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Keith Jarrett's Keys to the Cosmos

The premiere jazz pianist promotes a 10-record set

Keith Jarrett on Saturday Night Live, April 15th, 1978 Credit: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

An itchy silence rules the backstage corridor of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium – a silence just about as bearable as the hush that trails a judge's gavel at sentencing. Keith Jarrett, 33, a short, curly-headed bundle of muscle, leans in a corner doorway rubbing the bridge of his nose with both hands in a prayer-like motion. Just minutes before, he finished playing the midway date of a worldwide solo piano concert tour, a performance that should easily rank as one of the more florid and sinewy displays of his career. But Jarrett seems heedless of the fact. He has answered the few attempts at congratulations by the backstage party with mutters and glares, and for the moment seems intent on a brooding reverie.

After several strained moments, Jarrett coughs a sharp, private laugh and scans his guests with an impish grin. "I never realized until now," he says, resting his stare on me, "how vain and purposeless it would be to attempt to describe what I just did on that stage. I mean, I'm not thinking about the music I just played, I'm thinking about talking to you about the music. Words are a poor substitute for experience, and in order for me to talk about any of this at all, I'm going to have to play games with you." He pauses to pet the bristly contour of his mustache. "I think it's totally appropriate that we say nothing now."

With that, the itchy silence returns.

Although he would probably bridle at the suggestion, Keith Jarrett is to jazz what Jerry Brown is to California politics – a guileful and feisty enigma. Jarrett doesn't exactly brim with what might be termed straight talk, because, simply, he doesn't believe his designs to be comprehensible under the myopic lens of Western scrutiny.

Jarrett, who first won acclaim for his work in Charles Lloyd's and Miles Davis' early fusion ensembles, creates music that by all surface criteria is jazz: an improvised form of music rooted in swing rhythms and blues-derived scales. Yet his music also has a strong harmonic similarity to the work of such 20th-century European composers as Debussy, Bartók, Schönberg and Stockhausen, which writers and fans alike laud as a union of jazz technique and modern classical theory.

According to Jarrett, though, it's nothing of the sort. He asserts that his music is beyond categorization – devoid of will, purpose, influences or even conscious methods, music that very nearly transcends human processes, and therefore, human considerations.

Jarrett has often said that when he takes his seat at the piano for a solo concert, he has no idea what his fingers will play, that his entire performance is in fact a "spontaneous composition." That places what he does outside the usual provinces of improvisation, which generally means extemporizing melodic lines on given themes, harmonic progressions or modal settings. Jarrett theoretically constructs his theme and overall structure on the spot, which is hardly as unprecedented or superhuman as some of his supporters claim, but Jarrett pursues it more extensively than anyone else ever has. It is a risky undertaking, and Jarrett's concerts meander just as often as they enthrall.

In emphatic contrast to so many of his colleagues who rose to prominence in the last decade – particularly those who, like Jarrett, passed through Miles Davis' bands – Jarrett has proudly shunned fusion and funk in favor of strictly acoustic settings, including his solo campaign. Of the 25 albums or collections he has released in the last five years (comprising 43 discs), five of those (or 18 discs' worth) have been solo piano volumes, a staggering output for any artist, and all the more impressive when one considers how first-rate it's been.

The showstopper is Jarrett's latest release, the Sun Bear Concerts, a 10-record account of his 1976 solo tour of Japan assembled in a book-like slipcase with a suggested retail tag of $75. No one has ever before released a 10-record set of all new music, and it isn't likely that anyone ever will again – unless it's Jarrett. His previous solo volumes have sold well enough to border on gold – unusually good for jazz – but Warner Bros. (the distributors for Jarrett's German-based ECM label) worried about how to promote the bulky Sun Bear. Jarrett undertook a solo tour scheduled expressly to promote his monolith. Spanning New York to Tokyo, it has been his most extensive undertaking to date.

