I’ll never forget that cold winter night. I was driving my unheated Volkswagon bug home from a college jazz band rehearsal in the winter of 1987 when I turned on the radio and BAM! I immediately knew my life would never be the same.
What I heard, between the static crackles of a distant radio station, was a piano solo played with a rhythmic flow and freedom I had never previously heard or even conceived of. As I drove through the darkness of the Connecticut forest, my one thought was, “I must find out who this is!”
Luckily for me, the DJ announced the artist and song as the track concluded: The Keith Jarrett Trio playing “Stella By Starlight.”
Keith (yes, we were on a first-name basis) was already a big influence on me. In high school I listened to his Köln Concert recording over and over and made the album’s encore, called “Memories of Tomorrow” in the Real Book, a staple of my live performances. I also soaked up his recording with Gary Burton along with his European Quartet albums.
But this was different. Here, Jarrett was exploding boundaries by applying his unique phrasing and melodic sense to standards. It was simultaneously in the tradition and beyond the tradition. Now. Only now.
When I recovered, I resolved to learn to play with that same sense of freedom while living within the form of the song at hand. Keith wasn’t going outside the song in the same way that the avant garde players did (although I have favorites among them too.) Rather, it seemed as if he was starting from scratch each time he played and opening himself up to a sense of possibility beyond what most players attempt to do. (Orchestrator Gil Evans is one of the few others who could do this as well as Jarrett.)
Jarrett’s playing and example have been so close to my heart for 30 years that I was recently shocked to hear that his trio disbanded last year, in 2014. (In true Jarrett form, he didn’t announce it at the time.) I wasn’t completely surprised, since nothing lasts forever, but I was shocked nonetheless.
Keith casually and cryptically referred to the trio’s demise in a recent issue of Jazzwise. The funny thing is that when I heard him play solo at Carnegie Hall last March, he played some jazz “Rhythm Changes” and later joked, “That’s what you do when you lose a trio.” Of course we in the audience took this as meaning that tonight he didn’t have a trio, not forever!
In the Jazzwise interview, Keith also said that he didn’t plan on forming another trio to replace the other one. So we’ll see what the future holds for Mr. Jarrett. At 70 years of age he certainly has a lot more music in him. But my guess is that it will probably be played in a solo context, with maybe some occasional composing for various ensembles. In the meantime, let’s see if I can dig out that old “Standards Live” LP and listen to the first track, “Stella By Starlight” again. We can continue to learn from and enjoy his trio recordings at the same time we welcome Jarrett’s current and future endeavors. Onward and upward!
You can read my review of Keith Jarrett’s March 3rd, 2015 Carnegie Hall concert here.
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