Category Archives: ECM

For John Surman’s 72nd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article from 2009

For the 72nd birthday of the master saxophonist/woodwindist John Surman, here’s a feature piece that Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write about him in 2009, when he was gigging behind the ECM release, Brewster’s Rooster, with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette. (For an informative contemporaneous interview with Surman that takes a different angle, link to this on Larry Applebaum’s fine website.)


On the last day of August, John Surman, baritone saxophone in hand, stood stage left on Birdland’s bandstand, preparing to introduce his band. Surman had just blown the last note of the opening tune — an original called “Hilltop Dancer” — during the opening set of a week-long engagement. He launched the song with a lyrical, unaccompanied baritone intro, caressing every note. Then he goosed a subtle, open-ended solo from guitarist John Abercrombie with a roaring, hypnotic vamp before winding down the flow with a melodic variation of his initial statement

Surman looked across the stage at Abercrombie, shifted his glance to drummer Jack DeJohnette, and then gazed at bassist Drew Gress, standing to his left. Then he said, “The only person who actually needs an introduction here is me.”

Although Surman, an Oslo resident since 2004, was making his first-ever appearance as a leader in a New York City venue, this piece of self-deprecation was not precisely true. As the crowds that packed Birdland all week were well aware, Surman, 65 and well into his fifth decade in the music business, has long commanded deep respect amongst his peer group for his virtuosic command of the baritone and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet, and for the high quality of a discography that includes 17 leader dates for ECM since 1979. These include Surman’s meticulously crafted compositions and orchestrations that have framed his horns with string quintet, a brass ensemble, a free-boppish piano-bass-drums British quartet, various synth-driven soundscapes, and the lute-song music of Elizabethan composer John Dowland. Other recordings include a collaboration with singer Karin Krog, intuitive free improv projects with Paul Bley and Tony Oxley, and two documents of his ongoing electro-acoustic duo with DeJohnette, on which both trigger real-time grooves and textures within the flow.

The raison d’etre for this belated debut was Surman’s most recent release, Brewster’s Rooster (ECM), for which he convened DeJohnette, Abercrombie and Gress to interpret a suite of nine original tunes. Late afternoon on the following day, Surman sat in ECM’s well-appointed conference room in World Wide Plaza, a skyscraper six blocks north of Birdland, to discuss the disk.

“Manfred Eicher proposed it,” he said, crediting ECM’s founder as the ur-source of Brewster’s Rooster. He related that, during “a casual moment between takes” of his previous project, a duo with church organist Howard Moody issued with the prototypically ECM title Rain On the Window, Eicher said, “It’s about time you made a real jazz recording. We should do it in New York. What would you like to do?”

In Surman’s view, “real jazz recording” meant recording with a rhythm section, something he hadn’t done since 1993, when he made Stranger Than Fiction with his British quartet, although such work is a regular component of his professional life. “I can only put out a limited number of CDs,” he said, “and I want them to be specific, personal statements that reflect what I’m into at a particular time or to document a corpus of music I’ve written.”

That those “specific personal statements” primarily reference European art and vernacular music is in keeping with the fact that more than 95 per cent of Surman’s massive sessionography, which dates to 1965, has transpired either in Britain or on the European continent. “I stayed where the work was,” he said. He noted that in 1973 he had “followed in the footsteps” of fellow Englishmen Dave Holland and John McLaughlin with a six-month stint in Woodstock, New York. “The thought had crossed my mind that maybe it was important to be over here. But the fact was that, as John Abercrombie often says, ‘I’m a commuter; I live in America, but I work in Europe.’”

“It’s easier for an American musician to come to Europe, because of the tour support subsidized by European taxpayers,” Surman said. “Coming here was, ‘Yeah, could do it,’ but after calculating all the costs — the airfare and fees and all — somehow we never got around to it. It’s been even more difficult since 2001. I’ve done some duo things here with Jack, but then it’s the case of Jack DeJohnette and John who? If you’re not here and you’re not known, then club owners say, ‘Who is this guy?’”