Releasing a 10-record set doesn't strike Jarrett as a particularly indulgent act, just as his oft-stated claim that no other composers or jazz artists have influenced his style doesn't strike him as a conceited or ill-founded boast. In fact, he avidly disavows the merit of most contemporary music other than his own (though he does profess a liking for Linda Ronstadt's pipes and an occasional Dylan song), and all electronic music, he insists, is poisonous.

Underscoring Jarrett's grandiloquence is his temperament. On occasion he can be just plain arrogant. He's famous for halting concerts to scold late arrivals or berate photographers. Other times, he's stopped performing until the piano can be retuned to his standards. In short, Jarrett's music may spring, as he claims, from egoless sources, but his disposition, it would seem, is nothing less than the epitome of an artistic ego – proud and moody.

Jarrett and I meet for the first time in New York, the day after his tour opened in mid-October with a concert at the Metropolitan Opera House (the only other soloist who has ever been invited to play the Met was Vladimir Horowitz). Although I've been in the city for four days, Jarrett has had no time for an interview, and when we finally meet, it is in the back seat of a limousine en route to LaGuardia Airport, where he is to leave for Chicago. As we speak, he strokes the handle of a tennis racket and peers through smoky sunglasses at New York's disappearing skyline.

"My time is fairly important," he says in a brittle, clipped cadence, "so I don't have much of it to spare. Just what did you want to ask?" There's nothing haughty about his manner, particularly, and nothing intimate. In fact, it's about as bald and matter-of-fact as I've ever encountered.

I start by asking him how consciously or analytically he monitors the music as he's improvising it, how much his own ear dictates what an audience hears.

"The process is mysterious," he says evenly, removing his sunglasses and fixing his dark eyes on mine. "That's the best thing I can say about it."

"Surely there are decisions you make in that moment-to-moment process about what notes to play and not to play, and how long and how loud to play them?" I ask.

He shrugs a smile and half nods his head. "Since it's all improvised, every second may contain a hundred choices for me, and my first job is to know whether I'm making those choices mentally or not. Like, if my finger is about to play a note, I can't play it because I want to play it, and yet I can't not play it because I don't want to. It's a course of thought and no thought, decision and no decision."

When Jarrett talks about the course of "decision and no decision," one gets the impression of a man knee-deep in an Oriental discipline, and, in fact, some critics have viewed his music as the proselytizing excesses of a yoga, Sufi or Zen student. Jarrett does adhere to some kind of stoical code, but what it is, he won't say. The closest I can place it is Taoism, the Chinese religious and political movement based upon the ancient Taote Ching. The idea of Tao translates, roughly, as the 'way' or 'path,' a driving power and rhythmic force in nature that is life's ordering principle. It informs and motivates man's spirit, and when one surrenders to its pulse, one grows in tune with the benign dictates of the universe, becoming a vehicle for its will.

Wherever Jarrett's notions of self-propelled music spring from, they've certainly come home to roost on the Sun Bear Concerts. Nowhere else in his collected works does music seem more effortless and splendid. From the opening phrase onward, it unfolds like an idyllic dream on the border of consciousness, and like the best of dreams – or narratives – you never want it to end. It is, to my mind, one of the few real self-contained epics in Seventies music.

Jarrett's improvisations rarely rank as bona fide compositions because they're usually formless adventures, devoid of identifiable themes, movements and resolutions. But this is also their strength. Instead of clearly delineated melodic trains, Jarrett focuses on a mood – most effectively in a minor key or mode – then traces it through interminable transitions that just skim the rim of a retainable melody. That he can do it as effectively with atonal structures as he can with blues or impressionist forms merely indicates the expanse of his imagination.

Probably the most striking feature of Jarrett's solo music is the degree of intimacy he has with his instrument, which adds an interesting hitch to his claim that music flows of its own will through his blank consciousness. More likely it is a process far less mystifying: Every time Jarrett places his fingers on the keys, he isn't just opening himself to the whims of a muse, he's summoning his variegated background as a pianist.

