A long look at one of the most important musicians of the last 50 years…one that can be difficult to get to know, for several reasons
Why should you try to get to know Keith Jarrett? Well, since not long after emerging in the late 1960s, he’s been widely respected and recognized as one of the most important musicians (not just pianists) alive. He’s composed and performed in a wide variety of settings, with a discography as varied as it is consistently excellent. He’s succeeded as a soloist, bandleader and sideman, and has inspired countless imitators (more on that later). You may know something about him, and you may have heard some of his music (quite possibly THE KOLN CONCERT (1975), more on that later too), but if you’re reading this, you probably have an incomplete view of him.
Why did I write this? One of the tough things with Jarrett is that his output is so vast — dozens and dozens of recordings — and so varied, that it is pretty hard to know where to start. When I was first getting to know his music back in the CD era, it was a potentially pretty expensive venture to acquaint yourself with his output. You might get your hands on a CD that got good reviews…but it might be in a style you didn’t care for. Now, in the streaming era, it’s much easier to sample his output, but it’s still overwhelming and un-obvious to find the right starting point. I wish I’d had something like this article back then; I could have saved a lot of time and money.
Later in this article, I’m going to recommend some places to start listening, and I’m going to put essentially all of Jarrett’s recordings into a framework that will help organize them…but it’ll help a lot in guiding you if you put on THE MELODY, AT NIGHT, WITH YOU (1998) right now as you’re reading. Please keep in mind: this is not a representative recording in KJ’s output — he was in the midst of recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and he made these recordings privately with no intention of sharing them with the public. They are fairly simple, pretty settings of well-known melodies, with almost none of the exploration for which he is famed. But it’s a good litmus test, I think, for the kind of listener that approaches Jarrett, and what the next step is. So: put it on in the background. Depending on your reaction, I can hopefully recommend a next step you’ll love!
Anyway, as I said, I wish something like this had been available when I was growing up. I’m a listener and musician with a pretty broad range of interest, but even so there’s some of Jarrett’s output that doesn’t do it for me. So that’s the main reason to write this: to hopefully steer people in the right direction, to not make the mistakes I made.
As to why this is a good time for this kind of guide (it’s January 2020 as I’m writing this)…without meaning to be tactless, he’s getting up there — he turns 75 this year — and it seems that he has likely stopped giving concerts altogether. His longtime record label, ECM, will likely keep issuing concert recordings from the vault for as long as possible, and certainly I could be wrong about his future…and I hope I am…but my sense is that his time as an active music-maker may be done. So we likely have about as complete a view of him as we are ever going to.
2. Now then
You can find biographies of varying degrees of detail elsewhere. Let the following suffice: he could be reasonably called a child prodigy on the piano. Intense classical training was the foundation of what became an incredible level of technique that has served him throughout his career. Eventually his musical boundaries opened up, and part of his professional journey was important time in bands led by Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Charles Lloyd, among others.
However! This is as good a place as any to talk about a word I haven’t used yet: jazz. Clearly this is the category Jarrett is placed in, and it’s the most accurate single category for him. But there is a large fraction of his music that owes nothing to jazz traditions, and lots that sounds nothing like what most people identify as jazz. Much of his music is lyrical in a way that can evoke hymns, or pop songs; other music is informed by gospel, country, or other American musics; and there’s still other music which sounds like classical, rock, music of non-Western cultures…if you think of yourself as someone who doesn’t like jazz: keep reading.
Anyway, it didn’t take long for him to start recording under his own name. And that’s where we will start.
3. Career/recorded output
As I said above, by the end of this article I’m going to put essentially all of Jarrett’s recordings into a framework that will help organize them. Chronology is largely NOT a helpful tool when assessing his music, for reasons I’ll get into. So here are the categories worth keeping in mind:
His work as a sideman I will ignore, though he is a part of some wonderful recordings from not just Blakey, Davis and Lloyd, but also Gary Burton, Kenny Wheeler, Freddie Hubbard, and more. If you find yourself as intrigued by Jarrett as I am, don’t neglect this part of his output.
