I interviewed Keith Jarrett on the 2nd of February, 2007 about a forthcoming trip to Japan. I phoned him at his home in rural New Jersey. The interview lasted around an hour and Jarret spoke fast, so the audioscript is long, so long in fact that I haven't yet got around to transcribing the final 15 minutes or so.
CBL: It’s going to be a trio. What kind of music will you be playing?
KJ: What kind of music will I be playing?
CBL: Will it be improvisational or will it be standards?
KJ: We never really know that ahead of time but I guess we assume that the core of what will happen, are probably some standards of some kind or another, but we don’t ever plan the music, so I guess the answer’s I don’t know, but I guess we will play standards at least part of the time.
CBL: So it’s your standards trio, yeh?
CBL: OK. You’re also well known for playing solo. Which one’s easier – playing trio or solo?
KJ: Let’s see. Easy’s a funny word. They are so different. I can’t quite say if one is easier exactly. But the physical and cerebral synapses have to be working every second for solo, and with the trio it’s more in a way relaxed because we’re listening to each other and not only ourselves, so its sort of like communion together, but one of the worst things about playing solo is that I’m playing alone – ha ha – but that’s the only way you can do that. It’s much more risky.
CBL: It’s more intense as well?
KJ: Yes, it’s more intense. There’s nobody around you to reflect your thoughts, except yourself. So if you have a funny thought that’s worth nothing and you’re busy listening to yourself play that, and you realize that its value is not so great to yourself, how do you answer that as a player? You’re stuck with what you just said and you have to relate to it somehow. That’s the very hard part of solo playing.
CBL: So a trio would pull you out of a situation like that?
KJ: A trio is…in a way we’re all confronting the same challenge and yes pulling you out is not a bad way to put it. There’s an ability to find whatever is missing. Each of us can contribute to what is missing at that moment. But if I take away two out of the three people, whoever’s left has got a hell of a job in front of him. There’s no perspective…actually that’s one of the reasons I like solo too. That’s why it was hard for me to use the word ‘easy’ which is hard, because I think challenges make all the difference, so if a challenge is great the change of failing badly is greater but it is also possible that you’ll hit a new high, but, in this case, multiplying people can be a problem because if you don’t have the right people with you, you’re actually dividing not multiplying the possibilities, and, luckily for me, I found Jack [DeJohnette] and Gary [Peacock] way long ago, and they understood the principles we were trying to get to, so there is almost never a dividing thing. But when you add people… and then again that’s one of the great luxuries of solo playing. For one thing, you almost have to be playing a piano because it can be an orchestra by itself, and you can make things happen for an hour and a half that do not repeat, sound the same. Dynamically there is a lot of contrast, so the luxury is that you do have that freedom when your playing alone. When you’re with other players, you really have to depend on them to have gotten enough sleep and to be in the right state of mind and all that stuff. And you can’t really get them. Just as if you have kids and say now don’t do that or something. You can’t really tell another person what mood [garbled] to change to. Luckily they’re both so understanding of why we’re there that we all just snap into the right state of mind.
CBL: But it seems that three is quite a good number – I mean you don’t like to play with bigger ensembles?
KJ: Actually I do like to. I even used to love to accompany singers, for example, but then again with any additional people, the same principle starts to occur. One thing I don’t so much like is a player doing his thing then standing there holding his instrument because he did that and now it’s somebody else’s turn. With three, and especially with the traditional rhythm section, even though we might be taking a traditional way of playing some of the standards, we are aware that it might not have to happen like that, because, with three, somebody can stop playing. Occasionally Gary’ll… We might look at Gary as though he might be playing a solo next, but it has not been planned, and when that time comes Gary decides ‘no I don’t think I want to play here’ so he’ll stop, so either it’ll turn into a drum solo or Jack’ll look at me and I start playing and we’re playing a duet without bass. If Jack decided to stop it would still work, if I decide to stop…It still works with any of the two out of three, there’s still some music that can be made. When you add a fourth, there’s more possibilities in the arrangement of what you do. You can get colors you can’t get when you get a horn, but then the horn player ends up at some point just standing there and holding his saxophone or his trumpet and in a big band situation that’s always made sense to me, but in a small group… Even when I had my quartet years ago, I used to say I want everybody to feel free enough to go to the stage at any time and just start to play.
