Keith Jarrett, Royal Festival Hall, December 1st 2008
If there has been a common thread in much of the live music I’ve witnessed in 2008 – it’s been a strong sense of occasion, rarity and, along with that, financial expense. Credit Crunch be damned - Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder and, now, Keith Jarrett – they’ve all been event gigs with very high ticket prices (only Wonder failed to deliver value for money though – two out of three ain’t bad).
These days, Keith Jarrett is as much a self-proclaimed living legend as a widely respected pioneer. He performs infrequently and places heavy demands on his audience. Fortunately for him, they all adore him rather uncritically and are all too happy to be berated and chastised for using cameras or, heaven forbid, coughing. Coughing, apparently, is ‘a sign of boredom and inattention’. I suspect on this chilly evening in early December, it was more likely a sign of a common cold going around.
Even if Jarrett is basically right, his comments surely invite the response that it’s his job to sustain the audience’s attention. Now paid astronomical fees for these one-off performances, he’s probably earning twice as much in one night as many of these affluent punters earn all year (more like five times my annual salary). We have paid our money, and we surely deserve his respect as much as he deserves ours. No star is bigger than the audience that enables them to perform. This doesn’t mean that audiences should not be challenged and have their ingrained prejudices questioned – but that they should always be treated with respect. Also, younger musicians just beginning to build their audiences ultimately have to endure far worse – murmuring conversations during the performance, drunkenness, heckling. The odd cough is ultimately nothing much to worry about in comparison.
He can get away with this kind of contemptible and condescending behaviour because he is, even now, still the very best. Whilst the more hard-working Herbie Hancock has settled into a comfortable and repetitive routine, Jarrett still plays with a physicality and primal urgency that is basically sexual. All those grunts, moans and groans that his critics could never abide, whilst now perhaps less prevalent, are still there – accompanied by quite extraordinary physical gestures. He stands up when he’s especially impassioned, almost humping the piano. There really is as much physical ecstasy as cerebral effort involved in the process of making music for this man.
He has certainly stopped innovating now, performing exclusively with his Standards Trio and as a solo pianist. There have been no fresh contexts whatsoever for many years. Perhaps this is something to do with the effects of the chronic fatigue syndrome he endured for some time, or perhaps it’s inextricably linked with his very conscious rejection of the process of composition. Whatever the reason, this admittedly outstanding concert doesn’t offer much that’s new or unpredictable.
What it does achieve, with a generosity of spirit not evident in Jarrett’s irascible outward personality, is a very contrived but hugely satisfying summary of all the key strands of his long career. The pieces are short in comparison with his brilliant extended improvised concerts that are so revered (Koln, Paris, Bremen and Vienna especially) – but we still have the recordings for that. These concise expositions of his central concerns are expressive and move from the tightly controlled to the unrepentantly emotional.
Jarrett has said ‘the older a person gets, the more simplicity is profound – timing is the complex part of simplicity’. Much of this concert was an inspiring illustration of his point. He plays lush or impressionistic pieces with a very strong harmonic base and occasionally even indulges himself with a twelve bar blues. Yet it’s the way he develops these forms, with a language that is fluent both lyrically and rhythmically, that truly astonishes. He always imbues this flowing, spontaneous music with emotional depth, even at his most ponderous and reflective (as in the opening piece). The blues pieces he performs tonight border on barrelhouse boogie cliche at times (particularly the playful encore), but there’s always an intriguing ambiguity as to whether they are being played with a four to the bar or two to the bar feel, which creates palpable tension.
Elsewhere, there’s an example of his more atonal preoccupations, during which he also gets to exercise his considerable dexterity and four encores which offer concessions to other aspects of his work. There’s a rare outing for one of his most affecting compositions (‘My Song’) and a swooning, thoroughly charming take on ‘Over the Rainbow’. The audience are understandably elated and I’m left speechless with mirth at Jarrett’s pompous long bows and clasped hands act.
During this protracted ceremony I’m struck by the observation that even the very best, with all their ego and conviction, have some kind of vulnerability. After so many years at the highest level, Jarrett still needs this level of rapture and devotion from his followers. If it’s what he feeds on, perhaps this makes his snarly outbursts less objectionable.