top of page

Keith Jarrett Defends Free Jazz


More than a year after Ken Burns’ Jazz aired on PBS, the debate over the series’ fairness continues to resurface everywhere from The New York Times to Salon. Many musicians, fans and critics feel the 16-hour television series wrongly omitted decades of important music and some of the genre’s key players — namely the white ones.

One player missing from the documentary is pianist Keith Jarrett, who blames the Jazz controversy on Burns’ lack of varied information sources and, in particular, his reliance on Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra leader and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. As part-time narrator, Marsalis received more face time than any other musician in the series.

“The problem is that Wynton doesn’t understand free music,” says Jarrett over the phone from his home in New Jersey.

It wouldn’t matter much to Jarrett whether the world understood him if he hadn’t spent the past 35 years of his life trying to further what he calls “free music” — or the art of pure improvisation. The 56-year-old began in the 1960s as a sideman in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and later served a stint with Miles Davis’ electric fusion group, in which he played electric piano and organ. But Jarrett has built a career around his famed improvisational piano performances, both as a soloist and with his longstanding trio partners, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Generally, Jarrett’s concerts — in which he sits at the piano with no prior knowledge of what he will perform — consist of brilliantly delicate and sometimes wildly mathematical improvisations of standards or original songs constructed by and for the moment. Jarrett was the first artist to perform an entire concert of improvised music at Lincoln Center in 1978. His landmark 1974 improvisational live recording, The Köln Concert, remains the biggest-selling solo piano recording of all time.

Unlike other music borne of the ’60s and ’70s avant-garde, Jarrett’s improvisational work is not self-consciously existential. Rather, it’s informed by a deeply personal historical awareness of the form, composition, style and demeanor of the blues, traditional jazz and even classical music.

“Playing Mozart helped me know what I can do with ballads and melody,” says Jarrett. “You don’t get that kind of challenge in jazz. If you’re a jazz player, you don’t want to be precise; you want to be loose. You have to be dirty and asymmetrical.”

While some might describe the piano flourishes in his latest ventures (1999’s gentle The Melody at Night, With You, especially) as being too “clean” for jazz, his exquisite tonal quality and ability to find an array of emotions within one melody are Jarrett’s greatest talents, and (many might argue) more than worthy of inclusion in Burns’ documentary.

Free music, in Jarrett’s case, represents the ultimate irony — totally improvised works performed by a man whose subconscious contains an equally mixed bag of “Basin Street Blues” and metronomically precise Mozart concertos. It’s with a similar irony that Jarrett has approached playing live since his battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome began in 1996. For Jarrett, the art of improvisation has been transformed from a defiant urge into a life-affirming desire.

“I used to tell my students [many years ago], ‘You have to play like it’s the last time you’ll ever play. You have to feel like it means everything to you,'” he says. “At the time I told them that, I knew what it meant in my head. Now I know what it means in my body. I’m even more unwilling to waste even a few minutes at the keyboard, because I could have a relapse at any moment.”

Jarrett says he “feels fine” these days. And he is happy to be reuniting with Peacock and DeJohnette for three rare performances in the U.S., one of them at Atlanta Symphony Hall. Although the trio’s best known for its improvisational recordings of standards, the pianist remains mum about what the Atlanta concert will hold.

“We never know what we’re going to play until we’re out there [on stage],” he says. “I think it’s one of the only times an audience can come into a hall and wonder what they’re going to hear along with us.”

The Keith Jarrett Trio performs Wed., Feb. 27, at Atlanta Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. 8 p.m. $25-$48. 404-249-6400.


bottom of page