The Art of Keith Jarrett

One of the things I love about teaching is that it forces me to dive deeper into the musical topics that I share with my students. I’m currently having a wonderful time creating a series of video lessons that explore the style of pianist Keith Jarrett. It’s enabled me to step back and ask myself, “What exactly is special about his approach to music?” Here are 10 aspects of Keith and his music that I feel make him and his music so amazing and inspiring:

1. For one thing, his music SOUNDS so great! This may be obvious, but I can’t say the same about all the musicians I listen to, even some of my favorites.

2. Variety: From straight-ahead jazz to classical to pop to world music, Keith does it all.

3. His ‘fingerprint”: No matter what style he’s playing in, Keith’s individuality is immediately apparent. Many musicians try to find their own voice by playing within a narrow stylistic frameword. Jarrett, on the other hand, he’s said that since he just tries ‘be himself’ (my wording, not his), he can play things anything, and it still sounds like ‘him’. It’s like that with vocalists, isn’t it? Since we all have a unique vocal sound, singers tend to be instantly recognizable, no matter what notes they sing.

4. He gives 100% at all times. Again, something we take for granted, but it’s astonishing how few musicians really do this. Not 99%, but 100%! This level of ‘in the moment’ commitment takes Jarrett’s playing to the highest level.

5. The musicians he works with: Keith has only had a few working bands over the years, but he finds musicians that work well together, and then keeps the group together for long periods. They grow together.

6. His choice of material: As Jarrett has pointed out in interviews, his concert programming might be his biggest strength, although often overlooked. The pieces are great, and they’re sequenced in just the right order.

7. His ability to ‘start from nothing’. Keith seems to trust that a musician doesn’t have to be able to envision the entire piece in order to begin. When improvising, he starts with a few notes, and trusts that if he pays absolute attention to where that motif wants to go, it will lead him somewhere, usually worthwhile. When this leads to a dead end, it’s interesting to watch what Jarrett does. I was at the famous Carnegie Hall concert that was recorded, and at one point Keith launched into one of his typical gospel grooves. It sounded a little stilted, and it was fascinating to see him subtly alter the chord progression in an attempt to get the music to flow better. This particular performance never attained the ‘greatness’ of some of his other attempts, but somehow that seemed beside the point. You could see the struggle involved.

8. He is as interested in the ‘process’ as much as the ‘result’. This is probably a recipe for lifelong learning and youthfulness.

9. He is aiming for an ecstatic experience. Jarrett has talked about being influenced by the ‘tradition of ecstasy’ in the music of the middle east. Sonny Rollins has mentioned this too, although I think he got it from the music of India, where he spent some time, and the playing of John Coltrane. When it all ‘clicks’, these performers take themselves and their audience on a magic carpet ride!

10. The willingness to renew himself artistically. Jarrett has periodically taken stock of his own playing, and changed his approach accordingly. For instance, while he was recuperating from chronic fatigue syndrome for an extended time, Keith listened to most of his recorded output and decided that his intros went on too long. When he returned to the concert stage, the intros were much shorter or entirely gone. As a musician, Jarrett never sits still, but continually evolves.

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