Keith Jarrett’s wish-list for his eighth birthday contained a walkie-talkie, a piano and an elephant. That he got the piano was a huge surprise – so one can only imagine his response had he received the elephant. In fact his own recitals had paid for the instrument, the seven-year-old’s repertoire ranging from Mozart to Jarrett to free improvisation. He loved his present so much that he took to sleeping under it – the kind of obsession it takes to become perhaps the greatest virtuoso on your instrument in jazz history.
In a 2011 interview I did with him, Jarrett recalled that when, as a child, he complained to his multi-instrumentalist mother that a given piece of music was too difficult, she would ask if he could play the first note. Yes, he would reply. And the second? Yes. “Well then,” she said, “you can probably play the piece.”
That mentality has infused his life. In a steep, five-year career trajectory beginning in 1965 (aged 20), he went from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to revolutionising jazz piano with Charles Lloyd (attracting rock audiences in the process) to Miles Davis, for whom he played electric keyboards, despite considering them mere toys. He then created solo piano improvisations of unprecedented extemporaneous compositional invention (including the near-legendary Koln Concert, which sold 3.5 million physical copies), and formed three major and wildly different bands.
Part of the impetus for the last of these, with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, was to relieve the pressure of audience expectations engendered by Jarrett’s solo performances. He wanted interaction and songs; to jointly improvise upon those miniature works of art called standards.
At a working dinner the night before the first recording in 1983, Jarrett explained that playing these songs was neither conservative nor imagination-limiting. Everything they collectively knew, from Bach to free improvisation to each member’s innate lyricism would infuse their treatments. He’d never intended this to be a working group, but when their first two-and-a half days in a New York studio yielded a remarkable three albums, the future was plain.
In 1994 the trio, usually heard in concert halls, performed three two-set nights at New York’s Blue Note club. Every moment was released as a six-disc set, allowing a level of scrutiny beneath which most bands would wilt. Not this one.
As a child Jarrett had loved the pianist/comedian Victor Borge’s subversion of expectations, and he applied this both to his spontaneous programming of the band’s sets and to improvising. “The element of surprise is what I deal in,” he said. The trio often made the “outro” ending to a song into an improvisation that (however obliquely) further explored the piece, while discarding its form. On the Saturday night they struck gold doing this. Twice.
For the outro to You Don’t Know What Love Is Peacock and Jarrett craft from a sliver of the tune a one-chord improvisation called Muezzin. The title catches the spirit, with DeJohnette’s hand-drumming a replication of the popping of a darabukka, and Jarrett’s use of Arabic-inflected scales enhanced by an attack that somehow makes the piano sound more metallic. I Fall in Love Too Easily crowns the band’s breadth of invention. The tune is played infinitely gently, amid a whisper of brushes – which DeJohnette soon discards, again in favour of his hands. The outro, christened The Fire Within, is another one-chord bass vamp, this time carrying distant echoes of American indigenous culture – a landscape Jarrett finds infinitely fertile. DeJohnette swaps to mallets to dazzlingly melodic effect, before a silver stream of upper-register piano caps the 27-minute journey. The 1990s spawned no greater jazz.
In 1996 Jarrett contracted chronic-fatigue syndrome and didn’t touch the piano for two years. Subsequently he matched The Koln Concert with 2011’s Rio – describing the process of improvising alone as being both the ventriloquist and the dummy. The trio reformed for another 15 years. At the Blue Note, its ultimate legacy, streams via Spotify and Apple Music, and is on disc from Birdland Records.