Jarrett, of French-Hungarian extraction, grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. A prodigy, by age 15 he had consumed a classical repertoire ranging from Bach to Bartók and was attracted to jazz by the Ravel-influenced reveries of pianist Bill Evans. In the early Sixties, Jarrett studied improvisation at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he eventually was discharged for insubordination. He played support to almost any Boston and New York club act that would have him (including, most notably, Art Blakey), a practice he now lauds as the prime influence in his eclectic point of view.

By 1966 Jarrett had settled into Charles Lloyd's Quartet, who, with their cultivated hippie air and breakthrough shows at the Fillmore, were one of the earliest harbingers of fusion jazz. With them, Jarrett first began to attract an audience for his idiosyncratic flights, including a fondness for pummeling the piano's interior. His subsequent tenure with Miles Davis was weird and fitful, though he now says that the experience was as positive as he could hope for with electronic music: "It was music that was conceived for electronics. There was no other way of playing what Miles was coming up with."

In 1972, everything fell together for Jarrett. His own group – which included bassist Charlie Haden, saxophonist Dewey Redman (alumni of Ornette Coleman groups) and drummer Paul Motian – released two stunning albums: Birth (Atlantic) and Expectations (Columbia), showcasing one of the most protean and irrestrainable quartets of the Seventies, featuring a fully ripe Jarrett hammering out complex blues and polytonal fugues with rock-derived fervor. Also that same year, he released his first solo album, Facing You, for a then-obscure, budding German label called ECM (Editions of Contemporary Music), prompting critic Robert Palmer to exult in these pages that, "When he plays alone, Jarrett pushes his creativity to its limits... It is without a doubt the most creative and satisfying solo album of the past few years."

After that first solo effort, Keith's heart belonged to ECM – and solo recording. Although his quartet (which had moved to ABC/Impulse) continued to record prolifically – including in a one-year span, three of their finest albums, Fort Yawuh, Death and the Flower and Treasure Island – they increasingly became a perfunctory, misshapen unit bound together by contractual commitments.

At ECM, the label's producer/mentor, Manfred Eicher, allowed Jarrett to record in any style he fancied, from the flawed In the Light (compositions for chamber ensembles) to the sublime three-record Bremen-Lausanna. With Bremen-Lausanna and the subsequent Köln Concert, Jarrett found his niche, freely mixing gospel, impressionist and atonal flights into a consonant whole.

While Eicher's production style is so meticulous and refined that it leaves most ECM artists sounding cold and prosaic, in Jarrett's case Eicher furnishes the canvas best suited to the artist's brush. Together, they make some of the most sterling ascetic music of the day. If Keith Jarrett has at last arrived, it hasn't been alone.

When Jarrett and I meet again, it's on the far side of the continent, in the backstage corridor at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. After the show and Jarrett's terse dictum about the futility of words, a small cluster of nervous admirers files into Jarrett's dressing room for autographs. Jarrett for the most part is cool but polite with the visitors, who seem to be seeking some meaningful banter or disclosure about the mystery behind his music. Jarrett appears to both relish and reject his role as sage, depending upon the questioner.

"How does it happen," asks a scraggly Scandinavian in stumbling English, "that you have so much energy in your hands?"

"How does it not happen that no one else does?" replies Keith with his imp's smile. A few moments later he abruptly turns aside another blushing devotee's jittery inquiry, saying, "I can't take people who are as serious and philosophical as you." In near tears, the kid turns and leaves.

The next morning, Keith and I hook up again in a limousine en route to the Los Angeles Airport, where Keith and manager Brian Carr are to catch a flight to Hawaii. Jarrett's cheeks and chin are marked by lines of exhaustion, pinching his face into a tight pucker. Grudgingly he acknowledges the transaction of an interview. That morning in the bustling airport bar we have a brief conversation:

"Several of the people backstage last night seemed to be trying to tell you that they find something beyond music in your concerts – some action or discipline that may be tied to a spiritual or philosophical level," I venture.

