Interview with Keith Jarrett
(Reprinted from old DTM; originally posted September 2009.)
Thanks to Peggy Sutton of the BBC for initiating a memorable afternoon. Steve Weiss was the engineer and Bradley Farberman handled much of the transcription.
EI: Do you play the piano every day?
KJ: Now I do, yeah. There was a long time in my life (when I was ill) when I didn’t practice really at all regularly, but now, yes, I do. It really depends on what I am working towards or away from or both. Sometimes I have to slowly erase one thing and move towards another.
I was just working on Bach over the last few months, and now I have to shelve that and pretend that I know how to do a solo concert, and while I’m pretending that, that’s practicing. But! I thought I was going to shelve the Bach, but now I’m playing the Bach, and for the last twenty-five minutes I do the other thing and it works very well. Because by the time I do the finger-work that Bach requires, and the control thing, my fingers are ready to be completely out-of-control and in-control at the same time. I didn’t realize that it was helping me improvise until Gary Peacock looked at me between sets and said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
EI: So, at one point, going between jazz and classical felt like more of an embouchure change than it does now? Is it beginning to even out?
KJ: It really depends. When I was getting ready to record Mozart I couldn’t have mixed both. And in general, that’s the case. I generally don’t mix things. But I’ve seen how it seems to work this time, and I’m just taking advantage of it. Probably I’m in better shape than I was before, due to some of the patterns Bach forces upon you. The jazz player doesn’t ever play these patterns: they don’t come up; certainly not in the left hand. And working on the fingering puts you in a hypnotic state, playing the same phrase down one half step at a time or down a scale, and you’re doing the same fingering but it isn’t the same fingering, depending on how many black keys are involved. And Bach has this crazy ability to change key in the middle of a scale. So you’ve changed harmonic center in the process of playing what you thought was a simple scale so you can’t take your eyes off the music. And even with the bass line, if you stop looking you think you know what it is, but he always thought it out so well that it’s not always not predictable, but his note is always better than yours.
EI: Do you work out your fingerings early on, or keep experimenting?
KJ: I’ve had all kinds of experiences. With the Shostakovich, I just played it and played it and played it. When I realized I was going to record it, I had to say to myself, wait: I’ve got to find an edited version of this with fingerings! Because what I normally do is find different fingerings every time I play, probably. I just improvise that part of it. It works sometimes, but it doesn’t work in the studio, when you don’t want to do a second take. So I went through three different editions of the Shostakovich and ended up with absolutely no fingering: the Urtext, with no fingerings at all, and that’s always what I prefer in the end. With the Bach, I’ve been able to stick with that. I don’t even like making a mark on the page...
EI: What about the ornamentation? Do you play that differently every time?
KJ: I sort of feel my way through that. Bach was said to have said that everything he wrote in is what he meant, and that it’s not supposed to have needed anything added. But I hear things occasionally, depending on what’s going on; I let things happen. But I also know traditional performance practice for those trills and ornaments. It’s surprising how much that has become part of me since my harpsichord learning years in the 80’s. However, when you apply the same ornaments to piano, you can end up in trouble because the resistance is so massive.
EI: I think Franz Liszt said somewhere that the heart of piano virtuosity was the trill – that if you could play those, you could play anything.
KJ: Um-hmm. Yeah. You know, harpsichordists don’t learn the 2-3-1-3-2-3-1-3 fingering, they don’t learn the “alternating second finger so you give the other one a break,” they only learn the two finger trills. Even on piano, I’m finding that the two-finger trill is better if you can do it, because it’s more even.
If your background is from a certain country like Sweden, there might be a tendency to play drier. If you watch old Bergman movies, when they’re eating it’s almost obscene: everything is drily close-miked and you hear the fork’s sound going into the corn or whatever. But if you’re from, let’s say, a Slavic country, there’s going to be gusto in the playing and maybe even a kind of unrefinement that is not bad, but just different. Then some German types think they know exactly who Bach is. But, actually, if these guys were alive...
Once I was playing Mozart on a boat with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. I played some little extra notes inside one or two places. After the rehearsal he said to me, in total disbelief, “Conversations with Mozart?”
And I said, “Why not? Hey, if he was on this ship, what do you think he would say? I mean, would he say no, no, no, no?” I don’t have that impression about who Mozart was. I think he would say, “That’s interesting...” I’m not saying he would think it was necessary, but I don’t think he would be upset. I’ve had that experience as a composer. When I finished the only piano piece I’ve written out, Ritual, I thought, I’m the last person who should play this. In addition to being a conductor, Dennis Russell Davies is a very good pianist, so I said, “Here! Dennis! Take this music... see what you think.” I heard him rehearsing it: I sat in the hall in Cabrillo, California while he was practicing, and afterwards he said, “Keith: What do think?"
I said: “Cool. It’s good.”
“Is there anything you want me to do that...”
Once you die, you become an icon: a dead icon. Like Mozart. But what would he actually say to you if you could play his music for him?
EI: Mozart and Bach composed and performed on such different instruments than we can imagine now. We’ll never know what that music sounded like at the time. There’s definitely room for maneuvering in terms of a contemporary interpretation. They both improvised all the time, anyway. I disagree with Ashkenazy saying, “Conversations with Mozart?”
KJ: I do, too, although I see both sides. People often ask me, whose cadenzas are you playing? Or: Why aren’t you improvising your cadenzas? And the answer is simply that I can’t mix both sides, the improvising with the classical performance. And I don’t want to write a cadenza; there are so many really good cadenzas available already. I don’t want to get into the part of me that isn’t an interpreter.
EI: But you did improvise a cadenza in the Lou Harrison Concerto.
KJ: That’s true, but that’s a modern piece. I’m talking about the old guys who gave the player a chance to be themselves, but in the language of the day. Gidon Kremer does the Alfred Schnittke cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and the audience goes, “Oh my, that’s so weird!” That emotion is not something I’m looking for: If there’s a Mozart cadenza, I play that, and if there’s not, there’s very good cadenzas by people who were there and that language was their thing.
EI: I was just listening to the Harrison Concerto this morning: It’s a beautiful work.
KJ: It is! That was actually supposed to be a documentary recording, but it became an official New World release because Naoto Otomo and the New Japan Philharmonic knew what to do with the drum part. Everybody else that played this piece was informed by the way classical percussionists always worry that they shouldn’t protrude from the texture. And there’s the koto drummer tradition over there. At first, I couldn’t figure out why the hell this music had finally come to life, and it occurred to me that they have a drum tradition we don’t have. Over there, if a classical percussionist sees forte or whatever Lou might have written on their part, they go for it. Over here, they would diminish the attack. The first time I played it was with Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra, and I expected it to be really good. But I almost didn’t even notice the drums in the “Stampede,” and that’s the biggest thing in that movement!
