Thursday, November 09, 2006

Jarrett's Regime of Phlegmy Fear

Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett is a genius, and it follows that he is difficult. This is simple enough. But Keith Jarrett is a strange type of difficult genius. He's mostly annoyed when people cough.
Here's one fan from a Keith Jarrett message board describing a recent solo concert in Paris:

He started to play a very delicate piece (another classical improvisation).
Started soft and seemed to get even softer. After about 5 minutes... a very
loud cough stops him in the middle of the piece.

Jarrett was in mid motion to a chord when interrupted and slumped at the
piano, his right hand grasping the frame. The audience gasp at the sudden
termination of the piece. Then a pause followed by a small ripple of
applause. I guess the audience thought "well... that's what you do at the
end of a piece right? Clap?"

Jarrett hold his right hand up to the audience and solemnly says, "no, no..."
to the clappers.

Someone coughs again...

KJ: "Yeah... good one"

Then... the magic already gone, he turns to the audience and says:

KJ: "I don't know whether i'm allowed to speak in English here but...,
do you notice how I NEVER cough?"

(Audience laughs)

He then proceeds to explain to the audience:

KJ: "I have a certain reputation (rep-u-tash-eon) for being disgusted by
audience noise. Well... the potential for audience noise..."

KJ: "The music is very fragile and become MORE fragile as it progresses...
I get to a slow passage and 'cough'... it's gone"

He also insists on saying the words that are the same in English as French
twice: The english "FRAgile" followed by the French "fraGILE" etc... This
gets groans from the French audience!

Then I think he tried to laugh it off with "Now... where was I?!" which
does get a laugh from the audience.

He starts to play and is interrupted by more coughing. He abruptly stops
after one chord. Then says something about "Concerto for piano and cough".
He strikes a chord and the audience don't really get it and cough at
different times. He mummer something about how the orchestra usually come
in together...!

KJ: "And now the national anthem..."

Then, after discussion, I think he beings again to play, but is interrupted
by more coughing. Then, he left saying, "I am outta here" and walked off
the stage.

The audience responded by first booing him on the exit and then clapping
wildly asking for him to return.

Then what followed was a strange discussion...

I think he said "Where has concentration in the world gone?"

KJ: "I cannot do this if you can't concentrate."

KJ: "If you have influenza or something, then you now have permission to

Audience member: "We love you Keith!"

Audience member: "But we are your sponsors...."

KJ: "Good... we have a forum here. I wish we could do this in my
country." (I as not being American - or Republican - find this very

KJ: "I don't play Billie Joel songs.... if you think you're my sponsor,
then you also have permission to leave"

[More clapping]

KJ: "When I play, what do you expect from me?"

Audience member: "Your emotion"

KJ: "Good... I heard someone say 'your emotion'... And what would you
expect from someone if you were giving them your emotions?"

Audience member: "Silence"

[KJ nods with approval of the response]

KJ: "This music is for YOU (looks all round at the audience). I only get
one take. ONE take..."

Then... as he approached the piano...

KJ: "I'm not going to explain how difficult this is... but do you see
anyone else in the world do it?"

He follows up an encore of "My Song". The audience recognize the and start
to clap. They are then "shushed" by other audience members into silence.
This somewhat reminds me of a classroom where the children have just been
told off by the teacher.

Then, a further Encore of As Time Goes By and When I Fall In Love. There are
moment in both the last two where people cough and Jarrett looks straight at
the audience and shakes his head in disapproval.

He bows, exits, and the light go up.

Anyway, I thought people might like to hear this. I hope I've captured it
accurately - I wish my memory were better! There was a microphone there, so
I'm sure ECM and Jarrett can relive the experience at their leisure.

I must add that I was disappointed with the audience, but Jarretts reaction
was hard to cope with. Firstly, walking off and then coming back to play
more made it seem purely egotistic. Secondly, it's hard to enjoy the music
once something like that has happened. I was so tense during the rest of
the performance. At the back of my mind was "what if someone coughs now...
is he going to get to the end of this piece...?"

If people were finding it hard to concentrate on the music at the start, by
the end, I think all people could do was concentrate on not coughing. Doing
what he did, KJ just assured HE could concentrate on the music. The
audience were silent afterwards, but their attention was not with the music
- it was with trying to keep as still as possible.

This is fascinating for a couple reasons. One, it points out how much of a dick Keith Jarrett can be, as well as how lame many of his fans are ("Your emotion!"). Jarrett unfortunately does attract many who view him as the jazzy black* version George Winston. I am put off by a lot of Jarrett's music, especially when he drifts into dangerous new agey waters of embarrassingly Romantic tonal backwash. But when he is on, and he is often on-he is frighteningly good. Much of Jarrett's improvisational work has always balanced an song-like lyricism and gospel influenced Americana with Cecil Taylor runs of craggy frenzy; in fact, much of his new and marvelous Carnegie Hall double disc sounds like Cecil Taylor tamed by Hindemithian counterpoint and Schoenberg's Piano Concerto. Dissonant but singing. A lot the applause after some of Jarrett's more thorny improvisations on the new disc and last year's also-marvelous "Radiance" emanates from a polite but indifferent crowd hoping to hear him play something a little more "pretty."
Still-Jarrett's genius also encompasses his awkward but steady mystique as an irritable and almost spiritual figure: a pianist held in awe by many hardcore jazz purists for his improvisational prowess and stubborn commitment to his ideals, and hated by many others for his vocalizations, his baffling eclecticism, his tendency to often meander on empty ideas and vamps in his solo concerts, his wry and holier-than-thou lectures to the audience, etc.

