The Beginner’s Guide To Keith Jarrett
Whether you’re just now discovering Keith Jarrett, or want to dive deeper into his work as a whole, I hope this Beginner’s Guide helps you get a good overview of his artistic evolution as well as the breadth of his musical diversity. Jarrett has never defined himself by genre; rather, it’s the strength of his musical vision that shines through in everything he does. Enjoy!
Keith Jarrett was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1945, which was just the moment when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and the other early beboppers where developing their new sound in New York City. But Jarrett wouldn’t be exposed to these sounds for years to come. Rather, he began piano lessons at the age of three by studying the music of Bela Bartok. He says that as a young child, he didn‘t enjoy Bartok’s music, but if you’ve ever worked your way through Bartok’s children’s pieces such as his Mikrocosmos, you’ll realize how this music laid the foundation for all of Keith’s future musical development. The focus and listening skills needed to play those short pieces must have contributed mightily to his ability to improvise the way he does, in a wide variety of contexts.
As a teenager, Jarrett toured with a famous group of the time, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, which played popular music for the masses, and he learned jazz wherever he could, such as from a published book of Dave Brubeck’s piano solos. Even though Jarrett said that he eventually realized that there was more to jazz than Brubeck, I can hear Brubeck’s preference for a completely improvised melodic line, as opposed to a reliance on “licks,” as a major influence on Jarrett. In fact, many of the other jazz pianists whom Jarrett cites as influences, such as Thelonious Monk, John Lewis, and Erroll Garner, share this same trait. And he was also influenced by saxophonists who did this too, such as Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree!
After a short stint as a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Jarrett stepped into the bigtime jazz scene as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Blakey, a bebop pioneer, loved to assemble groups of young, up and coming jazz players, and this was an opportunity for Jarrett to be directly connected to the jazz lineage at its highest level. Their 1966 album Buttercorn Lady sounds as fresh today as it did in then, and we can hear Jarrett’s unique musical personality come through loud and clear throughout.
Here’s the jazz standard “Secret Love” from that live recording:
Keith left Blakey after a short time to join tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s pioneering jazz fusion quartet. The group played mostly original compositions, along with a few jazz standards and even a Beatles song here and there.
Their performance of Lloyd’s “Forest Flower” is perhaps their most famous recording:
Although Jarrett made his first solo albums at this time, he really burst into international fame in 1969, when he joined Miles Davis’ group. This was just after Davis had made the transition from straight-ahead jazz to rock-based fusion, and Jarrett was eager to play with the master trumpeter, even if it meant having to play electronic keyboards (he’s always preferred to play acoustic instruments).
Check out their funky jazz-rock on “What I Say” (which was recorded live at The Cellar Door, in Washington DC in 1970):
Jarrett’s output as a leader is so vast that we can only touch on some of the highlights here. Basically, he’s played solo, with an early trio and then later with the long-running Standards Trio, he’s led both American and European Quartets, performed and recorded classical music on piano, harpsichord and clavichord, and composed music for full orchestra. In addition, he’s recorded on soprano sax, pipe organ, and native flutes and hand drum, along with guitar. Very wide-ranging and prolific!
I hope that some of the following highlights of Jarrett’s career will inspire you to listen to more of his music, which is of an astonishing high level of musicality. Let’s begin this overview of Jarrett as a leader with a piece called “Da Drums.” It was recorded live at New York City’s famed Village Vanguard club in 1973 by Jarrett’s American Quartet. The group consisted of Dewey Redman on tenor sax, Charlie Haden on bass, and Paul Motion on drums. For this gig they were joined by a friend, Danny Johnson, who played the triangle.
Here’s “Da Drums,” which I often use when teaching jazz piano students how to improvise over an ostinato bass pattern:
Now, listen to how different the European Quartet sounds:
Despite all this great group music-making, Jarrett has probably left his greatest legacy as an improviser of solo piano concerts. Simply put, they are astonishing! The Koln Concert, from 1975, is the best-selling solo piano album of all time but since it’s difficult to find on YouTube, I’ll put a link here to a 1984 solo concert from Tokyo so you can hear how Jarrett improvises in a solo context:
Jarrett’s solo improvisations bring in influences from classical, gospel, “Americana,” the blues, Middle-Eastern and Asian music, jazz, pop, rock, and much more. In my opinion, listening to Jarrett improvise is like it must have been to hear Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven sit down at the piano and improvise themselves. He’s totally “in his element” during these concerts, and each one is unique.
In 1983, Jarrett formed a trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette with the expressed intention of playing jazz standards, which had fallen out of favor among jazz musicians at that time. Known as The Standards Trio, they played together until 2014 and brought an astonishingly fresh approach to playing jazz chestnuts. Here’s a recording of them playing the classic tune “Stella By Starlight.” Listen to them play it, and then open your Real Book (if you don‘t yet have the tune memorized) and bring your own personal approach to it!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief introduction to the music of Keith Jarrett. There’s so much more, including his beautiful duet album Jasmine, his home-recorded Spirits, and the many other solo piano recordings he’s released over the decades. As great as it is to listen to his music, perhaps the best way we can use his music is a model for how far we can develop our own potential as a musician.
Enjoy the journey, and "let the music flow!
Here are some further links and resources:
Keith Jarrett bio: Encyclopedia Brittanica
KJ interviewed by host Marian McPartland, with piano performances throughout.
Keith Jarrett’s Harmonic Surprises in “Coral”
Soloing like Wayne Shorter and Keith Jarrett
What do Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett Have In Common?
The End Of The Keith Jarrett Standards Trio
Keith Jarrett Gets Lyrical At Carnegie Hall: Concert Review
Keith Jarrett Interviewed by Ethan Iverson
Interview with Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett Interviewed by Ted Rosenthal
An insightful Keith Jarrett interview in Downbeat Magazine
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