it. There are so many different ways of touching the acoustic piano, getting different sounds out, that I can’t imagine why anyone would leave it.101 Though he has released dozens of albums documenting his music-making process, Jarrett seems almost reluctant to allow for the validity of the recorded object. He claims that only actual presence at his concerts will accurately indicate the “event” to listeners. To Jarrett, listeners who don’t see the physical pain and “ecstasy” that he endures are not experiencing the full spectrum of his art.

What I do doesn’t transfer to CD. The sounds and the musical things get on it, but the flux, the chemical combination that comes alive in the room, isn’t there. … Most listeners are basing what they know on the CDs and the records, so they don’t know how ferocious my concerts are… they can’t see the motion of my hand, they can’t see the shoulders, they can’t see why I’m gasping for breath.102 Keith Jarrett holds fast to a standard of “musical purity,” one that involves exclusively acoustic instruments. In this sense, Jarrett displays a decidedly Romantic, idealistic streak that stands at odds with the modern reliance on all things Liner notes to Bremen/Lausanne (ECM 1035/37, 1973).

Keith Jarrett, “Interview with Keith Jarrett,” interview by David Rubien, Salon.com, 4 December 2000, accessed on 8 June 2004, available at http://archive.salon.com/people/conv/2000/12/04/jarrett/print.html.

Keith Jarrett, “A Maverick Pianist Answers Back,” interview with Neil Strauss, New York Times, 9 March 1995.

technological. Jarrett frequently lambastes the current industry trend to create increasingly fancy instruments, an over-dependence on gadgetry in music- making, and not surprisingly, what he sees as the primarily economic interests that provide an undercurrent for new technology What is this compulsion we have to take every new idea as far as we can?

Are we confusing an habitually destructive compulsion with a “desire for the truth?” (Science?) In the music world, this fixation has brought about more un-needed instruments than the whole of history up until modern times. The music never demanded them (or needed them.) They are the result of a compulsion gone wild (coupled with the desire to make money above all else). We must, it seems, do what comes next. And when the next becomes a reality we claim it is valid because it exists. Are we so proud of our human genius for invention that we forget the human gift of self-questioning? Consciousness includes moral choices (and why does the word “moral” immediately bother so many people?) Perhaps the same reason “guilt” does?103 Unlike so many of his peers who came out of the free-wheeling 1970s jazz-rock scene – Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea the most obvious examples – Jarrett has consistently railed against what he deems “unnatural” electronic instruments.

I have this funny vision of people pulling electric keyboards away from keyboard players while they’re playing and putting different ones in front of them; they all feel the same and the last one is a typewriter but they’re so into it they don’t know it’s a typewriter.104 We don’t need to hear who is more clever with synthesizers. Our cleverness has created the world we live in, which in many ways we’re sorry about.105 It was clear to me that the moment I touched an electric piano, that it was a toy, not a real instrument. Even when I played electric piano with Miles Davis, my brain was trying to say it was OK, even though it wasn’t, and that could have been like a toxin working on my body.106 Liner notes to Changeless (ECM 1392, 1989).

Keith Jarrett, “In Search of Folk Roots,” 111.

Keith Jarrett, “Categories Aplenty,” Sec. H, p.19.

Jarrett discusses his visceral reaction to having to deal with electrified instruments while performing alongside fusion guitarist Larry Coryell in Milwaukee, 1974.

When you’re up against an electric band like that, it’s like you’re on two separate planets. We wanted to make use of air, and they were using wires. It’s like a toxic exercise. I actually get a metallic taste in my mouth when I think about electric music. That’s why I don’t like recording studios – except my own, which is just a little room above the garage. I can’t even tolerate my own playing on electric keyboards. It’s not about the musical ideas – the sound itself is toxic. It’s like eating plastic broccoli.

However, Jarrett does backtrack from maintaining this position in overt philosophical terms, as he acknowledges that his love for acoustic instruments simply hinges on personal preference: “I don’t have philosophical problems with any of it [electronic music.] It really is a physiological irritation, as if someone were smoking next to me.”107 Keith Jarrett, “Whisper Not,” interview by Marius Nordal, JazzTimes, January/February 2004.

Doerschuk, 100, as quoted in Blume, 263.

Chapter 9: Jarrett’s Musical Values The “natural” and process As Jarrett places value on “organic” music making, he also holds up “the natural” as an ideal. In defending this perspective, Jarrett frequently turns to folk and “ethnic” music, where he recognizes a more urgent “need” for making music.

–  –  –

How is it that native tribal peoples of all countries “knew” everything to be interconnected and fragile? It seems that, because they were a part of their world (not egoistically, at all), they shared the knowledge of that world. But that was not enough: they assumed everything was alive and conscious, and therefore connected, whereas we consider everything dead and disposable unless proven otherwise.109 Perhaps because he is an improviser, to whom the notion of “process” determines practically everything, Jarrett praises process-based, organic music over objectified “results.” We live in an age in which only results seem to count, not process. A world of objects and productions, a visual culture of images, television, speechwriters, a culture that thinks it can create security with insurance, lawyers and banks. But life is liquid, not solid; a process, not a result; the present, not the future.110 Regarding his improvised solo album Vienna Concert, Jarrett again speaks of his desire to get away from perceiving music as an “object.” Keith Jarrett, “Categories Aplenty,” Sec. H, p.19.