Brewster’s Rooster contains no end of admirable qualities, not least the opportunity to hear a suite of Surman’s well-proportioned tunes interpreted by a unit of virtuosos who enjoy, as DeJohnette puts it, “playing what we don’t fuckin’ know!”

“We lay in wait for those moments when one thing sets off another,” said DeJohnette, who is Surman’s brother-in-law. (Surman’s son, Ben, is married to DeJohnette’s daughter, Minya.) He and Abercrombie had joined the conversation as afternoon turned to early evening. “That seems to happen a lot in the improvisation, and that makes it fun. Music has seriousness, but the main thing is, it should be fun.”

Surman chimed in. “It would be important to point out that we worked together in a radio show when I lived in Woodstock.

Abercrombie picked up the story. “It was called ‘Harry Lovett: Man Without a Country.’ There were several episodes. We would take these different parts.” Abercrombie switched into a nasal, Truman Capote voice. “My part in it was Donald Dastardly, and I was evil.”

“I was the Reverend Right Time,” DeJohnette remarked, adding that he and Surman shared a deep affection for The Goon Show. Surman raised his voice to a falsetto. “Ah, he’s falling into the water now!!” The brothers-in-law responded in unison, “Who-oooaaa…”

“We so much bonded over the humor,” Surman stated. “I immediately thought of each of them when Manfred brought this up, but I never thought that we would actually do gigs. The idea was to have a day’s rehearsal, and record, so I looked for material open enough that everyone could be comfortable. There was no intention to pretend that it was a hot, tight band. In fact, the very looseness was the joy of doing it. That’s a statement, because this improvisational element, the fact that the music is shifting and mercurial, is important to me. I am not ithati interested in putting together a tight quartet playing tight stuff, because that’s what I do when I write for strings.

“What’s important in improvisation is give-and-take, to know your moment to get out there and pull the cart along or, when you hear someone else emerging with something, to step back and let that go through. That interests me more than chops, which result out of necessity. You’ve got to play high on a baritone. Once you get down in the lower-middle register, it’s hard to cut through. So sometimes, just to say ‘Yeah!’ as a baritone player, I’ve got to get up there and scream. That’s probably why I play the soprano, so I can soar above a lot of it.”

The improvised context is a familiar point of contact for Surman and DeJohnette, who first recorded together on guitarist Mick Goodrick’s 1976 ECM date, In Pas(s)ing. By DeJohnette’s account, they first met in August 1968, while DeJohnette was in London with Bill Evans for a one-month engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, the top-shelf club where, as Dave Holland said in a separate conversation, “young musicians could pretty much play all day and all night.” Holland was playing bass with the opening act, singer Elaine Delmar, whose accompanying trio also comprised pianist Pat Smythe and drummer John Marshall.

“I was sitting in with them with my melodica every night,” DeJohnette recalled. “I told Marshall and Pat to get some of their guys to come down and jam. So the word went around, ‘Jack DeJohnette wants to play some jams.’ At that time, a lot of the American musicians who came over were not interested in hooking up with the British musicians. That’s where I met John and Dave, and some of the other great talent there.

By 1968, Surman was one of London’s busiest jazzmen, paying the rent as a professional journeyman in high-level trad, blues, hard bop, and Calypso settings. He also played in John McLaughlin’s pre-Mahavishnu Indo-jazz-rock hybrids, as well as with a diverse set of big bands and orchestras. Toward the fulfillment of his own creative muse, Surman led a post-bop octet, a plugged-in quartet with pianist John Taylor and Marshall, an open-form trio with Holland and drummer Alan Jackson, and a subsequent one with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, both American expats..

“My phone rang one day, perhaps in 1965, and it was John, asking me to sub that night for Harry Miller, a bass player he often worked with,” Holland recalled. “Before we went on, he gave me some music to look at. On the first tune, he’d written the theme, and at the end it just said ‘open.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, open?’ John said, ‘We’re going to play whatever you want after we play this theme. Play whatever you hear.’ It was the very first time I’d played in an open-form setting. A whole new world opened up.

