Keith Jarrett on the Power of Being in the Moment

An interview from the February 2012 KEYBOARD archives.
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“I ACTUALLY AGREE WITH YOU ABOUT THE MUSIC,” Keith Jarrett replies after I venture that his new live solo piano album, Rio, may just be his best release ever. “You can’t control these things, so it was just a gift, I guess. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it, but it doesn’t have a weak moment. Even if I know it really well, I can still listen to it. And that’s odd for me.”

Even if think you’ve heard it all from Jarrett— from his buoyant trio albums such as Standards Live and Still Live, which brim with an almost extrasensory interplay, to his genre-defining solo albums like Facing You and The Köln Concert—Rio is at once a celebration and a reexamination of his approach to improvisation. It’s a towering achievement, and was improvised entirely on the spot. That tracks are named simply “parts” is perfectly appropriate, as the music defies description by clever titles. From the angular, atonal proddings of “Part I” and the beguiling bass-register exploits of parts III and V, to the effervescent elegance of “Part VII,” Rio finds the musical giant still searching for stories to tell.

Just days after receiving the final album pressing himself, Jarrett spoke with Keyboard at length about Rio.

Many artists dread having to listen to their recordings and make decisions before the release. Is it a hard process for you to commit?

It’s hard, but I feel it’s my job. It isn’t something I can walk away from. But this particular one was so strange, it was the simplest possible thing: a piano and a room. It was recorded well, and it had that funny, mechanical pedal sound. But nobody’s copy was the same, even though they were theoretically all getting the same audio feed. There was one copy in Munich that [ECM Records founder] Manfred [Eicher] got. I got handed a copy the night of the concert. My engineer had some versions, and I had some DATs. Nothing was the same, but I couldn’t find that out until I heard copies of everybody’s copies. [Laughs.]

What was different on these multiple versions of Rio?

I have to say the process on this particular recording was like torture in a way, because I loved the music so much but I had to keep picking it apart. And that only ended yesterday, when I got the chance to assess the final product. I had a “white label” copy, and before that there were other copies floating around, as well as attempts to remove the pedal sound from the recording, which turned out to be the smallest possible problem instead of the biggest one. But during the whole time I was aware that if I didn’t get it right, I would hate myself because it was gonna be out there.

Compared to your other albums, Rio sounds like you’re as surprised by the music as the listener is—like we’re finding the notes together. Was that intentional?

You just nailed it better than I could have. That is exactly what I was working with and trying to replicate. I knew a few things about the concert— one was that I had a feeling of ease. The music itself seemed to just show up, song by song. I didn’t want to play with it because there was so much purity there. But what you’re talking about is very interesting, and it’s never been covered in a major interview that I know of. There’s the sound I hear when I’m playing, and the things I know or remember about the piano. Then I leave the stage. I get a CD or a tape, and I’m suddenly not sitting at the piano. In this case, there’s a rawness that I like. That’s what brings you closer as a listener. I even explained this to my girlfriend. We were listening to different versions of the recording—for instance, the DAT tapes sounded different than my CD. She liked the DAT tapes better because they were clearer, but I kept leaning toward the CD because it was closer. I wanted the music to be present in the listener’s room. Not make the listener an audience member at the live concert, but have the listener sense exactly what you said you sensed.

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One of the interesting facts about this recording is that as far as I know, it’s the only solo release of mine played on an American Steinway. American Steinways are uneven in the sense that the good ones are really good, but [the bad ones] can be really bad. They’re also uneven across the keyboard itself. So when I find a piano that has this “imperfect” character, it’s actually much more to deal with—and I mean that in a good sense—than a “perfect” piano. So you’re hearing me discover which notes on the keyboard will do this zingy thing with the overtones, and I’m learning what part of the keyboard is acting a certain way. All my other solo concerts are on German [Steinway] instruments, which almost always don’t have as many overtones on them. I also felt like I was playing for Brazilians, and that I was also figuratively playing guitar. So that zingy sound was part of my language, and it adds to your experience of phrasing when you’re listening.

Was that a piano that you picked out, or was it at the venue when you arrived?

I don’t think I had a choice that night. But I never even thought about whether it was good or bad—which is strange for me—while I was playing the concert. I don’t remember thinking “Oh, this is a great instrument” or “this really sucks.” [Laughs.] I remember it having a really nice bass.

The bass is growly on this recording.

