Keith Jarrett Gets Lyrical at Carnegie Hall: Concert Review

Keith Jarrett at Carnegie Hall, New York City, March 3, 2015

Hearing Keith Jarrett’s solo piano concert at Carnegie Hall reminded me of how much I love music. It also reminded me that he (and indeed, “we”) aren’t getting any younger, and as Jarrett nears the age of 70, now is the time to go see him live. A further thought: take your kids! Hopefully he’ll be playing for years to come, but in case he doesn’t, you’ll want them to absorb his playing in person if at all possible. I took my 2 boys (ages 9 and 12) and while it was late on a school night and they didn’t always remain attentive to the music, they are both very glad they went. They realize they may never experience anything like this again (unless they learn to do it themselves!).

This was my fourth time hearing Jarrett live (3 solos, 1 trio) and each solo performance was unique. When I saw him at Avery Fischer Hall in 1997, Keith was still playing continuously for each half of the concert, a practice he developed early on and can be heard on his many early live recordings. At his 2005 Carnegie Hall concert (later released on CD), he had shifted to improvising a series of short pieces, each with a unique musical character. I was particularly interested in seeing if Jarrett’s approach to his solo concerts had changed since then. As it turns out, it has changed in a few subtle ways.

While each piece still has it’s own internal logic, he didn’t stick with his melodic motifs as rigorously as he did at the 2005 concert. Each short improvisation did have its own unique quality, but he seemed more willing to let the music morph into something else if it wanted to. One piece, for instance, began as a chordal gospel ballad. After a minute or so, hints of a rhythmic left hand ostinato appeared and then disappeared. As the music progressed, however, that ostinato reappeared more and more frequently until the whole mood was transformed into a rollicking, uptempo groove with little trace of the initial ballad feel. All night there was a marvelous balance between musical rigor and freedom.

The concert started 40 minutes late, due to the fact that snow and freezing rain had made it difficult to get anywhere in New York City on time. So rather than keep hundreds of latecomers standing in the lobby until intermission, the management decided to delay the concert. (This of course, was the cue for about 30% of the already-seated audience to take out their smart phones and ipads. Someone will eventually do a study regarding the effect of this on how one experiences a concert after 40 minutes of texting!)

The late start meant that the concert would end late as well, at 10:57pm. This was exactly three minutes before (I suspect) overtime would have to be paid to the stage crew. (When I played on Broadway, the producers would eliminate the “exit music” if there was a danger of going into overtime on a particular night. I don’t remember what the cutoff time was for Carnegie Hall, but 11:00 sounds about right.)

When Jarrett finally appeared, it was clear that the wait was worth it. He was in a lyrical mood, and much of the concert consisted of slow, emotional music that had a few common characteristics: a beautiful “singing” melody, chromatic inner-voice movement, and chord progressions that hinted at either contemporary or older popular music. Even though he played lots of ballads, none of them sounded the same. They each had a different characteristic sound and emotional quality.

The first piece featured brooding, chromatic inner voice movement, broad, resonant bass notes and a lyrical, singing melody. Sort of like Alban Berg might have played “Lush Life.” Then there were Jarrett’s “typical” gospel-influenced ostinatos, but even these were more chromaticized than I’ve heard before. Same thing with his bluesy right hand lines. I can’t quite describe the effect this had, but it was as if a Middle Eastern douduk player was improvising a blues. The woodwind analogy also applies to the piano tone Jarrett produced, which actually seemed to be animated by breath in addition to the mechanical piano action.

Much of Jarrett’s playing during the evening was expressive (as opposed to introverted) and featured lyrical melodies with wide leaps, both upward and downward. The melodies were often played much more prominently than the accompaniments were. (Remember how your piano teachers extolled you to “bring out the melody?”)

Jarrett seemed to be taking care to highlight a piece’s structure by repeating a chord voicing or melody at the beginning of “sections.” Each section would then develop in its own way, but then Jarrett would return to the opening chord or melodic motif, repeated exactly; just like a composer might do to give the listener a musical guidepost or anchor. As usual, Jarrett had an unerring sense of concert programming; the flow from each piece to the next kept the evening’s energy moving along without any sense of sameness or repetition.

Compared to what I’ve seen from him before, Jarrett was unusually talkative last night. He even gave a standup comedy routine of sorts, involving a method of playing “air piano” which he demonstrated by shaking his hands above the keys. People have used many words to described Keith Jarrett. Let me be the first to call him “Mr. Silly!”

In our digital age, we often forget how different it is to actually hear a live performance as opposed to a recording of a live performance. In the ten years since I last heard Jarrett live, I had forgotten how texturally complex his piano playing can be. This effect is somewhat flattened out on recordings, but in person there were often several layers going that created a rich a tapestry of sound that surprised me. I’ve never heard anyone else play piano like this. It reminded me of orchestrations by Igor Stravinsky and Gil Evans in terms of the musical layers and complex effect. Even better, it was as if each layer had it’s own “color,” which makes the whole thing even more astonishing. This was especially evident in the uptempo pieces, one of which consisted of a single chromatic line played in fast alternation between the hands. Later in the concert, Jarrett played a similar improv but with both hands playing their own melodies simultaneously.

At times, I sensed that the music was coming from deep inside Jarrett, translated directly into sound. It was as if the piano itself didn’t even exist. (I know this sounds crazy, but remember, he’s been at this for a very long time.)

One of the interesting aspects of Jarrett’s playing is that he can draw from so many musical genres and still sound like himself. He’ll follow a spiky, dissonant flourish with a contemporary Broadway-style ballad and all it sounds so inevitable. It’s as if an artist made a wide variety of clay pots and then poured the same glaze over them all. Indeed, Jarrett’s pianistic sound has a luminous quality that’s similar to a shiny pottery glaze.

Jarrett thanked the audience “for following my work,” and said that he needed the audience. “I don’t play like this in my studio” he said, gesturing to the onstage piano.

The second half featured an improv that sounded like a through-composed torch song from the Great American Songbook as well as a ballad that alternated with sparse Bach Sarabande-like sections, complete with Baroque-style ornaments. One improvisation began with ruminative pentatonics that also included hints of full scales. During an uptempo jazzy number, Jarrett went into “Rhythm Changes” (without the bridge). After the piece, he joked, “That’s what you do when you lose a trio!” There was also a quiet ballad that recalled his “The Melody At Night, With You” album. One of the pieces I liked the most came near the end; an uplifting, almost Irish whistle-type dance over a rhythmic ostinato. It was lively, majestic and hymn-like, all rolled into one.

Jarrett played three encores:
The first was perhaps the most “special” music he played all evening. I’ll use the words “Ravel” and “impressionistic tremolos” to describe it, but this doesn’t give justice to the luminous quality of the sound he produced. It sounded more like an ethereal, shimmering orchestra than a piano.

The second encore was a beautiful rendition of the standard “I’m A Fool To Want You.” Bob Dylan has recently recorded this song and I wondered if Jarrett, a long-time Dylan fan, had that version in mind.

At almost 11:00, Jarrett came out and launched into a foot-stomping blues for the third and final encore. My 12-year old son, who had been struggling to stay awake during the previous two slow pieces, rolled his eyes and whispered, “Thank you!”

Jarrett’s sense of humor was also evident in how several of the pieces ended. At the conclusion of this blues, he paused before the final chord, leaving the audience wondering if the music would resolve or not. Then he sounded a playful tonic chord and the concert was over.

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