“John and I became very close friends,” Holland continued. “We’d stay up all hours listening to music, checking out new records, talking about developments. We were all listening to Coltrane’s music and Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Ornette and Cecil Taylor — all these influences were coalescing. A lot of mixtures of music were occurring in London then, and I had a chance to work in many situations with John. I think I wrote my very first song for that trio with John and Alan, who played good time and swung but also could open up the music and take it in new directions. A lot of what we did was very open-ended and exploratory, and we’d land on different fields and grooves and tonalities. For me, it was a precursor to the Sam Rivers trio that I was in during the ’70s.”

Speaking of the British music scene in the ’60s, Surman noted, “Part of the excitement was a general feeling of ‘It all works. Whatever suits you, bring it on.’ I don’t think it was just confined to the U.K., but the U.K. certainly was a hotbed. It was a melting pot. The South Africans and guys from the West Indies were there. A huge blues interest was coming up through blues musician Alexis Korner; it was all the buzz because Clapton and the Stones were emerging and going out — although they were playing closer to copies of the blues stuff. European musicians had inhibitions about jazz, like, ‘Well, it’s a beret,’ ‘It’s a goatee beard,’ ‘We’ll never be as good as the Yanks at doing that.’ Suddenly it was like, ‘Well, hang on. All this stuff works, doesn’t it?’ Then people stopped worrying and got on with it. Americans like Barre and Stu passed through, and said, ‘That sounds good to me; I’ll have a piece of that.’ Miles and Tony Williams were saying, ‘Hey, I like that bass player.’ Suddenly, a lot of confidence. We all thought, ‘We can’t be so bad, then. We have something to offer.’”

Over the ensuing decade, Surman, a son of Devonshire, actualized this proposition by drawing upon his English heritage, incorporating folk songs and also vocabulary contained in the choral music he’d sung as a boy soprano. Synthesizer first appears in his work in 1972 (“I bought one as soon as I could afford to”), after which he increasingly immersed himself in electronic music, using synth to dialogue with British saxophonists Alan Skidmore and Mike Osborne in the group S.O.S., and weaving sonic tapestries for a Parisian dance company between 1973 and 1978. By 1979, when Surman debuted for ECM, he had morphed from the conventions of free jazz and fusion toward a more consonant harmonic context.

“During those early years, I was learning to play,” he recalled. “Technique was developing, ideas were forming and brick walls were being run into. ‘What am I playing? I’d like to play like Sonny, but it’s not like that. Is something wrong?’ Then suddenly, “No. That’s actually me. That’s what I sound like. Well, you’re going to have to live with it. Just carry on.’

“When I was starting out with this traditional-jazz business, I had a go at the trumpet, the trombone, the banjo. Anything that played, I wanted to know how to play it. So here came the synthesizer, this other sound source that made very interesting noises. I wanted to get a piece of that.”

However far-flung his investigations, Surman “never experienced the feeling that I want a purely European sound,” in contrast to the aesthetic evolution of such European contemporaries as Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann. “For me, finding jazz opened the door to music-making, so I always think of myself as a jazz musician.” Surman traced this attitude not only to his collegial partnerships with American jazz musicians, but also to his early fascination with Duke Ellington’s contrapuntal section writing — he channels baritone-sax icon Harry Carney on Brewster’s Rooster with a gorgeous “Chelsea Bridge” — and Ellington’s emphasis on the idiosyncrasies of each of his musicians. He also notes that his apprentice years coincided with the migration to Europe of such individualistic saxmen as Don Byas, Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin, all of whom he witnessed close-up in London.

“You could recognize all of these guys right away — even the ones who weren’t so well-known, like Booker Ervin,” he said. “This individuality of sound was one of great joys for me of jazz music, and that feeling of wanting to find one’s own sound—to not be afraid to be different—was important to me.”

