Jazz Pianist

July 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: When Keith Jarrett takes the stage for one of his solo concerts, it’s just him, his piano, and a world of possibilities. Nothing is written down; everything is improvised.

Now 60, Jarrett has long been recognized as one of the foremost pianists around, primarily as a jazz musician, but also through several acclaimed classical recordings as well. As a child growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in fact, he was trained in classical piano. He switched to jazz in his teens, and began to make a name for himself playing with Charles Lloyd and others in the late 1960s , and then with Miles Davis’s Electric Fusion Group.

For the past two decades, he’s headed a trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette that some critics are saying is one of the best in jazz history. But it’s for his solo work that Jarrett is perhaps best known, concert-length performances, where an individual piece can last for minutes or an hour.

Beginning in the early ’70s, he’s released numerous recordings of these performances. One, the 1975 "Koln Concert," is one of the best-selling piano recordings in history. His newest release, called "Radiance," was recorded and videotaped in Japan. Keith Jarrett leads a very private life in rural New Jersey.

He rarely does television interviews, but invited us for a visit to his home studio, where he practices and sometimes records, for a talk about the art of improvising.

KEITH JARRETT: When you are improvising, what you have to be true to is yourself. And you aren’t historical. At that moment, you are at that moment, at that moment. And what I would wish the listener to do is just know that it’s all as unprepared as they are. In other words, they don’t know what’s coming up, and neither do I. After a while, that’s not scary. After a while, that’s what you would want.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jarrett says he comes to the stage with no preconceived ideas or destination, just an openness.

KEITH JARRETT: When I go out onstage, if I have an idea in my head, it’s going to be in my way. Those notes and feelings come to the player, come to the improviser, if he lets them. But if there’s an idea in the way, those notes and those feelings will be restricted to whatever that idea started to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you sit down at the piano and you want to be ready for anything?

KEITH JARRETT: That’s right. There are a lot of young players now who are imitating players they hear, or heard in the past. They haven’t learned the lesson that the great players would have been wishing upon them, which would be, "That’s the last thing you would ever want to do. You do not imitate; you find out what you are about and try to convey that to yourself and to the audience in some way that demonstrates what your experience is."

JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes the results are abstract, long flights of notes.

KEITH JARRETT: It’s like you’re being under shock all the time — an electrical current is flowing through you.

JEFFREY BROWN: At other moments, the music is lyrical and song-like. Even at its simplest, it’s all unfolding for the first time, as here at the beginning of a section of "Radiance."

KEITH JARRETT: It sounds like I know everything about the piece when it starts. I mean, I think it starts — something like that. And then it turns into … and then it just keeps going. Now, someone could have written that piece. In fact, many people might have written it. But nobody did, and I never heard it, and the only clue I had about what was going to come next was … I mean, that’s it.

JEFFREY BROWN: When he’s not flying solo, Jarrett continues to perform and record regularly with his trio. But here, too, where the music is more structured, Jarrett says it’s all about listening, and being ready.

KEITH JARRETT: In the trio, we’ll be suddenly swinging. You can’t swing on purpose. You can’t say, "We’re going to sit down and now we’re going to swing." This is a very good example of the entirety of what we’re talking about. You can just be ready for swinging.

And so sometimes it’ll happen onstage, and we’re looking at each other like the light just got turned on, you know? And we know we didn’t turn it on, and we also know we don’t know where the switch is. There is no switch; it just happens for many, many reasons that are beyond our control.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you just go with it?

KEITH JARRETT: Just go with it. A couple nights later, the trio might play that same tune and try to — remembering how great it felt, and nothing happens. And we all look at each other for — again, we now know, "here we are being dunces again."

JEFFREY BROWN: You make it sound sort of mysterious.

KEITH JARRETT: It is mysterious. It’s totally mysterious, which is why if someone wanted a simple explanation of it, the last person — the first person that would be able to explain it simply would be someone who doesn’t know anything about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several years ago, Jarrett’s career was in jeopardy when he was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and had to stop playing for long periods. The disease, he says, is now under control, and "Radiance" is his first solo concert recording since his return.

Jarrett knows that his music is not for everyone. But he’s able to travel the world and play for a loyal audience that’s now followed his development for decades.

KEITH JARRETT: That’s my job. I mean, I think that’s an artist’s job. I put much more weight on what an artist should be doing. I believe that everybody that pays money for a ticket is paying money for more than they’re asking for.

JEFFREY BROWN: More than they’re asking for?

KEITH JARRETT: Yeah. They’re usually asking for "let’s hear this again." And I’m always sitting there thinking, "I know if they’ve followed me this far, that there’s farther to go."