"I don't know what the words philosophical and spiritual mean. I know that what goes on while I'm playing could be translated into philosophy by anyone who wants to eliminate a lot of their being in the process, by converting it into a system of thought or discipline. I don't have the privilege of doing that. If I did, it would limit the music."

"Do you think your music conveys emotions to the audience?"

"Conveying an emotion would be music at its most gross use. Conveying the clarity of energy is music at its highest. Emotions are already so colored... For example, the music might convey an emotion if I heard somebody click a camera. I'd then have a momentary feeling; I would have to explode. Now that wouldn't necessarily create music, but it would be an enema of sorts, you know, to rid myself of the moment that had just defiled what was happening.

"I'd like to say something here without you asking a question. I came to realize recently that I can't let go of the essence of what's happening to me, moment to moment, just for the sake of etiquette. That means I'm as committed to spontaneity now as I would be playing the piano onstage. Spontaneity tells me what should be happening at this exact second. So if your questions don't fit into that, it's an impossible subject to deal with. In a way, the concerts preserve my life outside of the music, and vice versa. And if I let either of them down, I'm sinning.

"The music is the reason I'm known at all. It created the interest in doing an interview with me. But because it was music that did it means that I should adhere to the laws of music. I understand the process that you need to deal with, but I can no more help you with it than if no one was sitting in this chair. To me, you want to talk about subjects in which I have absolutely no concern."

"You have no concern if people choose to categorize your music as jazz?"

"Well, you're helping that. What I mean is, a lot of people won't read this because it's an article on jazz, and you're helping to reinforce that architecture. Now you're trying to reduce things that are of no concern into interesting questions and answers. I hope my music can't be understood within the context of your article. Why do you think it's so easy to forget what I play? Because what I do isn't about music. It's about an experience beyond sound."

"You also once said that your purpose is 'blowing people's conceptions of what music means."'

"That was me in the role of an ego. I'm growing now, and making less of those doctrinaire statements."

"Does that mean that your feelings about electronic music might change in time, too?"

"No, because those aren't feelings, they're physiological facts. Just being in the same room with it is harmful, like smoking cigarettes... But what you're doing is what the Western world would love to have continue forever, which is picking apart a world that doesn't deserve to be picked apart. If there's going to be a profile of me in your magazine, it's a profile you're drawing from yourself, and you're getting answers from me because I'm not being myself enough to jump in the air, turn a cartwheel and leave this room – which is what I feel like doing."

With that, Jarrett excuses himself to make a call to his wife in New Jersey before catching his flight. Our interview, I gather, is over.

"Look," says Brian Carr, who's been sitting by attentively the whole time, "you should come over to Hawaii for a couple of days. There, he'll have a chance to relax and talk with more ease. After all, you two should have more contact than this."

Three days later, standing in an open-air hotel lobby in rainy Lahaina, Maui, I tell myself that more contact with Keith Jarrett is the last thing I should have. I have been in the hotel for about an hour, trying to reach Brian Carr with no luck, so I decide instead to ring Jarrett's room and say hello. It's a mistake. Maybe I have interrupted some kind of cosmic process, but whatever, Jarrett is fit to be tied.

"I don't have a machine to protect me," he snaps. "I only have one person to act as a buffer between me and everyone else, and I don't feel like I should have to be disturbed by someone calling me instead of Brian. You're proving more and more that there's nothing to talk about– and that there's no meaning to the things that we talk about."

Does this mean, I ask myself, that I am unknowledgeable? Unenlightened? Then fine. I've followed this prima donna from New York to Hawaii and have only been able to get an hour's worth of conversation with him. I feel like packing my hopelessly limited Western point of view into my overnight bag, turning a cartwheel and leaving this island, because that seems to be what the moment dictates. In fact, I'm about ready to do just that when I get a call in the hotel lobby from Carr, asking me to meet him in a bar in downtown Lahaina.

