Keith Jarrett routinely generates rapturous praise from fans and critics. His performances, solo or with trio mates Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, with whom he’ll appear Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, are anticipated with almost religious fervor by jazz lovers. And Jasmine, his 2010 recording with bassist Charlie Haden, has earned him yet another Grammy nomination. Nonetheless, Jarrett continually tests the limits of the adoration showered upon him.
Angered by the flash of cameras that greeted the trio as the men strode onstage at the 2007 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Jarrett tore into the audience with an obscenity-laced rant that got him banned from the event. He had upbraided audiences for taking photos before — although perhaps never quite so colorfully, as the YouTube video suggests — and for interrupting his concentration with coughing. An onstage tirade against the latter occurred during a solo show in San Francisco last March and elicited heated commentary in print and online. Still, the pianist remains adamant that audiences should at least make an effort not to be distracting.
“Despite the fact that they think I’m difficult, I love audiences,” Jarrett says from his home in rural western New Jersey. “And it’s just because I love them, I’d like to give them everything I have. The basic reason for saying ‘Stop coughing’ while I’m improvising is because there have been many, many times when I’m playing something soft, and whatever I’m playing wasn’t about to end, but a cough gives me no choice. I have to end it somehow. It sort of freaks me out and makes me think, ‘OK, that can happen again in the next 30 seconds.’ ”
Performing as part of a trio, which brings out a more extroverted side of Jarrett’s musical persona, also requires intense concentration. The flash of cameras, or even its anticipation, can throw him off his game.
“Our attitude when we walk onstage is kind of ferocious,” Jarrett says. “We’re ready to concentrate.”
“I certainly understand where he’s coming from,” says Larry Rosen, producer of the Jazz Roots series that is bringing Jarrett to Miami for the first time in more than 15 years. “Artists have a responsibility to present themselves in the way they feel they want to be presented. And the flip side of that is, an artist also has a responsibility to the audience that’s paying to see a show. So there’s a balance. But Keith’s not the only [performer] to say, ‘Wait a second. I’m here to play a concert. This is not a photo session.’ ”
If Jarrett expects a great deal from audiences, he demands no less from himself. His intensity of focus is laser like, particularly during the high-wire, all-improv solo shows he’s been performing since the early 1970s. Just a few days before his trio’s Miami date, he will return to Carnegie Hall for a solo performance. He likens the physical, mental and emotional preparation for such performances to training for the Olympics.
Jarrett’s concerts with the trio are markedly more exuberant. The pianist sounds downright joyful on the 2009 release Yesterdays, in which he and his colleagues, captured onstage in Tokyo in 2001, re-examine the structures and nuances of tunes by jazz greats Horace Silver and Charlie Parker, plus standards by Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern.
Dubbed the “Standards Trio,” Jarrett, DeJohnette and Peacock might seem the most unlikely musicians to chain themselves to the Great American Songbook. Jarrett had gained widespread recognition in the late 1960s and early ’70s for his forward-looking work in the bands of Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis. DeJohnette and Peacock were also among the jazz vanguard, having worked with exploratory artists such as John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, respectively. Each man is a prolific composer as well.
Then, in 1983, the trio released Standards, Vol. 1 which showcased venturesome yet melodic reads of tunes such as All the Things You Are and It Never Entered My Mind. The recording and subsequent concerts proved remarkably popular. And for the past 28 years, the three have set the bar for improvisational acuity and intuitive interaction. Their onstage communication has long transcended the verbal or the visual.
“Sometimes, I look up in surprise, as though I had given someone a cue, and there were no cues given,” Jarrett says. “And Gary chose to play the last note exactly when I played the last note, or Jack would choose a little cymbal sound. . . . These are magical moments, and I wouldn’t want to mess with them. So I don’t do much cueing because I like the surprises.”
That spontaneity extends to the trio’s material. No set list is drawn up; the players don’t discuss the music much beforehand. For the most part, Jarrett calls the tunes. He insists the men have never had a serious squabble – rare among any group, let alone one with a member as sensitive as Jarrett.
From the trio’s inception, Jarrett knew he’d have to get everyone on the same page. Peacock, the group’s most senior member, had serious misgivings about devoting himself to standards. Jarrett laid out the philosophy that has driven the trio for almost 30 years.
“I said, ‘Look, would you guys rather lead a band or be sidemen?’ ” Jarrett recalls. “ ‘Isn’t there something great about just coming in and playing? If we play material we are intimately familiar with, if our souls can’t come through as players, then there’s something wrong. So let’s just see what happens, because that means we’re all acting somehow as sidemen to the actual subject matter, which is the song itself.’ ”
The piano has long provided comfort and catharsis for Jarrett. Facing the end of his 30-year marriage and finding himself alone and abroad in late November 2008, he poured his emotions into a pair of solo shows that are captured on the double release Testament: Paris/London.
“Ever since I was a kid, if I was angry or sad, if I went to the piano and played a few notes, it turned from my emotional state to music,” Jarrett says. “In other words, I lose [the emotion], because now it’s music.”
While he says marital storm clouds were brewing, his wife was still with him when he and longtime associate Haden recorded Jasmine in 2007. A collection of ballads released in 2010, the album seems almost prophetic, with selections such as Goodbye and Don’t Ever Leave Me, the latter long a standard of Jarrett’s repertoire.
“I’ve always played love songs as if I was in love, and I’ve always played lost love songs as though I’ve lost love,” he says. “Although after she left, I think I could have done better than ever, because it was real. It wasn’t imagined.”
As much or more than melody, emotional content determines which songs Jarrett interprets. And yes, lyrics are important, despite his rather upbeat version of Body and Soul — the quintessential torch song — on Jasmine, which earned a Grammy nod for his solo. Finding new colors in familiar evergreens, even just a deeper or more complex hue, provides further motivation.
“For the longest time, we were playing When I Fall in Love every concert,” Jarrett says. “And Gary and I would look at each other afterwards and say, ‘There’s still more?’ ”
Just as important as his connection with a song, Jarrett says, is his connection with audiences. He
detests the sterility of the studio and prefers to release recordings of concerts. This may seem contradictory to his impatience with audiences, but their participation is crucial.
“One reason is the chemistry that starts to occur with the right audience,” he says. “That is just so much more transcendent than anything I could do alone in a room.”