EI: This is changing even as we speak, but it’s certainly true that classical percussionists are traditionally pretty worthless in terms of generating groove or rhythmic excitement.
KJ: Yeah, it’s a boring job.
EI: Especially when you think of drummers everywhere else.
KJ: Why would you want to be conducted, anyway, if you’re a drummer?
EI: A real pet peeve of mine is conductors who stand waving their arms frantically in front of jazz big bands playing obvious 4/4 swing. Can you imagine Count Basie doing this?
KJ: I saw the Count Basie band several times when I was a kid. In the 50’s... Man, they were swinging so hard – no one in that band needed a conductor!
EI: Was Sonny Payne on drums?
KJ: Yes... Around New Hope there was a music tent, and I saw Basie and Dave Brubeck there. I heard the Brubeck quartet a lot. I lived in Allentown, and there wasn’t much else that played in the area.
EI: Was that the classic quartet with Paul Desmond and Joe Morello?
EI: I love Paul Desmond so much. And you recorded his ballad, “Late Lament.”
KJ: “Late Lament” is a beautiful song. Paul Desmond came up to me once and said, “Keep it up, Keith.” When I heard the Brubeck quartet as I kid, though, I remember having the thought – probably about Dave more than anybody else – that more could be done. It was good that that group existed. There was no other group that came out to Allentown. Nobody else did!
EI: I think that most professional jazz players don’t list Brubeck as one of their top ten pianists, but on those early 50’s live records with Desmond playing standards like “My Foolish Things,” he’s really going for it: starting with a simple idea and trying to build a vast edifice out of it. I don’t think anybody really did that before him.
KJ: I don’t think people did solo work that much, either. There was a solo album that Brubeck released that was important. Probably besides Brubeck and Lennie Tristano, there wasn’t much else for modern playing in a solo context.
EI: There was a Monk album or two...
KJ: Yeah, OK, true. About Brubeck, though, I remember also that there was an exact transcription, some sheet music, of those pieces. And I learned a lot from that! I wasn’t going to transcribe it myself, but now I could play through and see why I liked what I liked. Of course, I was young enough that I needed all the listening and playing experience I could get.
EI: How old were you?
KJ: I didn’t get interested in jazz until my early teens. Maybe 14 or something.
EI: How did you go about trying to get the records?
KJ: That was hard. That was almost impossible. They had just invented the mall: really, it wasn’t malls quite yet, but big stores with various shops all on the same floor that had record departments. There was one in Bethlehem that I thought had the best selection. There was a record store in Allentown, too. But in both places you had to go through every record to maybe kind of come across something that the buyer had made a mistake purchasing... and the one, most important mistake they made there, if they wanted me to stay in Allentown and stay white, was having the white Ahmad Jamal album.
EI: The double LP, right? [I've seen this: it's a collection of Pershing material including "Poinciana" and other familiar Jamal recordings, with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier.]
KJ: Yes. I said to myself, “Who’s this? I know the other guys: I’m always seeing Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Andre Previn...” (I was forced to think of Previn as a jazz player for quite some time.) “But who’s this Ahmad Jamal?”
I always wanted to find out what was happening, so I bought it It changed everything about what I thought could happen. Up to then it was a virtuosity thing: playing fast, or swinging. (At least swinging was there.) But then there was a spatial thing, and not a need for constant playing. I used to practice drums to that album all the time: not to get rid of Vernel Fournier, but because Vernel was so wonderful. He didn’t even have to pick up the sticks but did just incredible stuff with brushes.
As it turns out, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette and I all had that same white album.
EI: Aha! The secret DNA of the Standards Trio.
KJ: Jack is very close with Ahmad, and apparently Ahmad has told Jack that he recommends that people listen to us, so it all comes back.
EI: When you mention Oscar, Erroll, and Brubeck, I think of some great music, but music that has drummers that are merely present, not distinctive.
KJ: It’s just an express train, moving along.
EI: But with Ahmad, I immediately think of the drums – not just Vernel but Frank Gant and Idris Muhammad, too.
KJ: And the accents! ...and the way that they dealt with space: That’s why Miles was so taken with them.
EI: Did you get the Miles records in Allentown?
I didn’t hear too many important players until I got out of there. I went to the Stan Kenton band camps a couple times and did my first record, really young. I took a bus to Chicago for that. Don Jacobi heard me play at the camps and wanted me to be part of this All-Star College Band, even though I wasn’t close to college age. I had never stayed in a hotel before this trip, never been in the studio... and the piano parts were just a few block chords and some ornamental scales and arpeggios on the ballads.
EI: I’ve heard that record: you don’t get a solo!
KJ: That was the result of the band camps, at which I also met some great big band players from North Texas State that Kenton hired. Then I went to Atlantic City and Pottsville, PA; these are the two places that had big bands when the big band era was still cooking - when Kenton played and the guys in the band would tell Stan to let me sit in. Stan would rather not play the piano, and most people would rather not hear him play, either, so he let me.
When I went to Berklee, my first actual experience playing with first-string players in a small band context was with Herb Pomeroy, who was a very good player. When there wasn’t any big name coming through he used to bring a quartet with John Nevs, who was black and a really good player, and Ray Santisi, my so-called piano teacher at Berklee, although all we did in the lessons was listen: He’d always say, “What should we listen to today?” He knew that was what I needed, that he wasn’t going to teach me otherwise. And that’s what I would have told my students if I were him. Anyway, Herb would bring this group into the Jazz Workshop in Boston, which was the single most important place in my life.
When I was 15 or so, going through town with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, I heard Bill Evans play there with Paul Motian and Gary Peacock. At 15, I’m hearing Paul and Gary for the first time! And I hadn’t really heard much of Bill yet, even though people said I sounded like him.
EI: Did you enjoy that performance?
KJ: Oh yeah, it was beautiful. Bill might have been too high to enjoy it himself; he was speeding up or slowing down or both, I don’t know what. (Gary would know.)
While I was still at Berklee, I was working upstairs at the Jazz Workshop at the bar, accompanying singers, which I liked. We had a break, and I went downstairs and didn’t hear any music, and I thought what’s going on? Herb knew me from Berklee big band class, and John said, so you want to play? I said, “Yeah!” John said, “Ray’s late – we want to get started. Pete La Roca’s on drums.” I said, “OK!” meaning, hey, OK, of all the drummers I had heard up until then, Pete was one of the guys I considered as one of the best examples of how you could play without sounding like anybody else. And his time concept was unusual and I realized this is not amateur night anymore! That was a wonderful few tunes.
EI: Charlie Haden told me recently how much he loved Pete La Roca’s playing.
I wonder if people told you you sounded like Bill Evans because Bill, Ahmad, and yourself are all dedicated to voice-leading. There’s a common thread of avoiding stock harmony.