I will spend time on the so-called “American quartet” — his group with Dewey Redman on sax, Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums, as well as the “trio” version of this group without Redman. It being his very first group, they can have an undisciplined air (which can be charming), but it is also the least consistent part of his output.
I will also briefly discuss what most call the “European quartet” — Jan Garbarek on sax, Palle Danielsson on bass and Jon Christensen on drums. I admit I have a bit of an issue with Garbarek’s tone, and the group did not issue many recordings, but they are worth some attention.
I will mostly focus on the two things he has focused on almost exclusively since about 1980:
His solo piano recordings, which are mostly live concerts where he improvises without reference to preexisting music. This is the music that made Keith famous, and his most important innovation. I would say that some of this music is as great, and as important, as anything recorded in the last 50 years. It often doesn’t sound like “jazz,” as is also true much of the time with the American quartet. However…
The so-called “standards trio,” with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, features the most traditional-sounding jazz Keith has recorded, and has been his main area of focus other than the solo music. They also recorded some improvisations without reference to preexisting music — “free,” in the jazz term — but the bulk of their recordings are beautifully rendered versions of tunes from the Great American Songbook; stuff like “When I Fall In Love,” “Autumn Leaves,” “My Funny Valentine.” They were one of the longest-running jazz groups of all time, and in my opinion one of the best.
There’s some other stuff, especially classical and classical-adjacent, that doesn’t fit into any of the above categories, and I’ll touch on them as well.
All these categories cross — an American quartet recording can be issued on the heels of a solo concert, etc. — and sometimes the live recordings in particular can come out years after they were recorded. Most are under the name “Keith Jarrett,” but there’s also “Trio” and “Quartet,” but not consistently…this is why just diving in chronologically or fishing your way through Spotify doesn’t work as well.
Last thing regarding his recordings: If I don’t mention a recording, that either means I’ve made a mistake — quite possible, and please let me know! — or it is a compilation of music available elsewhere, though possibly including outtakes.
4. Reputation — the good and the bad
One last thing before we get to the music. Let’s talk about KJ’s reputation, since it is a factor in what people “bring” to the music as a listener.
By far his most famous recording is KOLN, and it is great. I’ve seen it called the highest-selling piano album of all time, and one can understand why; the music is (mostly) very lyrical and melodic, but also exciting and easy to follow. The criticism is that this music, taken to a certain extreme, inspired imitators like George Winston — purveyors of gentle music with little substance. That may be, but it also inspired great artists like Brad Mehldau and Fred Hersch…and none of it is Jarrett’s fault anyway! (There’s also some that say the European quartet helped usher in smooth jazz; I hear music like Pat Metheny perhaps following in their wake, but nothing like that insipid style.)
Next, there’s the moaning. Singing, grunting, whatever…the noises that he makes while playing. (There’s also some strange stuff he does with his body while playing.) The truth is that usually it’s either not present or not intrusive, and you can get used to it, or over it, with time. If it bothers you, listen to something else. It’s not that big of a deal usually.
He also has a rep in some circles as, to be blunt, a jerk. He insists on having great pianos to play on, and focused attention from audiences — no photographs or even coughing, or he may unleash a diatribe from the stage. He has also voiced what could be diplomatically called “strong opinions” regarding a variety of topics, including the use of electronic instruments in jazz, and artists like Wynton Marsalis. My two cents: who cares? Everyone is allowed to their opinions, and I’d rather him be uptight than have some of the behaviors we appear to just get over with other jazz idols.
Finally, there is his reputation in some corners as a genius. It’s beyond the scope of this article to debate the merits of that term, but my take is that he is a hard worker who doesn’t bat 1.000 (nobody does), but is a significant innovator and great performer. That’s enough for me.
5. Finding a way in
So, to recap the three things that can make it hard to get a grasp on Keith Jarrett:
A vast recorded legacy, generally of very high quality.
Many overlapping styles and periods.
A popular conception that is incomplete and a reputation that may be unfair.
That’s why you need this article!
Before I give you some recommendations and discussion…what do you think of MELODY?