Despite the controversy surrounding him, most will admit that he is a great showman. His solo concerts are like shamanistic rituals. He comes out of the wings, approaches the piano, closes his eyes and precedes to enter into some sort of magical trance state whereupon he will play the piano for often 40 minutes straight, completely off the top of his head, singing and moaning and groaning and stamping his feet and grinning. It's frankly a little too much.
I had the pleasure to see Jarrett and his trio (Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette) live a couple of years ago and it was pretty damn impressive. I was a Jarrett worshiper at the time (I still am a believer in much of his work), but even then I knew it wasn't anything magical or spiritual he's just a serious and incredible musician with some quirks . He plays, he plays good, he can play everything from bop to Shostakovich and incredibly well. He sometimes sings along and emits noises that recall a bunch of gay bees. The end.
But the purist facet of Jarrett's showmanship I sensed that night was the tenseness in the crowd. Jarrett rules his legions of admirers by fear disguised as trust. "I'm doing this for YOU", he says.
But that night, the crowd knowing full well his habit of stopping a show if someone coughs or takes a picture, everybody was a little jumpy. Outside each entrance of the concert hall there were tubs full of cough drops for the audience-tinging the event with the air of silent and emptied- lung purification. But sweet sassy molassy-the tenseness. It felt sort of like that party where everyone notices your father start to get a little too tipsy which makes everyone in the room afraid of to become the target drunken dressing-down ("uhh...ha.....fuckkin'...Hey you! I'm talking to you Darren. You think you are suuuch hot shit, don't you? I have a Ford Taurus too-you ain't so great.").
I, one who is rightly deemed a 'Nervous Nelly', silently meditated-"Will I vomit all over myself and disrupt an amazing solo during 'Bouncing With Bud'?" The drama did not mix well with my Shostakovichian anxiety, but made for great theater.
Alas, one must simply submit to the fact that coughing fits come and go and Jarrett will continue be the frustrating genius that he is as long as he's healthy enough to play.

*Of course, Keith Jarrett is not black at all. Although thought by many to be some part black due to his 70s afro and dark skin tone is Hungarian and Irish. The fact of his non-blackness famously puzzled Miles Davis when they played together in the early 70s sparking their immortal exchange:
Miles: Are you black?
Jarrett: No.
Miles: (Amazed and dissapointed). No man. You lying. You've got to be black.
Jarrett: I'm working on it.


Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

Very good and interesting post. I let out a sigh of relief when you called Jarrett a dick- too many people are enthralled by the performer-as-asshole persona.

There's something very absurd about playing music for a large crowd and expecting them not to behave like a big mob of coughing, breathing, itching, curious humans. One of the best audience experiences I ever had was a Haydn 'Creation' at the Royal Festival Hall where a prominent English conductor (whose name I have shamefully forgotten) made a point before the concert that people ought to applaud when they hear something they like, as they would have in Haydn's day. After the first outburst of 'The Heavens are Telling', there was a tentative flutter of applause, at which the conductor turned around to offer a little smile and nod of gratitude and encouragement. After that, the whole audience was wonderfully relaxed and energized, able to actively focus on the music as a source of pleasure instead of a solemn ritual to be witnessed. Little bursts of applause would break in different areas of the house according to people's tastes, and there was an overall feeling of goodwill and rightness in being part of the equation of audience + performer = concert.

Now, I realize that Jarrett's aim is to create something much more intimate and solemn, but he's going to encounter sniffs and coughs all over the world, and to imply by his lectures that he deserves some apollonian audience of alabaster statues is absurd. I guess it's not so much about the music as basking in the presence of someone you admire as a tempermental genius- who doesn't wish they could have had Charles Mingus plant a steakknife in their table?

11:57 AM  
Blogger M. Keiser said...

I wouldnt call that ass a genius, i think his just well trained and completely full of himself. Convinced that he is himself somehow brilliant for being able to pull of some clever harmonic shifts and polyphony. Any trained musican can learn to do that. I figure if i can pull of a lot of what he can, i REALLY doubt its that special, and its people like this that make me really wonder if there is such a thing of musical genius at all.

7:04 AM  
Blogger PWS said...

We will agree to disagree strongly on every point you make.

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'dangerous new agey waters of embarrassingly Romantic tonal backwash' are not referring to Koln, are you? Lyricism reached loftiest peaks there. Never cried so much in my life. Maybe not the Jarrett for purists, as my jazz musicians friends state, but surely the greatest of visionaries for the free spirists.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Grateful Jack said...


2:07 PM  
Blogger Grateful Jack said...

I will graciously take my leave now.

2:10 PM  
Blogger hds said...

Very interesting post. I'm a fan of him too, but I've never had the opportunity to see him in concert. I know I too would've felt awkward, had I witnessed such a peculiar dialogue between the artist and the audience.

We cannot understand what is truly going on in his head while he's improvising. Dedicating a life to an instrument is a tremendous commitment most non-musician people don't get, and some people criticize the behavior of musicians like Jarrett as if he OWED them something !

He is indeed very quirky at times, but I know that if I could play piano like him, I would allow myself to be this way.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Lexo said...

I didn't know that Keith Jarrett isn't black, but I did know that he is cough-intolerant when performing. I don't like people coughing at inappropriate moments either, but it does seem to me like he could be a little more good-humoured about it. (Or do I just mean 'less of a dick'?) Of course, coughs can be music too. I don't know if you've ever heard a live performance of Cage's 4'33", but one of the peculiar things about that piece in concert is that it basically always sounds the same - it sounds like several hundred people trying to keep quiet. Coughs are major events in a live performance of that particular work. The best way to listen to it is to take a recording of it to different places with some kind of portable music player equipped with speakers, and then experience the different local sounds of the different environments. Otherwise it always sounds like the ambient sound of the room where you keep your iPod Dock.

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