KJ: Voice-leading is melody-writing in the center of the harmony. If you can do it, you’re lucky enough to get to a moment where you can actually find more than one thing happening and trace those things at the same time to a logical next place... or illogical place – really it doesn’t matter sometimes!
It’s so different than what people think when they look at a lead sheet and build those blocks the way you learn harmony. They can’t get away from this structure of vertical playing with your left hand and then if you’re lucky, maybe a good idea in your right.
But the thing is, partly because I was trained as a classical player, I believe your hands aren’t supposed to have one be dead and one be alive. The longer I’m around, the more I realize that, especially when I have a great bio-feedback mechanism happening with the audience playing solo: There’s no way I can avoid hearing what I’m not doing with my left hand. I’m not doing what could be done. So most of the time, recently, I’m asking my left hand to tell me what it wants to do. Because usually it’s right, and my brain is just locked into some sound that I like, or worse, that I used to like.
One day a few months before that trip to Japan to record Radiance, I had a strong experience of playing something and thinking, “I liked that sound, and I don’t like it anymore, but I’m still playing it as if I like it, so what’s going on?” So the only way to answer the question was: stop playing it. If I find myself doing that I just stop. And I just sat there for a minute and then started again; and if that kind of thing happened again I’d stop again. That’s what created the change in the solo things from long 45-minute pieces to short pieces. Except now that it isn’t for the reasons that it first happened. It’s now because I realize: as hard as it is to do the beginning of anything, it’s also not productive to play something longer than it’s alive. If it starts to sound like it wants to be over, you shouldn’t have to keep playing.
EI: The first time I listened to Radiance I was astounded: at the virtuosity, but especially the left-hand virtuosity. Because, despite the work done by you and some others, the final frontier of piano improvising remains the left hand.
KJ: True! It is. The final frontier! “Hello? I have a left hand.” It’s usually curled into these chordal things or vamping – but what else can it do? Again, that’s where my classical training helps.
EI: I imagine you practiced a lot when young?
KJ: I got out to play basketball, too. My grandmother was a help: she set a timer for when I could stop playing. But sometimes I would cheat when she wasn’t looking, and move the knob on the timer so I could quit sooner.
EI: Besides the repertoire, were there any special technical exercises you worked on?
KJ: No, not really.
EI: When you were up in Boston, Jaki Byard was up there, too, right? You play that Byard blues...
KJ: I didn’t know him very well. I had respect for him; I knew his album with Sam Rivers, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, which was very tasty semi-avant garde stuff, sometimes out, sometimes in. I really liked that record.
I think I met Jaki, actually, not in Boston but at the Dom in New York, when I still didn’t have any work and was waiting to sit in anywhere. Tony Scott was running the Dom: I played with Paul Motian for the first time there, and he remembers that, too. (Someone had played me an amazing tape of Lowell Davidson playing free with Motian, and I couldn’t believe it was Paul on drums: I had only heard Paul with Bill and said, “Who the hell is that drummer?” When they told me it was Paul, I put that information away in my mental file.) I heard Jaki at the Dom quite a few times, and sometimes he would just be there. One time, after I played some standard, Jaki came up to me and said, “You’re not playing the right changes: those are the Miles Davis changes.” Later on, he told Roland Kirk I was playing in jeans with the trio, and Roland Kirk told me off in the kitchen of the Vanguard: “You have to create respect for this music: don’t play in jeans!” Ah, the jazz world.
EI: Jaki is famous for playing the history of jazz; stride piano, etc. – but I actually appreciate his more avant-garde moves on the records with Rivers, Eric Dolphy, and Mingus. He can be quite exploratory.
KJ: Exploratory but also tasty. Andrew Hill also had that quality. But most of the guys that went out didn’t always have that kind of alignment with grace. [Name omitted] had incredible potential and played tunes great, but when he went out, it sounded like clumps of shrapnel.
EI: What about Herbie Hancock? You must have checked him out but you don’t sound influenced by him.
KJ: That’s a good observation. In his playing with Miles, Herbie’s harmonic intelligence is really worth hearing. But it isn’t my way, although Herbie is good at voice-leading, too. I’m disappointed at the way Herbie went so electric for so long.
It seems like mastery is being lost in the world and in art right now. The only way you can actually master something – or hope to master it – is if it sticks around, and doesn’t change, technologically. When I think of the pianists who went electronic, or “electric,” long enough, and then thought, “Hey, I can go back to that.” They call it “back.” I would call it “forward!” Now it’s called “acoustic piano.” That’s the mistake. Like “standup bass.” The chance for mastery only happens if your instrument does not change. And if you change along with technological changes that occur... I haven’t seen anybody successfully go “back.” I haven’t seen them go to the piano, after a certain amount of time away, or after their consciousness is not with the piano, and work on it again, and start from where they stopped. They’re actually starting from some other alien place, they don’t know what touch is anymore, if they ever did, but all those things are going to disappear fast if they don’t consider them utmost in their mind. And when people master things, like let’s say the Murano glass people, outside of Venice. Those are generations of people who… five generations? They’re still working on their glass. Luckily, the glass didn’t morph, and you didn’t have electronic glass.
EI: What about touch, and touching the piano?
KJ: What about it?
EI: You’re someone that gets a certain sound out of the piano. That’s your sound. No one else gets that sound, and I know it’s not the piano. It’s not like you have one special piano. You get that sound; it’s on your earliest records, on whatever instrument, I think even some uprights in some cases.
KJ: Forgetting the musical content for a moment, if a musician is working on his or her voice, he or she is trying to match what he hears in his head with what he hears when he plays. The only explanation for that difference in sound coming out of the piano is that. Otherwise, it couldn’t be consistent. It just couldn’t be consistent. Not with all the different kinds of touch I’ve been using, especially recently.
But I had a tremendously important revelation in Europe in the 60s, when I was playing with Aldo Romano and J. F. Jenny-Clark. And we took a break, we were playing in Belgium. Up to that moment, I thought first you learn to play your instrument and get technically proficient. And from what everyone else said, and at this point you were supposed to play what you liked and don’t play what you don’t like. You’ve gone through the whole thing, let’s hope you know how to play the piano, let’s hope that you can play whatever you think of playing. You also eliminate what you don’t like in your playing, you automatically do that. At one point you say to yourself, “Well, I kind of have a voice, I guess.” Or someone tells you that.
Dewey once called me and said, “Do I have a voice?” This is when he was sick, and he was really not doing well, and his son was a big deal. He was right to ask that question in a way, because he was depressed, and he needed some support. I said, “Dewey, don’t think about that ever again. That is what you have. It’s yours!”