It isn’t fat. It’s as lean as a bass can be and still be rich, like American Steinways in general and this one in particular. Being in Brazil, where bossa nova and many other kinds of Brazilian music and rhythms were familiar to me, there was a coalescing of every single thing in that room. I think the audience was 99.9 percent Brazilian, and I was in an old hall with doors that didn’t close completely. And then I had that funky pedal sound. Improvisation is playing with the materials you’ve got. The piano has many more colors in it due to it being in South America and not being taken care of like it’s meant to play Debussy or any kind of classical music. It is essentially an improvising tool, much more than most of the pianos I’ve recorded and released music on. And when we tried to lessen that pedal sound, the first thing I noticed was that I missed it! [Laughs.] I wanted to get rid of it at first, and then it was sort of gone, but then the whole thing became refined—like refined sugar. And I had already worked with the artist on the cover—I was very adamant about what art should be on the cover because I remembered the music and I had my copy, which turned out to be the copy we used for the master. And whenever it got refined like that, I thought, “Well, then we’ve got to change the cover.” [Laughs.] It wouldn’t have been the same music.

Everything is interconnected?

Yeah. And so I hated the process because in this case, every time I thought we were moving in the right direction, we zagged instead of zigged. And then the only copy that was acceptable out of every existing copy was the one I was handed that night. And I wouldn’t have known had I not been handed that copy—it easily could have gone somewhere else. And then I wouldn’t have known what was on it exactly, and we would have gone through this whole process again. There’s no such thing as an exact copy, no matter what digital people say. But what you said earlier is exactly what I wanted to do—the DAT tapes would have made you feel like you were in the hall. Everything was clear as a bell, but from a slight distance. But this particular music is very personal and should be—not exactly in your face, but it should be coming out from the speakers. It shouldn’t be sitting in there like a demure, perfect, audiophile-grade recording. What I wanted out of this was not a typical piano recording at all. I wanted the kind of closeness that could only exist at my feet at that piano. I never got to voice this to anyone, but I was thinking, “Can I get the kind of intimacy that my clavichord album Book of Ways has, and still keep the room sound and the tail ends of the notes?” In other words, you hear the piano as being in the room, but also hear it as though you’re involved with it. The clavichord album does that because clavichords are very soft. So what Manfred and I did, and this was one of Manfred’s good ideas, was put the mics as close to the strings as possible. There was supposed to be a subtitle to that album. It was going to be called Book of Ways—The Feeling of Strings. There’s no relationship between that music and Rio, but it’s that kind of intimacy I wanted to get—an almost over-the-top dynamic recognition of phrasing. That’s why you’re hearing it like you’re part of the music.

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Rio starts with “Part I,” which at first might seem atonal and challenging to the ear. It’s almost as if you are asking us to examine our own preconceptions about solo piano and music in general.

Oh my God, yes. The listening part—today it seems like it’s bits and pieces, and “What’s your favorite track?” People walk around with a thousand tracks on their little machines. But it is a process, and the awareness of the process is being lost. It’s even hard for me. As much as that’s my basic work, it’s easy for me to be just as influenced by this stupid world we live in. I don’t mean that I have an MP3 player—it’s just that you can feel the attention span of the world dwindling; you can feel people not paying attention to things that are difficult. When I read a book, I try to sacrifice myself to the book, even if it doesn’t occur to me until 400 pages into it what the voice of the writer is like. Then finally I get it. If I didn’t go that far, I would have never figured it out.

You gave an interview in another magazine recently where you talked about starting your solo concerts in this way to “clean the air of any influences, so whatever happens after that is pure.” Can you talk about that?

I often open concerts with things like “Part I” for many reasons. Basically, my fingers have first choice what to do. They want to warm up. Then my synapses have to follow them, and they speed up. Th e whole thing comes together very quickly. And also I learn a hell of a lot about the piano— like “Whoops! Yeah, those notes at the top are a little bit too edgy, okay? I might want to stay away from them when I’m playing loud.” But in the case of Rio, there were so many things that were strange—the strangest of which was I had very little memory of the music, but I remembered feeling that it was sort of out of my control. It was as though I was bringing myself to Rio to somehow finish some unfinished business. I played there once before solo, and according to [Jarrett’s manager] Steve Cloud, I told him I thought I had unfinished business there. Well, I didn’t know what the hell I meant, but this is probably it.

On Rio, songs seem to find their own beginnings and endings. On “Part III” on disc 1, for instance, a traditional ending would wrap up more neatly. Instead, are you letting the song end where it needs to, not where it should?

There are a couple of instances of that during the concert. There’s the one that sounds very Asian in the beginning—the very last note, as far as I knew, was not the last note. But it’s a very low C# octave, and it was the key that this piece was in anyway. Somebody coughed exactly when I played it, and then someone coughed a few nanoseconds later very loudly. And that’s when the pedal came up, and that was the last note. [Laughs.] And it was interesting because I don’t think it should have been any longer. So I was given a little gift—someone’s lack of control.