If you haven’t paid much attention, that’s okay. That in and of itself tells you something. But listen for a bit and decide how you feel about it.
I have five reaction/categories below, ranging from love to hate. See which description(s) fit you best and follow your ear from there.
6a. I love it. It’s beautiful. More of this please.
There are two routes I recommend from here. The first: two lovely (and more substantial) albums Jarrett recorded with Charlie Haden — JASMINE and LAST DANCE, both recorded in 2007 and released years later. Subtle, attentive music making.
The other idea is CREATION (2015), a somewhat unique recording in his discography. It is a curated set of solo improvisations drawn from several different concerts, and they all stay in a pretty reflective mood, though it isn’t quite as happy to stay in the background as MELODY.
The next step is this playlist I’ve made. I went through all of the solo piano recordings and took in all of the tracks that were less than ten minutes long. I think it makes an excellent introduction to this aspect of Keith’s music.
The reason for this playlist: The most famous — and arguably best — of the solo piano music (especially earlier in his career) is mostly much longer, sometimes up to 45 minutes or so a track, which can be a barrier to entry for some listeners. This playlist therefore over-samples Jarrett post-CFS, since his solo concerts after that time tend to break up into shorter sections. It also means there’s nothing from what is probably his greatest solo piano recording — SOLO CONCERTS: BREMEN/LAUSANNE (1973) — and almost nothing from the rest of what I think are his top five — KOLN, SUN BEAR CONCERTS (1978), CONCERTS (BREGENZ, MUNCHEN) (1982) or A MULTITUDE OF ANGELS (2016, recorded 1996). As a matter of fact, if and when you decide you’re ready for more after this playlist, that’s exactly where I’d recommend you go next. Just listen to all of them. If you like half or more of that playlist, these five (mostly long) recordings are going to offer you some absolutely fantastic music — diverse in their stylistic reach, incredible as feats of pianism and spontaneous composition. (Actually, KOLN is the least varied of these in its range of musical styles, which may be part of why it became so popular.) (Probably also popular because it is great.) When I think of the Jarrett I love, these are the recordings that come to mind first. They’re not for everyone, but if that playlist has whetted your appetite, this is the place to go.
Anyway, the point is that this playlist is not a completely representative view of KJ’s solo piano output; there’s simply no way to get a sense of the rewards of those longer improvisations without actually listening to some. For this playlist, I’ve removed most of the more abstract/atonal improvisations; those that are still in there evolve or pay off in a way that I thought still made them accessible. I also didn’t included anything from CREATION or MELODY, nor the solo piano things that come up on trio records — for example, the gorgeous “It’s All in the Game” on THE OUT OF TOWNERS. While it is in chronological order, I recommend you put it on shuffle and see what happens!
If this doesn’t do it for you, try out the trio, discussed in the next section. But a special word here for CHANGELESS (1987), which is a slightly surprising choice perhaps but I could imagine working nicely.
6b. It’s nice! I love standards, and I could take more intensity than this.
A great next step for you are the two duet with Haden albums mentioned above, but really the next place to go is the Standards Trio. If you love standards, there is a ton of great music to be found here. I think the best introduction is UP FOR IT (2002) — great tunes, joyful playing, beautifully recorded. The natural next step is LIVE AT THE BLUE NOTE: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS (1994), an absolute masterpiece. After these have their teeth in you, really any of the remaining standards-based recordings they’ve made are worth listening to. Some are better than others, but if you’ve gone this far, part of the joy will be discovering the gems for yourself.
STANDARDS LIVE (1985)
STILL LIVE (1986)
THE CURE (1990)
BYE BYE BLACKBIRD (1991)
TOKYO ’96 (1996)
AFTER THE FALL (1998)
WHISPER NOT (1999)
Don’t ignore AT THE DEER HEAD INN (1992), a recording with Motian instead of DeJohnette. A little different, and not as good as the best recordings above, but definitely worth a listen. I also recommend the solo piano playlist above — there’s enough solo-Keith in the trio records that it’s a good time for you to check that out. Finally, there’s the trio’s free playing, which by now you have heard some of. I’m going to discuss it more below.