Anyway, back to this story: When we took that break in Belgium, and I walked back on stage, I realized it’s as simple as this, this was the phrase that entered my mind: “Now I can just play the piano.” What happens is, your voice isn’t going to go anywhere. But if you try to possess it, by playing only the things you like, forever, you will then sound like all these other guys who became stylists, and everybody knows how good they are, and you don’t expect any surprises, certainly no big surprises. You don’t expect to be confronted with a new reality. Because you think you know who these guys are. So voice is like personality. And then after you have this personality, what you wanna do is get it out of there, in the sense of it being a conscious thing. Because you’re never gonna lose what you gained, but if you don’t take it further, you will just stagnate and you’ll be one of those guys that’s, well… “Remember how he sounded?” “Yeah, yeah, it was cool, it was good.”
For me, if I don’t play something that doesn’t challenge my concept of what I liked before that second, something’s wrong. So what you do is you create a “cell,” let’s call it. And that cell is your voice. And then you want that cell to replicate in whatever direction it wants to per microsecond. And that’s when you expand it, and it becomes not a personality anymore, it becomes a biofeedback mechanism. Otherwise, what feedback do you get from playing what you like? “Okay, hey, I really like that chord, I’m gonna use that chord again.”
But you have to live through certain experiences before you can actually put into play certain things. For example, I used to say to my students, “Play like you think it’s going be the last time. That’s the only way to play.” And when I told them that, I hadn’t had that experience. I just knew that was basically correct. Okay, so certain things happen to you in your life. Let’s say you get a divorce. Your house burns down. You have big experiences. And you get chronic fatigue syndrome. Or you get some kind of problem with your physical health, your hands. If you can still play, you have to play as though it’s going be the last time. When you get more and more towards that, it’s more and more true. So you can actually do better work, because it’s real. It’s not theoretical.
EI: On the last two available solo concerts, there’s a remarkable infusion of (I hope this term won’t bother you) atonality.
KJ: Yeah. Doesn’t bother me.
EI: Historically, you’re probably the first person that is as comfortable playing in a completely atonal context as well as on just a D Major triad for twenty minutes. I think it’s wonderful that the atonal side is so forthright on these last records.
KJ: I would call it “multi-tonal.” I mean, in a very strange way, there’s no such thing as “atonal.” It’s like when you’re listening to a bad speaker system, your ear makes up for what you’re missing. If you know the recording, you know what’s on it. Even if you don’t know the recording, and you live with this little speaker system, you gotta get something from it. At Berklee, I had this lunchbox-sized record player. The record was bigger than the box. But I wasn’t missing anything!
I started to realize the universe actually requires all sounds, in a way. And so if you want to be anthropomorphic or whatever that is, there is no such thing as atonality. You’re either putting more colors together, or you are putting less. Or you’re choosing. So tonality is a choice. But even in the concerts you haven’t heard, there’s more and more of this.
When I did the Carnegie Hall concert, somebody came up to me who I knew, who I hadn’t seen for a while, and they said, “Oh, I love those little atonal interludes between the things.” And I said, “You know, thank you for saying that!” There’s two things: One is, I wish they could go on forever. No one will ever hear this in concert, because I would be asking so much from the audience. But in my studio, that happens for thirty minutes at a time, and maybe it could go on forever. The other thing is she had said she liked the “interludes,” so she was focusing on the other things as the real content. It made me realize that I had some more work to do. To let those things come out even more. To let them play out.
EI: To talk about voice leading again: everything is controlled in those improvisations. It’s very easy when you’re shoveling around so many thousands of notes to have some of the pitches become a little careless, especially when it’s a less obviously tonal context. But what’s extraordinary is that you’re still voice leading all the little melodies even at a really rapid velocity and in a very free harmonic situation.
KJ: Yeah. And I have to say, the releases up to now don’t even touch the Paris and London recordings that should come out in the fall, and which encapsulate this more, even. And then the more recent things continue to do that.
For example, at the London concert, I had had this stupid Db Major… somehow or other Db was in my head. And I knew I was going to not play in Db. I’ve said before that I don’t want to have any thoughts in my head, but this one was just not going away. And it wasn’t enough of a musical thought to call it musical. It was just that, somehow or other, I felt that I better just get it out, whatever it was. And so, in the London concerts, there was a unique beginning to a concert. It’s not gradual like the old solo concerts were, where it starts in a harmonically okay place and it sort of builds slowly into melodies and motifs. Now, recently, it’s been more like, “Go!” But this was none of those things, this was something mysterious, it was slow, and it was, again, like cellular construction. You couldn’t expect where the next thing would pop up. And somebody came backstage, a musician, probably a very good one because he had this comment, he said, “During the first piece of the first set,” – the one I’m talking about – he said, “I couldn’t handle it. I mean, I couldn’t handle it. I had to go out and get a glass of water. You were putting so much into this.” And I said, “I’m glad I didn’t get thirsty!”
But I think, let’s call it the color gamut, they use that phrase in photography, is infinite. And it’s certainly not infinite on piano, but it can seem infinite if you know how. And to be perfectly honest, theoretically, a piece of music like that could go on for the rest of my life. It’s so absorbing, I could live in there. And that’s what I was trying to talk about with the getting your voice thing. You have to sort of drop it so you can see how beautiful all the other things are now that you can do on the same keyboard, not worrying anymore about your voice. Forget about it. And it’ll stay there, because I’m sure you were aware that it was me playing, and yet I wasn’t playing the same way.
Somebody asked Gary, you must’ve heard this or seen this, on some video about touch, and what was it like to play with Bill versus Keith. It was kind of a dangerous question to ask. And Gary was really good, he said something like, “Well, Bill didn’t have a touch, he had a sound. It was always the same sound. Keith modulates the touch depending on what the needs of the music are.” Touch, in jazz, is pretty rare, in the sense that you can choose from a vast array of things.
EI: Although, I think the minute you put a ride cymbal on stage, you’ve eliminated sixty percent of what the piano can do.
KJ: That’s partly true. Yeah.
EI: But I actually think that’s something important to jazz piano in a way. The sound has that thing that fights against a ride cymbal.
KJ: Yeah, it isn’t that players don’t have that sound, and it isn’t that they don’t want that sound. It’s just that I think there’s been a very much lower consciousness of that element. You know, in the classical world, some of those people are coming because of my touch. Whereas, probably that’s true with the jazz people, too, but it might not be the first thing they think of. They’re thinking of ideas. Or, pulse.
EI: My impression is that most jazz pianists would have trouble playing below a certain dynamic consistently.
KJ: Classical players never pound, but they also never actually get soft, soft, soft, soft, to the point of risking that the note won’t play. Benedetti Michelangeli is an exception.
EI: He’s so marvelous.
KJ: Yeah. He could do that in the middle of a Ravel concerto. “He almost didn’t get that one!”
EI: I read somewhere that Miles Davis and Bill Evans were listening to Benedetti Michelangeli’s Ravel concerto in advance of Kind of Blue.
KJ: That makes sense.
EI: That record coupled with Rachmaninoff’s fourth concerto.
KJ: Yeah, that’s the one I’m talking about.