“Part III” has this sneaky left-hand bass that seems to prod at your right hand melodies in a conversational way. Any observations about your left hand approach on Rio?

Yeah, that’s exactly right. I guess I just told my left hand, “Go, but just don’t stick around anywhere very long. Surprise me.” And then my right hand had to deal with it.

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“Part II” starts with mournful trills and sustained notes. “Part IV” has tender, chromatically shifting chords on the intro. “Part V” starts with a bass ostinato. You seem to be challenging not only the idiom of solo piano, but also the instrument itself.

I’ve always tried to make the instrument do things that I wasn’t sure it could do. One could say you could never play a “prepared” piece on the piano Rio was recorded on. You could almost say there’s nothing you could do but improvise. But my privilege here is that I can exploit the very things that might bother other people, to the point where I can actually find another way to make it speak. It forces me to be looser. I can’t be judgmental; I have to just learn the damned instrument fast.

I never feel like a pianist, really. I feel more like I know sound, music, and melody, and in the case of [playing in] Brazil, I suddenly started to hear those beautiful, alternate voicings for chromatic, unexpected harmonic movement. Every now and then it was applied as though it was perfectly natural. I mean, to be me in Brazil was to be me outside the first world. Outside of Europe, the United States, and Japan—outside of countries that have lost their own music in a way. But Brazil uses the jazz language anyway for a lot of their music. And then I went backward, and took some of the vibe that was there, and remembered how much Portuguese vocal music I had heard. It was a very unique experience.

The first track on disc 2, “Part VII,” may be my favorite piece of music of yours. Emotionally, it conveys both hope and heartache, and the harmony seems to go everywhere except where one thinks it will go. How did that piece come together?

Well, it was after intermission. I have no idea where it came from, but I know why you’d say it’s your favorite. I’ve been using that track as a way of testing the phrasing of every version of the entire concert. I wanted to know if that piece still succeeded in the way I played it. I just realized where I was. I thought “I’m here, and it’s now intermission.” I honestly have no words about why it was what it was. But I know what you mean about it not going where you expect it to go. In a way it’s classical, and in a way it’s classically Portuguese or classically Spanish—there’s something going on there that’s out of my hands. It was sort of the audience helping create that piece and what follows to the end. But that combination of hope and heartache—my recent life has had both. Maybe I’m just finally able to combine some of those elements in a simple way without thinking “hope” or thinking “heartache,” or being heartbroken, or being unrealistically hopeful. But in the end it’s music. I don’t know, but I would have chosen the same piece if I had to pick something pivotal in this recording that is unlike anything else I’ve done. Something that seems to come out of thin air almost like it’s already been written—I think that’s the one I would have thought of, too.

I just try to open myself to what’s happening. As soon as I hear those first few notes—it’s in F major— the piano is telling me a lot. The tuning of the piano is telling me a lot. So I can see that it can be almost like “Sketches of Spain” of Portugal, without being a dirge, or full of grief or sorrow.

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Also in “Part VII,” there seems to be a link to sacred or folk music. It’s more visceral than cerebral. I’m taken down by the power of that piece.

I am too, and I have no more explanation of it except that I was there, and I actually played it. There was something magical that evening that allowed me to let all of my guard drop, in the sense of “Who am I? What do I play like? What is a ‘Keith Jarrett sound’ or phrase?” And then the fact that it was an American piano that had a kind of trippy quality to it. I could make it sound sad, but it didn’t want to stay sad for very long. To some extent, the chords just kind of came as a result of everything in my life, everything the piano could or couldn’t do, the country and the audience that were out of the loop that I usually play in—the “civilized” West. These things allowed me to play what otherwise might seem like already-written folk songs.

There’s the first encore—we don’t have them listed as encores, but the last three things are encores. On the third from the last one, I just came onstage. And I sat at the piano and immediately played a very committed A minor chord. And that did it. I don’t know why, but I have to give the piano some credit. It was like very strong champagne. You had to sip it slowly. You had to find your way through this thing.

You seem to be saying, “Pay attention to the way an A minor chord feels and sounds, to the way silence leads into music. Pay attention to all the seemingly little things that aren’t little.”

Yes, including the audience, because before that encore, there was a longer period of applause than what you hear on the CD. They had to settle down, and then that A minor chord in some way was played because I had been away from the piano, and because of the audience’s response and what kind of color it had. When I sat back down, I think I realized, “Okay, I’m still in Portuguese speaking Brazil.” I think that whatever happened just before that actually ended on an Amajor chord, so that might have been hanging in my mind without me knowing it. I wanted to make sure the next thing was not going to be that.