[Somebody rings on the other line]
Just hold on a second I think my wife will pick that up – yes. OK, so anyway my point was that it’s not so easy for me as a leader of a band to focus on the music if I know there’s somebody standing there waiting for his next entrance. It’s much more interesting and more like solo in some strange way to have to be able to close my eyes, not know exactly what we’re going to do anymore than the other two guys, even including what song might come to my mind next or whether we play a long [garbled] or something and not be thinking about this idle party or parties, away from my direction.
CBL: So, it’s avoiding distraction?
KJ: That’s right. That’s right.
CBL: And that’s very important to you, isn’t it?
CBL: Especially with audiences as well.
KJ: Yes, the audiences too. I mean, it’s taken a long, long time but I noticed… I played in Paris only a few months ago, just some solo things, and there was a problem with some coughing in the audience. This has been a growing contagion all over the World, a kind of nervousness multitasking computers and all that stuff have had some effect on that, but what was interesting was that the take that people at the hall had on it was different from what it used to be. They were so correct at not being upset with me... They started to put themselves in my place – what would they be able to do under these circumstances if they were improvising, and when a person does that naturally they see a little more clearly into this. I just happened to be the first major figure to be playing in concert venues to demand things in a jazz arena that jazz players had not felt comfortable demanding. They actually needed the work so badly that they didn’t want to lose… they didn’t want to make enemies, and I remember getting phone calls – I wrote a few articles for the New York Times about the jazz world, and Keyboard Magazine, and I got a phone call at one point from several different people Lee Konitz called me and said he appreciated that someone would be able to say stuff like this. There was a pianist I won’t name, but I used to like his work when I was very young. He called me from the mid-West. I had never talked to him and he said, ‘y’know I just have to thank you for this.’ And much of all of it was about the mistaken view of the jazz world via the Marsalis brothers and especially Wynton, but that’s all gone now, I don’t have to worry about that.
CBL: So the interaction in the jazz should be happening between the musicians, but not across to the audience so much?
KJ: Well if there’s interaction with the audience that’s OK, but if it’s nervous coughing then they should just leave or something. I mean if they’re bored, I’d rather they just walked out. I’ll refund their tickets – ha!
CBL: It’s like you’re introducing the standards that are expected of a classical music audience, really.
KJ: That’s correct. Yes. And that was going to be my original point. The jazz world was made up so overwhelmingly of people, players who needed all the work they could find because they weren’t getting paid enough and it started out in clubs and in clubs there are all kinds of noise. In clubs there are waitresses, glasses tinkling and sometimes there were people eating dinner. But once it got out of that club atmosphere and into… And, in fact, the first concert halls the Trio played were in Japan because I felt they were the right size: not so big and, across the board, quite consistently good sound, and the pianos were taken care of really well. And, when I went over there with the trio, it was because of my experiences in Japan before that where we could actually get a lot of work done, like a mini workshop and a concert combined. We would be able to be experimental we did not at that point have any trouble with nervous coughing so I think the rest of the World and the multi-media thing, where it’s all being piped into you and you can go and get popcorn while it’s on and you’re not missing much, kind of effected everywhere. It’s certainly taken Europe by storm. In fact back when I’m talking about the 70s or the 80s the worst audiences were in the United States, and that’s almost reversed itself now. There are so many people who feel starved of innovative performances that they come to the concerts and they know their job is just to be quiet and that’s all. When you’re playing solo, you’re living in this wild, dynamic world, and I like to play soft, and there are times when I start playing soft and I realize no no no that’s not possible, because then I’m going to notice everything in the room. People don’t realize how difficult that is, and so some of the people in Paris who wrote things on the internet or that were starting to get it.
CBL: So Japanese audiences are very respectful of the whole process of what you’re doing, but also a lot of what you do is by definition hit or miss, isn’t it. Some things work and some things don’t. A Western audience might be a bit more prepared to make their decisions during the process.
KJ: Yes, that’s true. That’s true, but I think the essential politeness of the Japanese audience, even if they might have been wondering what to do they are essentially so polite that they would give us the space to experiment, whereas, within those years, if I had been trying to do something new in the States, the audiences would be quote unquote “jazz” audiences. They’re now make up of people who understand what I do, but back then it was pretty much tougher because I had people coming backstage and saying, ‘That wasn’t jazz – I thought this was a jazz concert.’ I mean this is way back and the category too has caused a lot of misunderstandings ‘Is this jazz?’ Well my answer might be ‘Does it matter?’