(One last note — all the dates I list for the trio albums are when they were recorded; the release dates are a mess.)
6c. It’s fine. I like some of these tunes, and he’s got a great touch…but I’m actually a classical listener really.
Okay! I am a classical musician and music educator, and I am with you!
As a performer:
His recordings of classical works are very different from his other recordings; he has an explicitly stated view that his role as a performer is to not do anything that he perceives as “adding” anything to what the composer wrote. That means not just no Jarrett-ish improvised cadenzas on Mozart concertos; it means that his phrasing, tempos, etc., are all pretty mainstream. Which isn’t a bad thing! It just means that, for most of his recordings, there are any number of other performances of the same pieces that are comparable or (arguably) superior.
Probably his most acclaimed classical recording is the SHOSTAKOVICH PRELUDES AND FUGUES (1992). This, plus the Bach he was recording in the same time period, are interesting to me as they inform the solo improvised concerts he was giving at the time. I actually don’t respond to these solo concerts as much as many of the others, but many other listeners do, and you might enjoy giving them a spin in this context: DARK INTERVALS, VIENNA CONCERT (in my opinion the best of this batch, and possibly among his best overall), PARIS CONCERT, LA SCALA. His recording of Fratres by Arvo Part with Gidon Kremer is also excellent, and fits in with this period.
His other classical recordings are all worth a listen. Most, I have listened to more than once and I found them to be fine but non-essential, either because of his stated less-is-more interpretive stance, or because I just am not as big a fan of the works in question. But none of them are bad, that’s for sure, so dive in!
(also a live recording issued later)
As a composer:
KJ seems to view “classical composition” as an outgrowth of the rest of his musicianship, not a separate endeavor. That is, his “classical” writing does not see him trying to write in a wholly different style or syntax as can be sometimes heard in his other composing or improvising — which is not surprising, given that his stylistic range is pretty broad in those arenas already. As a result, his classical works seem to me to be not fully realized; that is, if this was all you knew of him, you would regard him as clearly talented and full of promise…but he would probably need to study classical composition more seriously, and/or just do more of it, to be capable of composing more exceptional music. As it is, his classical works are (mostly) worth a listen, but I doubt anyone seriously considers him a under-recognized composer in this mold. That said, if classical music is your normal listening diet, there are some things worth listening to as an introduction to Jarrett more broadly:
I find BRIDGE OF LIGHT (1994) to be his most successful collection of classical works. It fits in quite well with the overall ECM classical music ethos of the period, sounding quite good alongside composers like Part (which is fitting enough, given his role in performing Fratres). It is also the furthest afield from anything “jazz” in his classical output.
THE CELESTIAL HAWK (1980) is a three-movement piece for orchestra with piano, though not a concerto exactly. Like the works on BRIDGE OF LIGHT, it is mostly-tonal and accessible, episodic and containing some appealing ideas. Jarrett is not as convincing to me over this big of a structure or with this large of a canvas…but it’s pleasant enough music. Occasionally his touch as a pianist brings it closer to his lyrical playing in the solo concerts, but it mostly comes across as a “classical” piece of music.
IN THE LIGHT (1973) is a mixed bag of his earliest attempts as a classical composer. Given how early in his career this was, it is pretty impressive, especially from a “jazz person,” and every time I listen to it I am newly impressed with some pieces; that said, the album is probably negatively affected by a few small performance-quality issues, and its unfocused nature as an overall collection.
ARBOUR ZENA (1975) is perhaps best described as a “Third Way” collection — dolorous string writing with sorta-jazz improvisation on top, provided by Jarrett, Haden, and Garbarek. It’s not “Charlie Parker with Strings,” that’s for sure. There are people out there who deeply love this music, and I definitely understand why.
BOOK OF WAYS (1986) is not a “classical composition,” but I’m including it here because of the instrument Jarrett improvises on — a clavichord. Given the sound of that instrument, it changes the way Jarrett improvises — sometimes he embraces the harpsichord-ish aspect to construct some vaguely Baroque ideas; sometimes, he makes it sound more like a guitar and improvises accordingly; and finally, he sometimes exploits the fact that you can affect a slight vibrato, combining that with a contemporary vocabulary. It doesn’t all work, and it’s a one-off in his discography, but it is an interesting and unique window into his voice.