EI: That’s beautiful. Is there anyone else that you admire in the classical world like that?
KJ: Well, not for the same reasons, no. But there’s great players everywhere.
I’ve had my pianos worked on so many times to try to tweak them to a place either for practicing or for recording. And you just can’t get everything out of anything. That’s why I like meeting new instruments. They all have something to offer. Until you get to ones that you see through the soundboard to the floor. Then they don’t usually have much! But touch does come. Pianists are a strange group of people because they don’t have to know about their instrument. The piano tuners come, work on it, do things and say, “By the way, you need this.” And you say, “Oh, okay,” if you’re casual about it. You don’t have to know about the piano. But if you’re carrying your flute around, or you’re carrying a horn, bass, guitar or anything else, probably you do know your instrument. It could help the pianists if they just learned more about their instrument. Instead of going to the club owner and saying, “Man, I don’t like your piano. It’s just, it’s really bad. I don’t like it,” and hearing the response: “Well, Erroll Garner played on it last week, and no complaint,” they could be more specific.
When I brought my quartet to the Jazz Workshop in Boston for the first time, I went up to the club owner and said, “You know, your piano needs some…” and I told him what it needed. And he had never heard these things before. It needed some voicing, I can’t remember what else. And I said, “I’m asking for this to be done so that people don’t complain about it. And I’ll come down when he’s here and I’ll make sure he’s doing what needs to be done.” And he said okay. Up to that point, people just said, “Uh, you know, it’s a shitty piano.” And he thought, “Oh, that’s just a musician. He’s in a bad mood.”
EI: Was that the quartet with Dewey and Charlie and Paul?
EI: I’d love to talk about your musical relationships. Because I think it’s very striking and under-recognized how extraordinarily faithful you’ve been to a certain group of musicians. As a leader, you’ve only recorded with three bass players, three drummers, and two saxophonists, in what... forty years or something? It’s not usually what’s done. For some musicians, there’d be forty different bands in forty years. It’s clear that you believe in chemistry.
KJ: I’m not sure what your question is…
EI: Well, tell me about Charlie Haden, for example.
KJ: It’s his ears. And his sound is so specifically grounded and his intonation is so good… He doesn’t play above his limits as a technician. Charlie’s unique. In the American group, they had to be listeners, and they had to be uniquely themselves. And they had to be masterful players.
But, if you’re asking about personality… I was like the road manager, and I was driving these guys around, and Charlie was high all the time, and Dewey was drunk all the time, and Paul was sober enough... If I hadn’t had Paul as an ally, I’d probably be in a mental institution. Ornette was backstage once, and he came up to me and he said, “First of all, Keith, you gotta be black. I don’t care what you say. You’re playing church music, man.” And then he said, “How do you keep Charlie and Dewey in your band this long?” Because he had them. He obviously knew everywhere we landed Charlie was gonna look for a hospital. And Dewey was gonna look for a bar.
But basically, the quartet was this absolutely raw commodity. I don’t think anybody else would have thought of putting that together. For the first trio I was thinking of Steve Swallow in the beginning. I hadn’t heard Charlie that much, I wasn’t that aware of his playing. But Steve was busy with Gary Burton, and he had a lot of gigs, and he couldn’t be available. (And I guess I was lucky I didn’t do that, because he started playing electric bass.) So the next guy that I tried out was Charlie, and I thought “Whoa. Okay. This is what I need. Why didn’t I think of this before?” Because Ornette obviously needed these qualities in his band, he wasn’t gonna be playing on anything chordal.
I have anecdotal stuff to say about the quartet, but it was a wild and crazy thing to try to do, to write for these guys, who all had their own… I would say Paul would be willing to play anything. I mean, for God’s sake, he worked with Arlo Guthrie and Mose Allison. (Mose was cool.) But Paul would play with anybody. He’d play anything. So I had this Armenian drummer who tuned his drums like Armenia would tune them, and Charlie, who was basically so out of it that he was fooling with his bass cover while he was supposed to be playing in time, and Dewey who was not coming in for his entry into the melody, and then I’d ask him why, and he’d say “Well, I was just having a glass of wine backstage, man.”
And I remember gathering them together and saying, “Look, it’s been great, and we’ve done this for a long time, but this is it.” But what it was was just the individualism crept in to the point of everybody’s obsessions taking them over. And I just had more to do.
I don’t believe I got to know Charlie until he was straight. When he was straight, he came up to me, he suddenly had to take care of Old and New Dreams, because Don Cherry was in trouble. And I guess he saw me in a coffee shop in New York or wherever we were and he sat down opposite me and he said, “I’m sorry man. I’m so sorry. I don’t know how you did it, Keith. Now I know what you were dealing with.” And I said, “Well, maybe!”
But we’ve gotten to know each other really well since then in the last couple of years. I did an interview for the documentary Ramblin’ Boy. Charlie said, “Would you be willing to talk?”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to play.”
So he brought his bass, put it in this control room, and we went in and talked. And after we were finished talking I said, “You wanna play?” So, that was the beginning of thinking about thirty-three or -four years, or whatever it was, going by and we sort of bonded in those two tunes or three tunes in a way that we didn’t know. And then when we were doing more playing after that, which was just for me, for my own purposes (whether it comes out is another question), he looked at me and he said, “Man, I didn’t know you had such good time.” I said, “That’s because we had a drummer. How would you know that?” I said the same thing back: “Charlie… why did we think we needed Paul?”
EI: Of course, Paul played so differently with you than with Bill Evans. Jazz history hasn’t really caught up with Paul Motian yet. People are very aware of Paul’s being a part of the iconic Bill Evans trio, where he played some great brush work and that’s about it. But there were more years and more records with you, and certainly a greater variety of music... and also extremely aggressive drumming.
KJ: Yeah. It was like Mozart The piano is not supposed to be up front when you’re playing a Mozart concerto. You’re almost too soft. And with Paul, I didn’t have to try to be almost too soft. I loved it, though, because I was also a drummer, so I knew what Paul was doing was so brilliantly correct for this situation that I was never gonna say a word about it. I couldn’t have ever imagined saying to Paul, “Paul, you’re playing too loud.” Here was a guy who was probably waiting for this, through the whole brushes thing with Bill. Bill didn’t want him to use sticks.
And that’s where the writing became of utmost importance. There had to be a way to have Dewey not play on changes, to have Charlie not play vamps forever. (Although, when he wanted to play a vamp, there was nobody that plays them better than Charlie.) But Charlie always wanted to challenge the tonic, and challenge the chord he’s playing. He’s not always going to play the root. “I’m sorry, I’m not gonna play that damn root. I don’t care what you think.” And then every now and then, he’d play the root so beautifully that you’d just say, well, these are choices he’s making, I’m not gonna screw with this. This is an ensemble that’s supposed to be spontaneous and I think the way I’ve handled being a leader is one of the keys to why those, even the Norwegian quartet, why those things worked the way they did. Because there was no drill. I wasn’t a drill sergeant.