CBL: That’s also one of things I want to raise, the categories in music, because you’re also a piano player who’s very associated with classical music, and for you is there really any essential difference between jazz and classical music or is it just in the details like the fact that classical music is much more structured and usually involves more people.
KJ: There’s a yes and no answer to that. I mean if music is good it overcomes its own category for one thing. In that sense, there’s no difference between a great jazz recording of say someone improvising and a great recording of a classical work, but the real problem is that the potential before these things get played is completely different. I was in Washington DC getting ready to go on stage for a piano recital of classical pieces and I was trying to figure out why I felt so not all that excited about it, and the basic truth is I knew everything about what was going to happen. I knew every note about it. That could not be changed. And most of the audience, most of the knowledgeable audience, was knowledgeable in that piece and in those notes too. So I was acting as an interpreter. But in jazz you’re asked to be yourself and whatever risks that might entail are risks you have to take. And so does the audience. So that’s completely different. Everything has its own fan club, but what’s come true for me, I think, to a great extent, is the people who know what I do are coming from all these different fan clubs to the same concert, and they have their own way of listening. One of them will listen to my touch and that might be a classical listener, or the harmonies or the solo moments of the Trio. Other people love jazz and they’ll come to hear your playing, and in solo it’s the same thing. Someone told me they asked – they were also doing interviews – they asked someone whether they think ‘Do you think Mr. Jarret’s solo stuff is jazz?’ And this person who has been a fan of mine said ‘I’d never thought of that’ – ha ha ha – so he had no answer. Those are the people I think are… And I also have to add they are definitely not ‘World music fans,’ whatever that is. I always thought somebody made a big mistake when they coined that phrase. But jazz and classical music are essentially not in the same room together. You can take techniques from, let’s say, Mozart’s slow movements in the concerti and get to be better at playing a ballad trio. Those kind of things translate, but the actual music, doing it is a different experience.
CBL: So you can use pieces of classical music in the same way that you use jazz standards. You can take a piece of music that’s quite familiar to a lot of people and you can alter it in certain ways to make it less familiar.
KJ: That’s true.
CBL: And that’s the essence of a lot of music really isn’t it? I mean you’re creating patterns which are familiar, but once they’re too familiar they loose interest to a lot of people.
KJ: That’s right. That’s a symmetrical thing sometimes. All you have to do is make sure the symmetry is not so perfect because our brain patterns seem to love when you tie the bows together and, yeh, I would say it would be the same as a photograph of a stream flowing and the actual stream flowing is the difference between… The classical world would be that photograph of that stream because it’s all on paper already and you can look at it and you can… Looking at it and its never going to change. But jazz is and improvising is the stream flowing, at least for the player. That’s what jazz is. And in classical music, it’s the interpretation of the photograph.
CBL: So when you do play classical music, you’re trying to take that photograph of the stream and make it flow again?
KJ: Yes, but of course I have other people’s notes to do it with, so the challenge would be how close can you feel to other people’s compositions? And how much can you make it your own? And how much is legitimate actually… how much freedom can you actually have with, say, Bach before its not Bach? If you took enough rhythmic freedoms with it and sort of desynchronized the right and left hand you’d end up with some kind of modern music and I think Bach would be gone to some extent. If you’re free to come at your instrument, and, then again, if we took the subject of pianos, since I come with no material and even with the Trio I don’t come with any form of knowledge about what we’re going to be doing. When I go on stage for the sound check that’s the first glimpse I get into what the nature of the evening can be like. Now that’s a very magical thing to consider. That is the exact opposite if you go to do the sound check with Prokofiev, Beethoven, Mozart in your pocket, and you’re checking the piano. You can’t leave the stage and have dinner and come back or whatever you do… But in the first case you can change absolutely everything you did if you needed to.
CBL: When you’re doing spontaneous composition, how do you stay away from so many well known tunes? Because there are so many tune out there that you obviously know about and you’re trying to do something original and fresh in the moment. How do you avoid all the things that have already been created? Doesn’t that become a problem?
KJ: I don’t know, except I think it’s lucky that I’ve been playing so long and listening to so many thousands of composer and players and recordings that there must be a file there of do not go any further with this melody or it will become this. And must just be a giant memory file.