I also wanted to pay homage to where I was. I found it much easier to play pure voicings—meaning triadic things—because Brazilian music often involves that kind of sound. The singers I’ve heard there, and the chord movement or lack of movement is still pure. And it’s somewhere inside of me, too, because rhythm is rhythm, and a minor chord is a minor chord. But at a certain moment, that minor chord is definitely what you should play. In another situation you might think, “I’m locking myself in a closed room by playing an A minor chord.” If I was in Germany and I had taken an intermission and come back, I don’t think I would—you know, the Sturm und Drang thing—I’m not into that, so I would have avoided the A minor chord. The circumstances, the environment, the instrument, and my awareness of all these things you said we don’t think of enough—I was just being led. I often think I’m literally asking myself, “Okay, what comes next?” The audience quiets down, and then I throw them an arpeggiated A minor. And right away, the room’s different. Everything’s different around me, and I’m the one in charge, so I have to know, “Okay, why did I play that?” And then, “How far away from that chord do I want to go?” And those are things I’m certainly not thinking in words. It’s way, way faster than that.

Rio seems to combine elements from all of your albums. When you hear the album, does it sound like an aural retrospective of your own sound to you?

Yes . . . that is how I feel. But it wasn’t until I heard the recording of it that I knew what I had. We’d planned for the next release to be a trio album. So I called Manfred when I was still in Rio at the airport waiting for a flight to Argentina, and I said, “Whatever we’re planning, it’s just changed.” [Laughs.] “We have to rush this out.” And then, of course, the rush got slow because of the various sound problems.

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I also thought, “What the hell can I play anywhere else?” I mean, first of all, I’m not gonna play Rio again because how would I compete with this? Secondly, I’ve got a solo tour of Japan, and I’m now aware that I can find these musical moments. So what am I gonna do, look for an American Steinway that’s in not that great condition? Japan doesn’t have American Steinways, so that was the end of that idea. So it was like the biggest success but also the biggest puzzle for the future. [Laughs.] I’m like, “What the hell do I do now?”

I was playing Facing You the other day for a classical music aficionado who isn’t familiar with your music. The first thing she said was, “Is that a piano? How does he get a sound like that out of it?”

I just think that people don’t know how much they have to be in shape. Of course it has to do with listening, because otherwise how are you going to get to it? You have to be able to hear it and know that it’s something special, whatever it is. But the physical input of players is so lacking in commitment. Sometimes what you’re hearing is just commitment to one note at a time in a long series of notes. Take “Part III” of Rio, for example, and listen to the phrasing in the right hand. It isn’t a horn, but you can tell how I would play horn if I did because it’s so apparent in the phrasing. Th at takes enormous work, and mostly just saying to myself, “That sounded like s***. Why? Why does my playing sound like s***? There’s got to be a reason!” [Laughs.]

If more people asked themselves that question, the world would be a different place!

That’s right. [Longtime Jarrett bassist] Gary Peacock teaches a lot of students, and he’ll have them play then ask them, “So, what do you think about what you played?” And they’ll say, “What do you mean?” And he’ll say, “You know, so what do you think?” And they’ll go, “Eh, I don’t know.” And he’ll say, “Okay. There you go. That’s the problem.” [Laughs.]

There is one more thing I wanted to say about your last question about how I get that sound on the piano, which is that people don’t jump in. Everybody wants to test the water, right? And if it’s too cold, they’re not going to go in. But there are times when the only way to know whether it’s too cold is to dive in. I see player after player sounding like all he did was check to make sure the water was comfortable enough. Kind of like, “Okay, now I know I can do that someday if I really feel like it.” It’s a lifetime commitment, and I don’t think most musicians think seriously enough. I just care about what comes out. It isn’t like I want to get my paycheck and leave.

If I fly to Rio, it’s a long trip. I’ll be jet-lagged. I’ll show up at the concert and hope I’m healthy enough to do the thing. But I sure don’t want to be unprepared. That’s the last thing I want to be. Gary Peacock said to me once as we were just about to go onstage, and this is very uncharacteristic of him—he was just in a good mood. He said, “Let’s knock ’em dead.” And I stared straight into his eyes and said, “I just want to play a few good notes.” [Laughs.]

When I was a kid, I said to my mother, “Oh, this piece looks so hard. I don’t think I can play this.” And she said, “Can you play the first note?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Can you play the second note?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Well, then you can play the piece.” And I think this is an affirmation of the fact that I have been working gradually and carefully, and without getting f***ed up, being on drugs, or getting off the path long enough that I couldn’t get back on again. It’s an affirmation that if you do work on things, there is a result.