Just to give you an example: Dewey was always late for things, forever and ever, Amen. I had driven into New York, we were rehearsing at Paul’s apartment, and Dewey was a couple of hours late. You know, we’re twiddling our thumbs... I don’t know what song this is... Dewey shows up, and he’s a very poor reader. (Charlie was a great reader.) Dewey was a very poor reader. He needed to “play this slow first.” And I didn’t have time for that. So I thought, okay. Alright. Paul: just play as though we’re playing fast, but it’s not a pulse. And Charlie: you know the piece, you can tell where we are. And Dewey: you just play whatever tempo you can read it. And that’s how it ended up being recorded, the same way. I never took Dewey aside and said, “Now you have to go to what my original concept was.” The concept had to be so flexible with that band, that even though I had music for it, I didn’t have to determine what was done with that music.
Sometimes a melody has chords, then Dewey’s solo doesn’t, then you forget what the chords actually were by then, then maybe something happens after Dewey, and then I’m playing on the chords. Or it’s now a ballad. And it was great. But it was very hard. Very, very hard. First of all, if the guys are only semi-conscious, you know you’re still trying to generate the energy.
EI: Well, you showed serious humility. You’re a young virtuoso. Everyone knows it. You’re clearly the next step in a certain kind of advanced jazz piano idiom. And instead of showcasing your virtuosity, you allowed the music to just happen, surrounded by a pack of wild dogs. What I especially love is that you had a trio – which is most virtuosic pianists’ ideal, to have a piano trio – but you’re still not satisfied it’s got enough ragged edges, so you get Dewey Redman as well.
KJ: That’s true. We walked past each other. I heard Ornette with Dewey, in the mud, in a festival in Belgium, I think. It was just like walking in quicksand, and then I had to go to the dressing room and play after them. And I came offstage after I played, and this was with a couple of guys from the Poconos, because Paul and Charlie couldn’t do these gigs, they couldn’t afford it. They didn’t want to wait around in Europe in case we had work. So I came offstage and I had heard Dewey play for the first time, and he had heard me play for the first time. We walked past each other in the dressing room and we both said, “Hey man, I wanna work with you sometime.” And so, I just called him first. Or something. And then the first time Dewey played with us was at Slug’s Saloon.
EI: There’s something about the way each phrase goes next to each other in Dewey’s playing that only a few people have.
KJ: And when it’s intense… When he was on, he was definitely on. He was afraid that he was incompetent to play on chords. And one night, we’re playing one of my pieces, on which he never plays on the chords. And all of a sudden I’m noticing, wait, he’s playing on these chords, and not only is he playing on them, it’s like he’s done this for his whole life. It’s the only time it ever happened. And we came off the stage, and I said to Dewey, “What the hell… what was that, man!” He said, “Well, Don Byas died today. I just felt Don’s spirit.” Yeah. He played the shit out of the chords. He just played like he never had a problem with chords in his life.
EI: I don’t know how it was received at the time, but my generation of musicians regard it as one of the greatest bands in history.
KJ: I broke up the band, right? Then somebody said to me, “How could you break up one of the most important bands in the history of modern jazz?” And I said, “Why didn’t you say that before? Why now?” But I guess it was a seeping process. You have to hear a lot of it, and it starts to dawn on you what exactly is going on. I don’t think you can choose a track and throw it at somebody and say, “What do you think of that?”
EI: I love the musicians who are so provocative that some people will never understand it. To this day people think, like, whatever, Paul Motian can’t swing, or they think the most outrageous things that aren’t true... Who swings more than Paul Motian, anyway? But the real thing in that band was Paul and Charlie; playing free, playing tempo, playing vamps – that’s one of the greatest hookups ever.
KJ: And it started with me, because I don’t know if they even knew each other before that. But then when they left, I saw all these groups who were put together for a gig, or something, and there’d be Charlie and Paul and Dewey. With Pat Metheny, or Mick Goodrick, whatever. Well, I guess I started an idea that had a longer life than I had.
EI: Oh, for sure. Paul and Charlie recorded on many of each other’s records and also with Geri Allen... lots of people.
You bring out the best in collaborators. And I was just talking to a drummer in Australia, and I asked him who his favorite drummer was, and he said “Jack DeJohnette.” And I said, “Well, what Jack records do you like?” Surprised, he responded, “The Keith records, of course,” as if there were no other records. My suspicion is that Jack and Gary play just how they want to play with you.
KJ: Yeah, yeah. That’s the whole idea. In the beginning, I sat down at dinner with them and scared the shit out of Gary by saying, “Well, we’ll do the things like ‘All the Things You Are.’”
"What? What? What? Why would we do that?”
But I explained that we all had experience as leaders, and I said, “You both know what a privilege it is to be a sideman. What if we were all sidemen? In the music itself?” We don’t have to rehearse. I don’t want any of that. So that’s how it’s forever been with the trio: We show up, we do the soundcheck, we have dinner backstage, we chat. Sometimes about… whatever. It could be about the universe, it could be about garage doors not working. And then we go. And we play. But I haven’t been in a group before where I’ve known the people I was working with and trusted them to show up at whatever their best is at the moment. They know that’s the job. The job is to just be there. Not think that they know what’s gonna happen.
EI: At this point, of course, the Standards Trio has a very extensive discography; it’s added up to a lot of tunes. Some of them you must have learned recently. How do you learn tunes these days?
KJ: One of us knows most of them, you know? It’s like, “What’s the bridge to that?” (The famous “I don’t know what the bridge is” joke.)
EI: Even something like “Shaw ’Nuff”? You’ve always known that?
KJ: That probably came out of one of the fake books. Maybe I heard the Gerry Mulligan version? Most of the ballads, for example, I know all the words to. I spent a lot of my early years hearing vocalists sing almost everything that I play as a ballad.
But here’s something I never realized my entire life until recently. Years ago, I decided I wanted to do something about lost love. But only recently did I feel that emotion so... graphically. I thought, “I gotta open the piano. And I have to turn on the recorder.” I don’t feel like it, but I’m gonna do it. And, of course, all these songs are songs I heard sung. I have the records from which I heard them. I know where they are. I know the vocalists. And I thought, “I’m not even getting close to what you can do when you sing.” I took one of the takes that I thought was really good, listened to it, and then immediately followed it up with the vocalist reference. Well, hey, the problem is vocalists have to sing words. So, if the word “the” is in a line of singing, they can’t say anything but “the.” But if you’re an instrumentalist, you can bring something to it that a vocalist cannot. And when I was talking to one of my brothers, he said, “Well, I can give you a good example. In ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ if you’re a vocalist, how do you sing ‘birrrds’?” But on piano, or on any instrument, you can make that full of something other than that phonetic sound that sounds ridiculous.
