Keith Jarrett, Soul Man

February 1, 2009

I’ve called this blog Frozen Music for two reasons: one, architecture is often compared to musical form, and two, I am a practicing classical singer. I follow all kinds of contemporary music with great interest. When something extraordinary comes along, like the premiere of John Adams’ Dr. Atomic, I like to stay tuned.

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a sublime concert at Carnegie Hall with an architect friend who writes and performs his own songs. I’ve been fortunate enough to perform in Carnegie Hall and have heard dozens of performances there. This one was special, perhaps the most memorable I’ve attended, ever.

Though I’ve followed Kieth Jarrett since his beginnngs in jazz (I attended a Seattle jazz festival in 1970 in which he performed with Miles Davis), I had not heard him in  a solo performance. My friend said I was in for a treat, but to watch for signs of heavy weather. I knew that Jarrett was a tempermental performer, and that some concerts turned into confrontations between the pianist and his audience over things like coughing and lack of attention. On Thursday, when Jarrett entered the hall and addressed the audience, we knew that he was ready to engage with  his American fans–one listener said he’d never seen the artist in such an ebullient mood.

Communication between a performer and an audience is one of the great mysteries of art. Sometimes a fine performance is greeted with less enthusiasm than merited. In other instances a merely serviceable one receives adulation based solely upon reputation. Performers talk about the magic sense of communion that can occur when hundreds of listeners zero in on the groove and catch it. When that happens a community is born, in an instant, and what is shared is mystical. Jarrett, a Gurdieff follower, likes to reach for such sublime heights in every performance. Perhaps that is why many disappoint him.

Recognizing that his concert was on the cusp of a big cultural shift in America, he issued a kind of challenge to the audience upon entering the hall–the way forward wasn’t about economics. Listen and maybe you’ll catch on. He then went to work, laying down more individual works than typical–perhaps half a dozen in each half. The range of themes was dazzling: a gospel anthem, a simple lyric ballad, frenzied conflict, Bartok-like counterpoint, Chopin preludes, straight ahead blues, Afro-Latin rhythms. He seemed to be tapping so much of America in one performance that the audience was left exhausted after the first half. We were in disbelief–how could one human being embrace, or know, so much?

More astounding was Jarrett’s intensity and commitment to his craft. With typical modesty, he once turned and said that in 60 years of playing, he still had many things to learn about the piano, and bowed to it. When playing he entered a zone of soulful engagement with both music and audience. When other musicians close their eyes and reach for a spiritual realm, it sometimes seems forced, or prayerful. When Jarrett does it, he lays everything on the line–you feel his entire body and soul in every note. The piano is an extension of his entire being. This sounds like hyperbole but it is not. The man looks for spirituality in everything he plays.

The audience responded to each improvisation with appropriate applause–serious, engaged, and awe-struck. There was no instant adulation or knee jerk hero worship. Carnegie Hall brings out the true believers, but also the most critical listeners. By the end of the program, the crowd had connected with the man on stage to a degree I’ve seldom seen. He did six or seven encores, and could have played all night. Near the end he acknowledged the significance of the evening with a humble “thank you” to his audience, and a bow to his instrument. He had laid his soul bare and several thousand other souls responded. This is the kind of community that may emerge again, in a country that has lost its way.