Liner notes for Changeless.

As an object it’s not my favorite one. But the solo things all along have been [intended] to get away from making an object. So as that, it is the only successful concert on CD or record. In the purest sense I have created the lack of an object. You hear the process and if you can’t get into the process, it’s nothing.111 Jarrett romanticizes the purity of nature, equating the process of musical improvisation to the random, unpredictable beauty of nature itself. Jarrett also implies that the physical phenomenon of “sound” can have natural or unnatural properties: “People who see monotony in Nature will see monotony in true improvisation. They will not see the process and they will bring their own monotonyof-vision with them.”112 With this line of thought, Jarrett seems to share commonalties with the influential American composer and naturalist John Cage, who famously said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen.

Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”113 In fact, Cage offers an interesting parallel to Jarrett not only in terms of his valuation of nature, but also in his relentlessly stubborn individuality, and his stated desire to eliminate ego from musical creation. This is not to say, however, that Jarrett is directly influenced by Cage’s aesthetics; I would hazard to say that Jarrett would most likely find Cage’s aesthetics too self-conscious and far removed from actual musical creation and Keith Jarrett, “Categories Aplenty,” Sec. H, p.19.

Keith Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 8, my italics.

Liner notes for Concerts, Bregenz/Munich (ECM 1228, 1981).

Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage, Wesleyan, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

process to be appealing.

Jarrett’s aesthetic valuation of “naturalness” prizes not only the purity of sound, but also a certain brand of (what he sees as) “genuine” human interaction. As an improviser, Jarrett is particularly keyed into the communicative process, and sees any artificial reenactment of true musical communication (i.e., through studio trickery or electronic manipulation) as a bastardization of organic, “liquid” music making.

Jarrett has likened the act of turning on music in a room to someone saying “let’s color the air in this room dark green,”114 and he frequently speaks of music in terms of its possessing nutritional value: “Music has nutritional value, and without artists who need the music (and therefore “have a voice”), there will be no value in it.”115 Penchant for attracting paradox Noticeably at play in Jarrett’s aesthetic stance is a rigid denial of the commercial marketplace as possible ground for artistic fertility and spiritual connection. What seems most paradoxical in this dynamic, of course, is that Jarrett is a commodity himself; his records consistently sell substantially more than the records of most other jazz artists. What’s more, Jarrett’s own brand of what Gernot Blume calls “spiritually rooted anti-commercialism” might be criticized by some as containing some of the very same tendencies for fetishization and commodification that Jarrett rails against.

Even the aesthetic presentation of his albums suggests a rigid (some say pretentious) austerity inspired by the ethos of the ECM label. Indeed, during the 1970s, ECM Keith Jarrett, “Interview with Keith Jarrett.” Keith Jarrett, “Categories Aplenty,” Sec. H, p.19.

marketed itself with the phrase “the most beautiful sound next to silence,”116 and the marketing of Jarrett’s albums casts Jarrett as a supremely individual artiste.

Jarrett seems to have a penchant for unloading contentious, argumentative positions on the public, and then scurrying away to the safety of his bunker. For someone who in fact spends a good deal of his time “talking about music” in the form of published writings and interviews, the following statements by Jarrett, given during the same interview (!), may seem rather contradictory.

I think we spend a lot more time talking about art than is healthy.

Recently, my attitude has been “Show me the music.” That’s where the test really lies.117 If a musician decides to speak, then he’s a spokesman. I got tired of it, because I don’t feel the need to confront issues every time out.118 Perhaps Jarrett doesn’t realize (or, more likely, doesn’t care) just how confrontational his positions appear. What is strange, however, is the way that Jarrett seems to deny his own tendency to speak out about things that concern him. Jarrett’s self-image is probably nowhere near as contentious and “ego-driven,” as most see him.

To me, as much as I’m considered to have a problem with ego, I think it’s often mistaken. I think the real ego problems are from people who think they know what they’re saying when they are saying something else.119 From ECM promotional insert to Jarrett’s 1977 album Staircase; phrase first coined by Canada’s Coda magazine, reviewing early ECM discs, in 1971.

Keith Jarrett, “Order and Ordeal,” 41.

Ibid, 42.

Keith Jarrett, “The ‘insanity’ of doing more than one (musical) thing,” 11.

Yet perhaps this phenomenon only underscores Jarrett’s strikingly original place in the musical world – when the system is all we know, Jarrett would most likely say that it is impossible not to seem divisive. Recalling his New York Times piece, Jarrett


It is impossible to address the jazz category directly without seeming divisive, since the media are saturated with only a few names, names of musicians who seem to have taken over jazz. This is only a media reality;

it has nothing to do with the music. Unless radio, television, and newspapers stop falling over like dominoes, happy to have a “marketable” story, we will see two separate cultures: the popular culture and the underground culture (the underground for the music, the popular for the hype.)120 Keith Jarrett, “Categories Aplenty,” Sec. H, p. 19.

Chapter 10: Individuality/Finding A Voice Individuality in jazz Perhaps the most frequent criticism that Jarrett directs toward modern music is what he considers to be a lack of individual voices in music. The importance of the individual creator in jazz history cannot be understated, especially with regard to

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