EI: I do think something that’s deepened over the years with the trio are the ballads. They’ve always been very good, of course...
KJ: Well, we all play each other’s instruments. Slightly. I mean, my bass playing is terrible, my hands are too small. So Jack and I, when we do soundchecks, Jack goes to the piano, I go to the drums, and that’s how we start the soundcheck. That way I hear what my piano sounds like in his monitor, and he knows what he thinks the piano’s like so he can gear himself to the surroundings. It’s a magical trio, because we’ve played in rooms that I am absolutely sure no other jazz group could’ve managed to play in. We played in the Musikverein in Vienna, and if you ever talk to Jack, ask him about this. We couldn’t use any monitors, we couldn’t use any sound system. The place is so… it’s like 2,000 people, but it’s so alive that I had to play soft. On purpose. And Jack couldn’t use sticks. And we’re just going from our usual selves to this room, doing a soundcheck and saying “Holy shit! Ok, alright, well, we’ll figure this out.” And so Jack, of all the things he does well, the many things I could say about him, his sensitivity to that kind of thing is absolute… his integrity is intact.
EI: It’s so important that everybody in your group plays free music, as well as on changes.
KJ: Yeah, but the so-called avant-garde purist wouldn’t call it free playing. They’d say, “Hey, momentarily you’re playing on the same scale for a minute.” Or, “You’re playing a beat? No.” I need it to go places.
EI: In addition to the free aspect, there’s been more and more jazzy jazz, too: More bebop tunes recently.
KJ: When I got sick, after I was trying to recover from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – which shouldn’t be what it’s called, it should be called Death While You’re Alive – everything had to get lighter for a minute. And I couldn’t dig in much, but learned how much there was there, at that dynamic level. And some of those things were bebop things, because they have a lightness. They might be fast, but they’re, you know, a little lighter.
EI: I couldn’t be there for Carnegie Hall this year, but someone told me you encored with “Carolina Shout.” Is that true?
KJ: Yeah. It’s been in my head for a long time. Every now and then, you know how that happens, it just pops back in, and I thought, “Wait, now this time I want to see what happens.” So I made sure I knew how to do that, because I had a ski accident that prevents me from stretching even as much as I would stretch, and I’ve developed ways of playing stride that are illegal in some states. But Gary loves it. He said it gives him more room. Again, it’s voice leading, sometimes it’s the upper parts of the sound, and I don’t need to stay with the bottom. And it’s never, “bluh blah bluh blah,” blocky like that. But yeah, I did that as an encore.
EI: It’s a great piece. James P., of course. One of my favorites. Well, I think we’re probably about where you, uh…
KJ: Where I don’t know what to say next?
EI: Is there anything else you want to just mention? I’m not a professional interviewer myself, so…
KJ: Well, I’m not a professional answerer. Um, actually I tell people, and I always will, that this is the hardest thing I do. I hate reading other people’s interviews, because I don’t want them to be boring, but they’re never filled with much at all. And I figure if I’m gonna spend the time, I should figure out how to speak about whatever it is. One thing I could say: I found myself wishing a couple of days ago that the entire catalogue of all the things I’ve ever done could be seen in an overview. Because it’s all come from the same place. And most people are unaware of large clumps of it. I mean, people don’t know about the organ thing. They don’t like organs...?
EI: I was listening to your brass quintet last night, actually, and thinking, “This is really, really good,” and that piece is certainly not what people think of when they think of you. Charlie Haden told me how much he loved the way you wrote for strings, like on Arbour Zena. Can I throw a couple of other names your way?
EI: Bud Powell. Go.
KJ: Fantastically important, and great. And I knew who he was before I heard him. I wrote his name on a piece of paper on my way to a blindfold test. I was with my wife at the time, and I said, “I’m gonna write a list of the people they’re gonna play for me.” Just for a game, you know? So his name was there, but I hadn’t heard him play yet. Knowing it was him. But when I heard it, I knew it had to be him. It couldn’t be another person, because if the legend was correct, or if the rep was true, it couldn’t be anybody else. Yeah, Bud was amazing. Still is.
EI: Thelonious Monk.
KJ: Thelonious isn’t amazing in the same way, but he’s… what would I say about that? I dunno. I dunno what to say about him. I like his stuff. I just don’t know what I’d say. It’s sideways to the flow. It’s like he’s over at the side of the road, flashing at you, saying “Hello! I’ve got this for you.” It’s important, but it’s only him. And it’s sort of singular. So I don’t know what I would say.
EI: Fair enough. That’s beautiful, what you just said.
KJ: I guess. I’m just at a loss for words. Although, his quote, according to Thomas Pynchon, a Thelonious Monk quote, I think, made him much more important than not knowing this quote: “It’s always night or we wouldn’t need light.” Anyway, go ahead.
EI: Paul Bley.
KJ: Paul. Paul took the piano and made it impossible to disregard as a horn. And that made me feel good, because I was feeling… I always liked piano-less groups, you know? I didn’t actually like the piano, for a long, long time. (I’m making up with it now.) But Paul was in my apartment in Boston, playing his Footloose! album before it was released, and we met in the club. An important force. Yeah, important.
EI: That solo on “All the Things You Are,” on the Sonny Rollins record.
KJ: Yeah. Well, that whole record, anyway. That’s crazy. My youngest son asked me, “Can you record all the things you think I should hear?” One of the first things that popped into my mind about what he had to hear was that album. Pete and Paul, and Steve and Pete together, made Footloose! extremely important for me. Sort of like Ahmad with certain kinds of drugs.
EI: Also on that record he plays a solo piano version of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” that was light years ahead of where everybody else was thinking about at that moment.
KJ: Yeah, one thing I’m sorry about is that he doesn’t still play on his cheap, broken down piano in his living room. Because that’s the best I ever heard him. And when he’s playing the Bosendorfers, or whatever he plays, I think, “No, no, Paul, don’t do that! It’s not gonna work. Where’s your sound? It’s not in that piano.” So, try another name.
EI: Andrew Hill.
KJ: Glass Bead Game. I dunno. Something like that.
EI: Cecil Taylor.
KJ: Again, he brought the piano into the realm of other instruments that were able to play free. I mean, you can’t really play free on piano, I’m sorry. It’s a lever system. But Cecil did everything he could. And it was an energy thing.
EI: Hank Jones.
KJ: Tasty. Beyond just tasty. No, it’s stimulating. Tasty and stimulating.
EI: Erroll Garner.
KJ: I used to do a really good imitation of Erroll that Jack always cracked up about, because he knew I got it right. He’s more important than most people give him credit for. Much more important.
EI: Also, his crazy introductions. Those long fantasies.
KJ: Just the ability to play the way he played and have the physique he had: even that, by itself. The octave thing. The clusters.
