Keith Jarrett improvises the most amazing introductions to jazz standards. Instead of immediately launching into a tune with his “Standards Trio,” he’ll often begin with a solo piano intro, out-of-tempo and totally improvised. Here’s one of his most famous, “Stella By Starlight.” Listen to how he spins out phrase after phrase, moving from harmony to harmony for over 3 minutes in a way that sounds logical and inevitable. How does he do it?
I’ve often wondered how these intros are constructed. Yes, they are free-form. but what’s the guiding principle behind them? Aside from some fleeting references to the song’s melody, they don’t follow the song’s form at all. I know that Jarrett doesn’t overthink his music, but surely there’s an influence somewhere. A model, perhaps.
We can find a clue in the music of J.S. Bach. On the surface, these intros don’t sound like Bach at all. Despite Jarrett’s numerous recordings of Bach’s music, he doesn’t seem to be using counterpoint in the same way that we associate with Bach. But instead of listening for counterpoint a la Bach’s fugues, listen to one of his Preludes, such as this one in Bb minor.
Do you hear the similarity? Both Bach and Jarrett let the melodic fragments determine which chord comes next, freely moving from key to key as the music unfolds. Bach is more consistent in his repetition of one motif, while Jarrett will let the melodic fragments transform as he goes along. And do you hear where Jarrett got his use of the quarter-note pulse from?
The more I listen to Jarrett’s improvised intros, the more I hear the underlying influence of Bach. Not so much in how the music sounds on the surface, but in the way it’s constructed. Try it on the piano for yourself. This type of playing can be very fulfilling!
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