RITUAL (1977) is without question the least “classical” recording here, and yet that is how Jarrett seems to have conceived it, and wanted us to think of it. It is apparently a fully-composed work for solo piano, here performed by the respected conductor Dennis Russell Davies…but it sounds a LOT like a Jarrett solo improvisation, transcribed and performed by another (very good) pianist. It’s quite nice! Thinking of it as pre-composed instead of improvised clearly changes the listener’s perspective, but it doesn’t change the musical material itself. If you like this, then you are DEFINITELY ready to give this playlist a try.
6d. It’s…fine. It’s pretty, but it’s easy to ignore. I don’t need to ever hear it again.
I get you. There’s a few ways to go…keep reading.
You are quite possibly the right person to dive into the solo piano music headfirst. Again, I think the playlist I’ve made is worth checking out, but perhaps you should go big instead. I mentioned above that I think his five best solo piano recordings are SOLO CONCERTS: BREMEN/LAUSANNE, THE KOLN CONCERT, SUN BEAR CONCERTS, CONCERTS (BREGENZ, MUNCHEN), and A MULTITUDE OF ANGELS, and listening to any of those might be exactly what you need. The other recordings that I haven’t mentioned anywhere in this article yet:
FACING YOU (1971) — his very first solo piano recording, a studio effort. Very good, if more conventionally “jazz pianist” than any of his later solo records.
STAIRCASE (1976) — another studio effort. I like some of it, but some of it falls flat for me, and it is my least favorite recorded piano sound in his entire output.
RADIANCE (2002) — live from Japan. Very diverse and mostly excellent.
CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT (2005) — way way way too much applause included, which is a shame, because the music is quite good.
PARIS/LONDON: TESTAMENT (2008) — some of these improvisations are among my favorite late-period Jarrett.
RIO (2011) — probably the best single concert in the post-CFS period. Really, really good, and mostly quite accessible.
The solo piano music obviously doesn’t have the variety of color that his other music does, and so it doesn’t appeal to some for that reason. That said, it is probably the purest distillation of his art. If this doesn’t do it for you, then I would try the trio.
6e. I…kinda hated it. It’s boring, which is what I never never want music to be. I might hate solo piano.
It’s okay. There are many fans of his who don’t like MELODY. In the vast reach of KJ’s music, there’s still room for you, even if you don’t like the music he is most famous for. (Though you might! Much of the solo music is pretty bracing; if you feel like giving it a shot, the second track from A MULTITUDE OF ANGELS might be worth a shot — starts out thorny, and takes its sweet time to develop, but both the journey and the destination are very rewarding.) So here’s several more ideas worth trying.
The free music of the trio, as mentioned above, is not boring. Possibly the most successful is CHANGES (1983), followed by INSIDE OUT (2000); both feature inventive music and incredible group interplay. CHANGELESS features mostly repeated vamps (somewhat in the vain of the solo concerts) that can be entrancing if you’re into that kind of thing, and finally ALWAYS LET ME GO (2001) is all over the place but worth checking out if you have liked some of the three above. If these are of interest, you might want to go to the Blue Note box described above and sample “Desert Sun,” or the free playing on THE OUT OF TOWNERS or BYE BYE BLACKBIRD…and if you keep listening to their other recordings, you’ll find long vamps that close tunes like “Autumn Leaves” on UP FOR IT…and then find yourself admiring the highly responsive nature of the trio when playing standards, whether or not they develop into something more exploratory.