EI: It’s quite thick, how many notes he’s moving around. Art Tatum?
KJ: Too many notes.
EI: Really? Too many notes?
KJ: Yeah. Too many notes too often.
EI: Great time, though.
KJ: Good time, yeah. But that’s my response.
EI: Lennie Tristano.
KJ: Very, very important. As a thinker; the way he could think on his feet. Very, very important. Very important.
EI: Anybody else?
KJ: John Lewis you didn’t mention.
EI: Oh, tell me about John Lewis.
KJ: More important than most people think. As a matter of fact, I would say if you’re gonna take a bunch of the… not the Bud Powells of the world, not Monks, not the very visible people, but the less visible, John is one of the most important. John’s taste was so impeccable at times that his improvising touched the realm of written music. It was just so simple but true to the subject matter. Some of his solos are little gems of a certain kind of minimalism. And talking about touch, there’s certainly something there.
EI: I just recently was listening to, it’s not that good a record, from the early 70s, an all-star date with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt and Max Roach. And they play “All the Things You Are,” and the John Lewis piano solo is the best thing on the record. I think it’s one chorus, two at most.
KJ: Yeah, some of the early things with Miles are great. I find myself occasionally listening to The Golden Striker, just so I can hear how they get into the beat. Gary looked at me once after we played a Pete LaRoca blues, “One for Majid.” And that was the last thing in the set, and we went backstage, Gary looked at me, made the sign of the cross, backed away, and said “Get away from me!”
And I said, “What’s happening?”
He said, “I thought I was gonna swing as hard as I’d ever swung before when I played with Miles. This is not fair. This has blown the whole theory. I’m going to my room.” So he went to his room, and later there was a review in the paper and nobody mentioned swinging, and Gary said, “You know, no one mentions swinging anymore. When it’s happening like that. They didn’t mention it? Tell me if it’s on the tape.”
And I said, “Gary, that’s a dangerous thing to expect from a board mix, because if the mix is wrong, they’re not gonna hear what we heard. And you won’t either, if you hear the tape.” And I called him and said, “Gary, I’m sorry, it’s not on the tape. We’ll just have to live with our experience.” But, uh, that’s the story of jazz. Where do those notes go? Or come from? Whatever. Too late. So, it’s good that we have recordings.
EI: And The Golden Striker, you were saying they get into the swing...?
KJ: Because it’s not the quartet, and because it’s three of the four of them... it’s just the way he plays his little dance. It’s this little, prancing way he had about it, how he did this. We play “Django” occasionally with the trio. And then when we play “Poinciana,” I’m thinking of Ahmad. When we play “Django” I’m thinking of John. And Jack will look over and smile when we’ve hit that little realm where it’s either an idea John might have played or it’s the feel that John liked, because you can tell what he likes by how well he’s playing. Same thing with “Poinciana,” if I get to this thing, especially in the upper treble of the piano, where there’s a little repeated phrase, and it’s done with impeccable concern for the propulsion of that little phrase into the beat, Jack will look over and smile.
As a sidebar to this, then there are times when we’re playing things like “God Bless the Child” and he looks over at me because he knows that he’s just found the groove. Jack and I have this thing about Levon Helm’s playing in The Band and whenever that’s happening, we both know it.
EI: Another of your innovations was putting rock music into jazz in a more sincere way than had been done before.
KJ: Last December, I found myself in London, I don’t think I’d played there for 18 years. And I had never had a good experience being in London; I had something close to a nervous breakdown as we drove in. Because we’re on Christmas time, there were these ornamented decorations everywhere... I said, “I don’t wanna see this shit. Get this taxi to the hotel!” And I got to my room, pulled the curtains. Then I went walking in the rain, having just gone through a major loss...
Somehow, miraculously, two days later when I did the concert, I met person after person who just had the right vibrations. The limo driver, the person doing the catering, some people backstage, the promoter. And then, finally I’m out there, realizing I haven’t done this for a long time, and I’m in London, and I start. Eventually, because of the richness of the bass of this instrument, and some other elements I couldn’t quite place, it almost turned into, at the very end, it’s like a church… like a major… not a church service, but I mean there’s a… the churchiness that Ornette might’ve meant.
Combined with the rock music that seems to have sprung from London in a great way.
I realized just before I got to that part of the concert, that this is part of what I do: I channel the situation in some ways, and I never know what the result’s gonna be. So there were these vamps that started, and then other things happened in between, and then this last piece which… I’ve never played anything like it. It was almost impossible to play. Because I had to play clusters of, you know, triadic things, and by then I was like wiped out, basically. I was playing louder than I… banging on the piano like, as though a band were going to come in, but there was no band. And I had to be the band. I had to actually be the next thing that happened, even though I was like preparing something to happen. Where was the drummer? It was an amazing experience. It was so cathartic. You know, I walked offstage and I was in tears. I did an encore, I walked offstage, I was in tears again. And that’s what I was gonna say: there was something in the air in London. I never would say that rock was playing a role in something unless I had reason to. But it did then. That evening it did. So that’s the very end of the two CDs. The very last thing is this crazy G Major thing that I hit many wrong notes in and it sounds like it doesn’t make a bit of difference because this is like so emotionally-charged. It’s not going happen like that again. As I was saying a minute ago, I’m glad sometimes that things are recorded.
EI: Yeah, for sure.
KJ: But if you’re not there… Carnegie Hall this last time was something, but if you weren’t there, you’ll never know what it was. It was like a sociological event and a musical event combined. All incredibly positive! I was having an interplay with the audience that I’ve never seen before.
EI: How so?
KJ: I dunno. I can’t explain it. I mean, we were talking to each other… Everybody was so up, you know it was like, “We have to make a sound.” So they were making these sounds. And also they were making these sounds when they were applauding that… they were like choral music. From some future Kubrick film which won’t happen. They were doing these amazing things that weren’t applause. And they weren’t grunts, but they were everything. Like shrieking, moaning.
KJ: And then I would, like, maybe come out, and they couldn’t calm down, and somebody would say something. And I’d say, “What?” And I’d turn, sit facing the audience, I’d say, “Okay, let’s hear it. What are we all talking about?” So somebody had asked for something, and I said, “No, I can’t do that right now.” Somebody said, “Play something long.” And I started to play these concerti. Like the Grieg, “Dah, da da dah, da da dah,” and then said, “No, no, no, that’s too long.” So it was like almost a comedy routine that they created. And then someone asked for Rachmaninoff’s 2nd, and I said, “That’s a good idea, but I usually have to play the 1st first.” So it was like they lost their inhibitions, and I did too, and you can’t hear that on the tape. But that’s what I like audiences to do.
Afterword: ECM has let me preview the Paris and London release Keith discusses above: Testament comes out on October 6. It is state of the art piano playing. Jarrett, who turned 64 the day after I interviewed him this past spring, shows that his search is far from over.