In all the various idioms that he renders, Surman actualizes this notion both in his penchant for melodic expression and his ability to emulate the quality of the human voice on each of his horns. “That’s me, the man with the melodies,” he said ruefully. “Sometimes I wish I could do more. When I heard Michael Brecker play as he did, inside the harmony, I’d think, ‘Christ, I wish I could do that.’ But that’s not what’s happening.”

“John gets such a beautiful sound on all his instruments,” Abercrombie said. “He plays soprano so differently than other people.”

“It’s a full-bodied sound,” DeJohnette added. “He can play adventurously and rhythmically, but there’s always a song. It comes from his heart. He’s got the head, too, but it always communicates. It makes me feel great. There’s also his ability to listen. That’s what we have in common, an ability to listen, which keeps us from getting stuck in some of the clichéd kinds of playing.”

To avoid cliché, of course, is the default aesthetic of this cohort. “I don’t think any of us have unidirectional feelings about music,” Surman noted. “We’re dabblers. We’ve had a bit of a fool-around here, had a go at that, looked at this. John’s group is by no means your typical jazz quartet, and goodness knows what Jack is going to be doing next. We share a curiosity about the different paths music can take.”

Which raised the question of whether John Surman’s new quartet might have legs.

His mates left the door open. “That depends on what everyone is doing,” DeJohnette said. “But we’d be happy to do it, sure.”

“I like the idea of cycling back and doing something organic with musicians you’ve played with before,” Abercrombie responded. “I’ve tried to keep all my own groups going, at least the current ones. Maybe 18 months down the line, John gets in touch with us again. ‘Want to do volume two? Here are some ideas.’ Maybe the newer one would be more free music, or maybe contributions from all of us.”

Embarrassed, Surman lowered his head. “I haven’t even asked them if they want to do it ever again,” he said. “But all of us are interested in putting ourselves in different contexts. You’re forced to come up with something.” He laughed. “What else can you do when you’re on the bandstand with those guys?”

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For John Abercrombie’s 71st Birthday, An Interview From 2012

In recognition of guitarist John Abercrombie’s 71st birthday, here’s an early edit of an interview that I conducted with him in 2012 for a Jazziz article in the Q&A format, framed around the release of his ECM CD Without A Song.  Also of interest might be this earlier post of an uncut Blindfold Test that I conducted with Abercrombie for DownBeat in 2001.


For most of his half-century career as a professional improviser, John Abercrombie has been known, as he puts it, for “not playing jazz in its purest sense.” Indeed, the 68-year-old guitarist has presented predominantly original music during his 37 years as an ECM artist, most recently on four ambitious CDs in the ’00s by a working quartet on which he shares the front line with polymath violinist Mark Feldman. But on his 2012 ECM release, Within a Song, Abercrombie switches gears with a suite of covers and re-imagined standards that honor formative influences Sonny Rollins, Jim Hall, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Art Farmer. Master partners Joe Lovano (playing only tenor saxophone), bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron keep the flow modern and sustain a relaxed but unrelenting attitude of swing.

“It’s a throwback to a pure form of jazz that stopped in the ’60s, when so many influences came in that changed the music forever,” Abercrombie says. He didn’t need to add that he himself has been a game-changer, an instantly recognizable voice among peers and cognoscenti, a key figure in developing a guitar language that could assimilate the various streams that flooded the jazz playing field during the ’70s. He continues to push the envelope in multiple contexts — among them an organ trio with Nussbaum and Gary Versace; ongoing duo connections with pianists Marc Copland and Andy Laverne; and forthcoming work with Gateway, a collective trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette that has convened sporadically since 1975, always with spectacular results.

Midway through August, Abercrombie supported Within A Song with a week at Birdland, convening Lovano, Gress, and drummer Adam Nussbaum for the occasion. A few hours before taking the stage on night three, dressed in the blue workshirt and black jeans that were his evening’s attire, he spoke to Jazziz in the midtown club’s narrow dressing room.

TP: After a decade of writing original music for a working band, what makes this a propitious time to do what might be called an “audio-biography”?

