To mark the start of this year’s EFG London jazz festival BBC aired a feature length documentary on Keith Jarrett, the great American pianist, aptly titled The Art of Improvisation.

Watch the Documentary on BBC iPlayer here.

Jarrett is unique in so many ways- a child prodigy equally prodigious in the classical and jazz realms. He seemed to spring onto the jazz scene fully formed with many of his trademark characteristics already present in his earliest recordings. His ferocious creativity, his physicality (his body has taken a huge toll through the gyrations that accompany his performances) and Jarrett’s obsessive attention both to detail and unplanned improvisational pieces. And I know, that does sound like a contradiction!

Following his first appearances with the Charles Lloyd quartet in the late 60’s – a band that briefly garnered a mass following on the festival and campus circuits, through a short but impactful career with Miles Davis as Miles moved into electric jazz/rock- Keith Jarrett spent the next 50 years up to his recent retirement polishing the art of small format acoustic jazz piano exclusively trios, and quartets , with different bands accompanying him in the U.S. and Europe. Jarrett’s band relationships on both sides of the Atlantic have lasted for decades. His association with the bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack de Johnette endured for over 40 years until the death of Peacock. 

He is more associated with solo piano performances than any other contemporary jazz pianists and particularly with the legendary 1975 Koln Concert ,performed on a piano which both Keith and his producer Manfred Eicher deemed to be sub-standard, still forms the benchmark for his solo performances and has sold 3.5 million of copies. An unparalleled achievement for a “jazz” recording

The vast bulk of Jarrett’s recorded output since the early 1970’s appears on the ECM label, whose proprietor Manfred Eicher shares Jarret’s obsessive interests- sound quality, providing the optimum context for great recordings through attention to detail and band personnel. I can’t think of a longer association between a jazz artist and a recording company. It is clearly a relationship that has benefitted both parties.  Providing Jarrett with the creative control that he has both sought and demanded as his career unfolded . This unique partnership has seen the production of many highly praised recordings of classical pieces, both orchestral and solo. The film includes fascinating and joyous footage of Jarrett’s’ live performance in Tokyo with Chick Corea of a Mozart concerto for two pianos where Keith and Chick showcase their classical “chops” (jazz argot for mastery)

Within the jazz context Jarrett’s music is often difficult, sometimes opaque and always challenging. Which makes Jarret’s popularity in the U.S., Europe and particularly in Japan where he is idolized and has toured frequently more surprising. He is equally comfortable with his own original material-particularly with his mid-70’s American quartet with Dewey Redman on tenor, Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums. His classic trio has focussed increasingly on the re-imagining of jazz standards, including both obscure and well-known tunes.

From the early 70’s if you wanted to hear Jarrett live you needed to visit large concert halls (not my preferred context for jazz performance) . In the film Jarrett explains that given the intensity of his approach to improvisation he didn’t have the stamina or interest in playing 2 or 3 sets a night in a jazz club. Given his popularity and demanding nature in terms of venue, acoustics, and piano- Jarrett is in the Glenn Gould league in this respect- he has been able to determine when, where and with whom he plays throughout his career. I can think of very few great jazz players who have been able to achieve that kind of creative control and outcome throughout the course of long careers in the music. In fact I can’t think of any.

The film leaves you in no doubt of Jarret’s unique passion for improvisational music. Nor is he shy about defining himself as a jazz musician. Watching his bands perform you cannot fail to notice the continuous and intense interactions between the musicians. Jarrett has drawn his share of criticism over the years-some no doubt the product of jealousy given his uniqueness. His physical and audible gyrations in performance can jar. He inhabits his own creative world and is highly sensitive to criticism.

I am in no doubt that Keith Jarrett is a towering figure in modern jazz and improvisational music. If you are new to Keith Jarrett and simply watch the film, you may share this view. Interestingly despite his legendary status I don’t think that Jarrett’s influence on contemporary pianists is as identifiable as sayThelonious Monk, Bill Evans or Bud Powell whose distinctive contributions to the development of the music continue to be heard in the work of contemporary musicians.

My playlist gives you glimpses of Jarrett at the start of his career, a standout track from his classic quartet and examples of his output with both his European quartet, including Jan Garbarek on saxophones and his longest lasting American trio. While Keith Jarrett has formally retired as an active musician his music will hold a distinctive place within contemporary jazz and improvisational music for as long as it is played and listened to.

Notes on the episode playlist…

Charles Lloyd East of the Sun from Charles Lloyd Live 1966

Charles Lloyd: Tenor Sax
Keith Jarrett: Piano
Cecil McBee: Bass
Jack de Johnette: Drums

The earliest recorded pairing of Jarrett and de Johnette

Keith Jarrett at the Deerhead Inn 1994 Basin Street Blues

Jarrett: Piano
Gary Peacock: Bass
Paul Motian: Drums

Keith Jarrett at the Deerhead Inn Chandra 1994

Same line up as 2

A rare live recording in a small club, close to Jarret’s heart. This is where he began his professional career in the mid-60’s.

Keith Jarrett European Quartet Belonging 1974 Spiral Down

Jarrett: Piano
Jan Gabarek: Saxes
Palle Danielsson: Bass
Jon Christensen: Drums

Keith Jarrett European Quartet Belonging 1974 The Wind Up

Same lineup as 4

Keith Jarrett Standards Vol 1 1983 God Bless the Child

Jarrett: Piano
Gary Peacock: Bass
Jack de Johnette: Drums

Keith Jarrett Trio After the Fall 2018  Scrapple from the Apple

Same lineup as 6

Keith Jarrett Trio After the Fall 2018  Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Same lineup as 6

One of the trio’s last recordings. A typically original approach to a Charlie Parker bebop classic and a schmaltzy Christmas tune re-imagined.  Far removed from Jarrett’s usual musical choices!

Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden Last Dance 2014 Round Midnight

Jarrett: Piano
Charlie Haden: Bass

A poignant interpretation of Monk’s classic ballad, poignant also because this was one of Haden’s last recordings before his death in the same year. Reuniting the pair following their long association earlier in their careers

Jarrett Trio My Foolish Heart Live at Montreux 2007 Four

Jarrett: Piano
Peacock: Bass
de Johnette: Drums

A live rendition of the classic Miles Davis tune

Keith Jarrett Bye-A Blue 1977 Bye-Ya Blue

Jarrett: Piano
Haden: Bass
Motian: Drums

Keith Jarrett Koln Concert 1975 Part 2 C

Jarrett: Piano

Impossible to put together a Jarrett playlist without referencing his remarkable solo piano performance at Cologne.