The American quartet might appeal. It’s often wild, but there’s some excellent music to be found, and they’ve only become more respected and influential as time has gone on. I think the best entry point is EXPECTATIONS (1972), a “White Album” in a way — meaning that it covers a lot of ground stylistically, and it’s incoherence as a singular statement is kind of the point, and the charm. (And the music is largely accessible, and excellent.) Their best album, and most coherent, is definitely THE SURVIVOR’S SUITE, but it is a little more demanding of a listen. If both of these are too much, you might want to start at the very beginning — LIFE BETWEEN THE EXIT SIGNS (1968), with a followup live effort the same year called SOMEWHERE BEFORE, are the trio without Redman, and are more approachable (though less original) than much of their later output. If these float your boat, then it’s probably worth your time to investigate the rest of their stuff…though patience is a virtue…
HAMBURG ’72 (1972)
FORT YAWUH (1973)
Admittedly, the European quartet is less likely to be your thing, but they’ve got some of the American quartet’s stylistic range, but with a lot more unapologetic melody upfront. (And a few surprises along the way!) Their recorded legacy is much smaller, but the two studio albums are much more coherent and consistent than the Americans’ average. Both BELONGING (1974) and MY SONG (1977) feature some great melodies and compelling group interplay. (I absolutely love “The Windup,” which Branford Marsalis recently recorded a great version of as well, alternating the catchy theme with great “free” solos.) The live records — SLEEPER, PERSONAL MOUNTAINS and NUDE ANTS, all recorded in 1979 but released at different times — are more of a mess, but are the natural next step after the studio albums.
That leaves us with Keith’s various one-offs, which are either interesting or failed experiments, depending on your point of view. I discussed BOOK OF WAYS above, and it’s probably my favorite of the albums in this category. It doesn’t read as “jazz” at all. Someone still looking for a way in may also respond to ARBOUR ZENA, which I talked about in the same context. SPIRITS (1985) is a bunch of vaguely New Age-y instrument noodling, all overdubbed by KJ. Recorders, shakers, tablas, etc. No piano, and maybe not incidentally, no reason (for me, anyway) to listen…though apparently this was very important for him personally, and there are definitely folks out there who like it. NO END was recorded in 1986 but not released until 2013 — it is, other than RESTORATION RUIN (1968), the only truly rock-influenced album in his whole catalog; a bunch of electric guitar and drums, again all overdubbed by KJ (this time with a bunch of tape hiss). It’s the nasty cousin to SPIRITS — to me, a good deal more interesting, but still not essential. As for RESTORATION RUIN, it is Jarrett’s very early attempt to be a Bob Dylan-inspired singer-songwriter, and it’s mostly a train wreck. HYMNS/SPHERES (1976) includes soprano sax by KJ, overdubbed on some of what is otherwise solo improvisations, this time on a big church organ. The first half of INVOCATIONS/THE MOTH AND THE FLAME (1979) is organ too; I don’t feel equipped to judge this music, as I’m not a big fan of organ music in general, but there are some folks who are big fans of this music. (The second half of that album has some really nice piano improvisations, and it is probably undervalued in KJ’s discography because of the weird pairing.) That leaves RUTA AND DAITYA, an interesting mess of a duet album with Jack DeJohnette from 1972, and GURDJIEFF: SACRED HYMNS (1980), a solo piano recital of gentle but unremarkable music from one of Jarrett’s spiritual teachers. Any of these recordings may speak to you, and they certainly demonstrate his varied musical appetite.
7. Now what?
I hope that you’ve found some music you love! If not, I encourage you to go back and try some other route that I didn’t recommend. The standards trio is probably overall Keith’s most accessible music, and the American quartet is the most challenging.
If Jarrett has gotten his teeth into you, then obviously just keep digging. I have not listened to the compilations with outtakes, not all of his sideman recordings, but that’s another direction to go. Also there are the many artists who cite him as an influence, some of whom I’ve mentioned.
As for further reading, I have two recommendations, one general and one specific. The big recommendation is keithjarrett.org — an unofficial site, but most valuable for its deep list of links for further reading. (And some transcriptions.) The specific recommendation is for a truly excellent review site called the Jazz Shelf; his writing is clear and persuasive (we have pretty similar opinions), and he has a good deal to say about KJ, and a ton of other artists as well — a rabbit hole worth falling down.
There’s a bunch more Jarrett content to explore out there, but always the most rewarding thing is to simply listen to the music. Thanks for reading, and happy listening!