JA: About five years ago, I presented to [ECM producer] Manfred Eicher the idea of a tribute to the Art Farmer Quartet of the ‘60s, which had Jim Hall, Steve Swallow when he still played upright bass, and a couple of drummers, including Pete LaRoca. Manfred thought the idea was fantastic, but things didn’t work out, and I put the whole thing on the shelf. A few years later, I Manfred emailed, asking if I’d ever thought about doing a tribute to someone, like Steve Kuhn had done on his Mostly Coltrane record for ECM with Lovano and Joey. This is very unlike Manfred, who has never been into tribute recordings. I thought about it, and presented the idea of doing something on a period of music, which he liked. If any person permeates the CD as an influence, it’s Jim Hall—he played with Sonny on “Without A Song” and “Where Are You,” with Art Farmer on “Some Time Ago,” and with Bill Evans on “Interplay.”

TP: In recent years, you’ve standards records with specially convened groups.

JA: I’ve done plenty of that kind of playing, but this was more specific. The Bridge just popped up at me. I play that record for my students in the composition class I teach. I tell them that it’s a composition—the solos are so formed, so thematic and developed. I say, “You couldn’t have written this; nobody could have written the way they improvised.” Improvising is composition, you know.

I first heard it in a record store when I was a kid, about 18 years old. Those were the days when the guy in the front of the store would play you a track, and he put on the first tune, which is “Without A Song.” I guess epiphany is only word for something that strikes you so strong. I didn’t know musically what was happening, but it sounded so perfect. I said, “I must know what this is and this is really important to me.” That was the strongest reaction I ever had to a piece of music—although Bill Evans always got to me, and I wore out Kind of Blue.

TP: Apart from your leader records for ECM, you’ve recorded as a sideman with so many artists—Enrico Rava, Dave Liebman, Colin Walcott, Ralph Towner, Kenny Wheeler, Barre Phillips, Charles Lloyd. Your sound—or different sounds at different stages—is very identified with ECM’s sonic image.

JA: Different sounds at different stages for sure. I hear some older things, and I don’t even know how I did them—a speedier, more technical kind of playing, as opposed to now. It sounds hard, a bit like “Guitar Hero” stuff. About 15 years ago, I stopped playing with a plectrum, which slowed me down somewhat. You can’t articulate as quickly with the thumb as you can with a pick, which gives you the attack and lets you jump around a lot quicker. I’d always fooled around with playing with my thumb, and I did it on a gig once with Kenny Wheeler. I liked the way it sounded, so I started to get it in the act more, switching between the thumb and the pick. Then I realized I should make a decision because the two sounds are so different, and it sounds too schizophrenic when you switch in mid-solo. Overall, I like the thumb for the warmth of the sound, and the fact that my actual flesh is on the string without a piece of plastic in between.

TP: How did you connect with Manfred Eicher?

JA: In 1970, my girlfriend and I moved from Boston to a little apartment on East 4th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. I started to meet people, and got a lot of calls to do little record dates. Enrico Rava had moved here, and in 1973, during a brief tour of Italy, we did a record called Katchapari. Somewhere along the line, Manfred heard it. We finally met through Ralph Towner—Manfred would bring a reel-to-reel tape to his apartment on Perry Street and say, “This is the new Eberhard Weber record, called Colors of Chloe.” “Who’s Eberhard Weber?” “Listen.” Then he’d put the tape on, and I’d hear orchestral music by a guy who had overdubbed all these cellos. I flipped out, because everything was so beautiful. Manfred told me he’d heard Katchapari and liked what I did. He asked, “Would you like to record for ECM?” I said that I would, but I didn’t have any original music. Manfred said, “Well, keep it in mind.” He kept hounding me.

