In at least one small way, and maybe not so
small, the 1990s have been the good old days.
The trio of
Keith Jarrett, piano, Gary Peacock, bass, and Jack DeJohnette, drums,
which has been playing their version of standards for more than a
decade, is about as good as jazz gets. Or has ever gotten. Somebody
told him they were the best trio in the world - ever. While he
realizes that's not literal, it's "nice to hear."
objective listener with educated ears at least has to accept that
possibility. And while we know that music is not a game and that there
is no "best," for most of the 1990s, the Keith Jarrett
Standards Trio was at the very least a candidate for the "best
jazz band in the world" award.
Moldy figs trapped in
the past could no longer complain about the present. And young jazz
lions lionized on the cover of Time magazine might have paused to
consider the jazzistic implications of Artur Schnabel's contention
that nobody under 40 is qualified even to attempt Beethoven's last
piano sonata (# 32, Opus 111).
Jarrett is over 50, and he is
qualified to attempt just about anything he wants. He's still
improving and not plagued with false modesty about it. "I can
play the piano three times better than ten years ago," he said,
softly, matter-of-fact. He's sure.
"If you do 300
concerts, you'll find 300 mistakes you don't want to repeat. So, to
begin with, the elimination process makes you better. You learn how to
translate intent into music, to play what you hear. There must be a
point where speed will stop increasing but that hasn't happened to me
yet. The most important thing you learn is economy of expression."
Japanese musician transcribed his "Koln Concert" recording
(which has sold more than two million copies and still counting) on
paper. While editing it, Jarrett thought that it might be "funny"
to record the transcription - to read what he once improvised.
has been called pretentious for recording Bach's "Das
Wohltemperierte Klavier," and for naming it that way on the
label. How much does his jazz owe to DeJohnette's supple precision and
Peacock's sensitive anchor? And do we really need those guttural
grunts (he calls it "singing") with which he accompanies
himself? Jarrett says that he'd rather not do it but he can't help the
singing. And besides: "Nobody's forcing anybody to buy my
records." Never mind the aggression there. He's right.
car horn honked outside his Parisian hotel room. It was either stuck
or the honker was off his rocker. Jarrett has perfect pitch; it hurt.
Closing the window, he said: "Okay, it's an A. Actually it's a
very flat A. Like a Werckmeister Three."
poking fun at his pedantic side. The laugh provides an insight. He is
after all capable of self-mockery. On the surface, he is not exactly a
barrel of laughs. Odd, someone who wants to secrete his sense of
humor. But, he might be thinking, nobody's forcing anyone to interview
Andreas Werckmeister was an 18th century musician and
theorist who hit on the happy idea of dividing the octave into 12
equal half steps. It was a sufficiently accurate compromise between
the maze of tunings involved in the existing "Just Intonation"
- which differed from country to country and in which F-sharp and
G-flat could be two different notes - for the ear to tolerate it. Many
people credit Bach with inventing the now universally adopted "Equal
Temperament." Das Wohltemperierte Klavier was its manifesto.
The information in the preceeding paragraph was boiled down
from a half hour discourse on the subject by our subject - a jazzman
who feels the need to out-research classical specialists to prove his
legitimacy. Recording the Goldberg Variations and book two of The
Well-Tempered Clavier (he plays book one on piano), Jarrett tuned his
harpsichord to Werckmeister Three, which he concluded Bach would have
been most likely to have used.
Jarrett realizes that a jazzman playing Bach, on harpsichord to
boot, might be considered a dilettante. But he's been playing Bach
since the age of 20, and he practiced harpsichord for eight years
before recording The Goldberg Variations. Is this dilettantism?
musicians frequently try and cross over to jazz, fewer go the other
way. Jarrett does not recommend it to the average jazzman. In all
modesty he considers himself above average. Not a crossover. Both
classical and jazz worlds are so strong to him, he can take one at a
time and obliterate the other while concentrating on either. You read
publicity about "a pianist equally at home with Chopin and Monk."
In all modesty, Jarrett believes that the chances of pulling that off
like he did are slim.
Verbal pirouettes eschewed, however,
Jarrett's Bach is at the very least credible. It's not as though he
just jumped into it without thought. He asked himself why add still
more interpretations to what can be called a saturated catalogue. The
answer: "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 different cathedral window, which is rubbish. Bach is
about ideas not grand flourishes."
His Jazz Standards
Trio interprets the Broadway song form with a similar combination of
control and emotion. An unspoken rule allows each of them to break the
rules. Usually they stay within strict form but vamps are added and
codas extended and "Someday My Prince Will Come" might go
outside and never come back in.
They have been touring once
or twice a year and don't see each other in between. (Tours are
becoming less frequent.) The first tune of the first concert of any
tour is always a song they have never before played together: "Something
about that freshness gets us zapped right back where we want to be.
We're always looking to find the center of the song, whatever that
means and however mystical it might get. If we find the emotional
center, then we can avoid getting emotional about it. That's something
you cannot learn in youth. In youth, you have the tendency to indulge
your emotions about the music rather than finding the emotion already
He has lived in the Pocono Mountains in
southern New Jersey for more than 25 years now. This is far enough in
the boondocks to be able to bypass what he calls "useless
gymnastics," otherwise known as "keeping up."
reason I don't live in a population center," he explained, "is
that I only need very few little tiny clues to know what is going on.
Keeping my own consciousness awake is a full-time job. I don't need to
spend a lot of energy checking out other musicians and knowing what's
'in' or 'out.'
"It's hard to keep your head together in
the world today I'm just interested in keeping myself going so I can
find the next thing to do."