CBL: Some kind of radar?
KJ: Yes it is a kind of radar. And I think it’s a matter of how large the repertoire is and how much listening I’ve done that I can weave my way between everything and not have it be the same as anything. Also it’s important to forget everything. As much as its important to have a file for it, it’s also important to forget anything because if you have it in your head in any part of an accessible part of your brain, the chances are it could decide to come out at the concert. It could be something you heard on the radio that you wish you never heard.
CBL: Or the elevator.
KJ: Yeh, yeh. Which is why most of the musicians I know who are doing any kind of composing say they hate flying because of the music on the plane…
CBL: Are there any musical influences that you have subsumed from Japan?
KJ: I’m sure there are. I’m not sure if I could specify what they are.
CBL: From the way that you talk about music and the way that you create music, there is an element of Zen in there.
KJ: Those paintings made with one stroke after years of meditating or monastic life or whatever that are famous, I think, in Japan, were always very striking to me because they are not touching this page then they are, then they are not, and it is exactly what happens when one is truly improvising. You are touching the whole thing and then it’s gone. I am assuming that you can see Zen in that. You can also see…
CBL: Also, being in the moment is very important to you. That is also a concept that is central to a lot of Zen.
KJ: I also think that I relate to being considerate of the performer. When I first went to Japan I knew nothing about what would happen. The first thing that happened I learned – as soon as I was checking into the hotel, my suitcases were suddenly gone. I thought some thief had come in and stolen them. I remember checking in and I realized soon after that in the United States, and to some extent in Europe, I had to have this rider to my contract…..
[gap in transcription: talks about riders and how good the service is in Japan]
CBL: You’ve been to Japan so many times that some of the cultural influences must have filtered into your work. In particular I was listening to the Vienna album and I think it’s part two, near the start of that. It sounds very like a Japanese koto the way you’re playing, these kind of arpeggio scales.
KJ: As recently as the last solo tour in Japan I have… I did recordings of those… There are things on those tapes that would only have been played in Japan and it’s not because I’m thinking that I should be sounding Japanese or Asian or anything. It just comes out like that, and actually the same is true of many places that have strong cultural personalities. And singular unique personalities show themselves, especially if I do a solo concert there. They show themselves in the music that night. I was in Brazil.I will just use this small example, but it’s the best one, the only time I played solo in Brazil. I went there. I don’t think the people knew me that well, the audience was good but I don’t know how well I was known. The promoters came back stage and said, ‘That third or fourth thing you played in the second half, we know you’ve been listening to Brazilian music and in particular this one kind of dance.’ And I don’t remember the name of it, but they told me the name, and I said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. No, I have not been listening to Brazilian music and also I’ve never heard of that word.’ ‘No, no, that’s not possible because you were doing exactly, precisely this thing.’ Now, I believe that from just breathing in the air and the vibrations of the place I’m in… In Japan, if Japanese music did not exist it would still suggest the same sounds that exist in Japanese music. Do you know what I mean? Imagine Jazz being born anywhere but the United States. That’s kind of hard to do. There’s something about language, there’s something about weather patterns. And all those things go into producing all sorts of music that any culture has.
CBL: So, if you completely wiped out Japanese music from everybody’s memories, then a few years down the line people would reinvent it. Is that how to visualize this concept?
KJ: Possibly, not in the modern world because people are over-connected to each other but in the way that seashells on the shore in Japan reflect a sort of grayness compared to seashells in the Caribbean.
CBL: Well, that sort of volcanic tone. The sand’s blacker here and that shows up in the shells.
KJ: Yeh, and I think everything is part of what happens everywhere locally, so when I land somewhere, because I’ve done it so long and because – solo in particular – if I have nothing to go on, if I have nothing to hang my hat on – let’s put it that way – about where I am, then, the music for me will be too generic. It won’t have a raison d’etre for that particular place. So I try to be vigilant to the signs of what the culture is about and, yeh, I think the music and everything intertwines with itself. There’s this book I have about how you can say that martial music was created by war, but you can also say that war has often come about because of the music. So the way people express their emotions – and they do it differently in Japan as we both know – all of that goes into what qualities the music has. It would be very strange for me to imagine Japanese music as 12-tone romantic or post romantic modern structured ‘fixed’ orchestral music.
[a further 15 minutes or so remains untranscribed]