My heart did little somersaults when I saw this concert announced, and did some more when I realized that I would actually be in Vienna on the relevant date. A Keith Jarrett concert is a rare event, a solo concert doubly so. Add in the fact that he would be playing at the Musikverein, the most acclaimed and legendary concert hall in Vienna but one which I had never previously visited, and you had an evening of unmissable proportions.
I’ve been preoccupied with the matter of Jarrett ever since I first heard The Köln Concert, a stunning piece of work and one that is fully deserving of all the accolades that have been heaped on it over the years. Subsequent solo recordings such as The Carnegie Hall Concert and (oh, the irony) Vienna Concert connected with me as no other piano music has ever done. Here was music that seemed to exist outside space and time, its every note an instance of shimmering beauty, the performance as a whole a vast depiction of Jarrett’s rare improvisational gifts.
Strangely enough, Jarrett seems to get very little attention from the Wire/Stone/Café Oto crowd, even though what he’s doing seems to me just as bold and creative as the more fêted, but for my money less talented, Cecil Taylor. The anti-Jarrett tendency is exemplified by fellow pianist Matthew Shipp’s article for The Talkhouse, in which Shipp argues that Jarrett “never sculpted a specific language system…it never [got] beyond the devices and matriculated into an actual language.” And Shipp goes further, accusing Jarrett of “pseudo jazz/new age meandering”, “vapid, watered-down impressionist devices”, “insipid vamps”…you get the idea. Shipp is entitled to his opinion, of course, but where he perceives a lack of systemic thought underpinning Jarrett’s music, I only hear a seductive openness and clarity, a purity of thought that insists that quiet and lyricism can be part of revolutionary improvisation as much as anything put out by the avant-garde.
A few years ago Jarrett played at the Konzerthaus with his trio that also included Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. Even though I was seeing Jarrett for the first time I found it an underwhelming experience, since the pianist was reining in his improv tendencies in favour of a snoozeworthy trot through a succession of jazz standards. No such reservations this time, as Jarrett sat, stood and crouched at the Steinway to play a series of concise, stilled improvisations that kept the audience in the raptly attentive frame of mind that he craves and, indeed, deserves.
The audience weren’t always as co-operative as this though, indeed the first moments of the evening gave rise to a Jarrett outburst of epic proportions. Before the pianist took to the stage, there was the expected announcement that photography during the concert was not permitted. Nevertheless, when Jarrett ambled onstage, he immediately saw someone take a photo and made straight for the microphone that is provided at all his concerts for the express purpose of bawling out the audience. Flapping his arms around like a demented octopus, Jarrett declared that he would not play a note until the perpetrator had been ejected from the building. He then stalked offstage and waited for events to take their course.
This was a smart move on Jarrett’s part, since he clearly knew that the identity of the photographer must have been known to his neighbours, who would be bound to exert pressure on him to do the decent thing and walk out. And sure enough, it wasn’t long before a bearded bloke a few rows behind me stood up, shouted “Unfassbar!” (“Incredible!”) and left the auditorium, never to darken its doors again. Having paid a lot of money for his ticket, which gave him precisely no music in return but did at least allow him to be in the same room as Keith Jarrett for a couple of minutes, the man may have regretted his decision to snatch a photo. Anyway, Jarrett soon returned to the stage, sat down at the piano and without a word fired up a piece which, in its angry, passionate mood, was clearly birthed in direct response to what had just happened.
The rest of the evening passed off without incident, except for a bizarre tirade at the beginning of the second half in which Jarrett ranted that “the perception that you can interfere with a process is exactly why our world is fucked,” thereby placing the hapless photographer alongside Trump, Isis and goodness knows what else in the pantheon of evil. It’s a matter of regret that Jarrett couldn’t find it within himself to address the audience in any positive way, rather than haranguing them for minor infractions and thereby lacing the whole concert with bad feeling. Aside from all the disruption, what was memorable about this remarkable evening was Jarrett’s creation of truly sublime music, in and of the moment it was played, so tender, precious and evanescent. The final encore of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was so radiantly lovely that you wished it would never end, so magically did it encompass within it all the joy and beauty of music.