Carr has been something of a counselor to me in my dealings with Jarrett, and the combination of his suasion and two Mai Tais cools down my indignation considerably. I agree to stay and wait for the spirit of spontaneity to move Jarrett to a more colloquial frame of mind. Finally, as luck would have it, in the middle of Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, I get a call that Keith will see me now.

Jarrett, clad in a black 'Avedis Zildjian Cymbals' T-shirt and jeans, greets me at the door of his penthouse with the same distracted air that he uses to greet his audiences. Without a word, he strolls over to the balcony, slides the glass partition open, then settles into an apricot-and-lime-tinted sofa. The moist air, washing in off the ocean waves a few yards away, seems to ease some of the tension in the room. Perched forward on the edge of his seat, Jarrett studies his thick, muscular fingers as they clinch one another in a vise grip.

"This interview has been hard for me," he says in a subdued tone, "because I don't feel like I'm able to shake the foundation of what words are supposed to do, which is the only way it could be my interview. I'm shaking foundations with music, so it only makes sense that I should be able to do that in other areas, too. The thing is, how can I express that there's no more to say – that all interviews are bullshit – and still allow you to do your job?"

He sinks back into the folds of the sofa, hooking his arms over its back like a bird in roost and occasionally fluttering a hand to underscore a point. "The sole thing I'm doing is growing more sensitive, and also more subject to destruction, so it has to be protected. There are things now that I can't be asked to do that maybe five years ago I would, not because I'm getting more eccentric or arrogant, but because the process requires more consciousness, more tuning. Everything gets fussier and purer... You know, it's funny, but death hovers around quite a bit at a solo concert."

"Death?"

"Yes, the possibility that I might not live through a concert because of how vulnerable I am to anything that happens. It's like my ego isn't strong enough to protect me at those moments. Sometimes I feel as if I'm putting my finger on an electric line and leaving it there."

I recall something Brian Carr had said when we first met: "It's quite an ordeal Keith goes through to do these solo concerts. There's always the possibility in some people's minds that this just might be the night he can't play, the night he remains blank. I think that possibility seems just as real to him as anyone else."

Maybe, but I have a hunch that Keith's ego is a whole lot tougher – and more cunning – than he may admit. It probably shapes and informs his music to a greater, more artful degree than any trancelike communion with higher forces ever could. The detractive part of that ego is its haughty manner with the real world and its capacity for indulgence. But that's probably okay. Certainly there's no correlation between an artist's talent or vision and his temperament, because a lot of real bastards have made some damn transcendent art.

I don't have to live with Jarrett's bullying, insolent manner, but I'm more than happy to live with his music. As distasteful and pretentious as he can be, he has created a vital and durable body of recordings that is going to serve as consummate documents of solo improvisation for generations.

After a few minutes the conversation turns to the Sun Bear Concerts. Keith is interested in my reactions to the set and whether I think it can find an audience. "If there's anything I wish would sell for the right reason," he says, "it's that set. I was involved in a very searching period of time when we recorded that, and the music itself was almost a release for the search. I've been thinking – Sun Bear is the only thing I've recorded that runs the gamut of human emotion. I think that if you got to know it well enough, you'd find it all in there someplace."

"Just where did the name Sun Bear come from, anyway?"

For the first time in our conversations, Keith looks genuinely shy, almost humble. "It's a very light-hearted reason," he replies with a disarming smile. "While we were on that tour I went to a zoo, where I saw a Sun Bear, a small bear that looks real gentle, like a house pet, and doesn't exist anywhere but in Japan. The next day I had lunch with one of the Japanese recording engineers, and I asked him about the bear because I remembered its face – a real friendly little face. And he said, 'Yeah, it's a beautiful bear, but if you get close enough, it knocks you about three blocks down the street.'

"I just liked that whole idea of an animal that looked like it would be nice to get close to, but if you did, it would shock your very conception of life."

It's my guess that if it ever came to blows between Keith Jarrett and a Sun Bear, that little bear might have to reexamine a few conceptions of its own.