I decided to go back to the thing I was most comfortable with. After Berklee, I worked a few years with Johnny Hammond Smith, who I made my first record with. Jan Hammer and I had been roommates in Boston, and I knew he could play anything on organ, and had the synthesizer. He played in a strip joint in Boston, and I’d run down and sit in with him before the strippers came on. I’d recently met Jack DeJohnette and was starting to play in some of his bands. I had a little cassette player with two little speakers. One day I started noodling, and came up with a couple of tunes.

TP: Were you putting this repertoire together with the idea that it was suiting the ECM sound?

JA: No. It was totally where I was at. I thought the record might have more of an organ trio feel, but I should have realized that Jan and Jack weren’t going to sound like Jack McDuff and Joe Dukes on drums. So whole record had a very different feel for the time, but it had nothing to do with what I thought ECM wanted—because I didn’t even really know what they wanted. I was very influenced by some things John McLaughlin had done with Mahavishnu years before, and with Miles on things like In A Silent Way. I wasn’t even sure Manfred would like it, but I took my chance. He loved all of it, the raucous stuff and the ballads. It was a magical recording.

TP: By this point, you were about 30, with a decade as an apprentice under your belt—the organ trios, Dreams, Chico Hamilton, Gato Barbieri, Rava, Billy Cobham. Can you describe your path to the sensibility you articulated on Timeless?

JA: When I went to Berklee, there was no Jazz-Rock. The two hadn’t merged yet. If you played a Rock or rhythm-and-blues gig, you probably were doing it for the money. Not that it wasn’t fun, but it was more like, oh, it’s a gig with a singer and they’re going to play some tune by Marvin Gaye or “Stormy Monday.” In Boston, I joined a rhythm-and-blues band called the Danny Wright Orchestra, with a singer named Erroll McDonald who sang Ray Charles tunes, but we also played jazz, like an arrangement of a Tadd Dameron tune. Danny introduced me to Johnny. I auditioned for him at this really funky club in Boston, and he liked me enough to give gave me the gig. I really was a jazz player at that period. I wasn’t a GOOD jazz player, but that’s all I played. I was actually making my living with Johnny on the chitlin’ circuit, playing standards and blues and some little cover tunes with guitar, organ and drums, and sometimes Houston Person playing tenor.

Everything was in upheaval then. People were taking acid. There was the Vietnam war and civil rights. Everybody was listening to Jimi Hendrix and all this Rock. The organ trio stuff was still my meat and potatoes, but I also liked some of the sounds I was hearing. So I got myself a distortion pedal (we used to call them fuzz tones) and a wah-wah pedal, moved to New York, and said, “Ok, I’m here—plug me in.” I went along with the times. I joined Dreams, with Randy and Mike Brecker and Billy Cobham and Barry Rogers, and they weren’t playing Jazz-jazz. They were playing Jazz-Rock, we used to call it.

After I met Rava, and started to go to Europe, and met Manfred, I started to get thrown in with people who played what they called Free Jazz, or very open kind of music. I didn’t have a lot of role models to play what was being asked of me. McLaughlin had been doing it early on, Coryell and other people had been experimenting, and and there were some wilder people like Sonny Sharrock and Pete Cosey, but there wasn’t a real language set up. So I had to figure things for myself. I grabbed onto every device I had in my arsenal—my knowledge of harmony and the guitar, the few little fuzztones or pieces of gear that I used at the time—and tried to fit in. When I’d play with Jack and Dave Holland, or some other players, I responded to what I was hearing around me, and let the sound of it all teach me what I was supposed to do. Luckily, my instincts were good, and all those years as an apprentice probably helped. My main objective was always to fit into situations, not so concerned about what my music was going to be like or if I had a specific voice. It was “How can I make this work?

TP: You’ve recorded with a number of bands for ECM—the quartet with Richie Beirach, George Mraz and Peter Donald; the trio with Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine; the organ trio with Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum; more recently your quartet with Mark Feldman and Joey Baron, and a couple of bass players; also Gateway, with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. To what degree is a band a book of music, and to what degree is it a collection of personalities?

JA: That’s a good question. It’s more than just a book of music, for sure, but it’s also about what whatever repertoire you’re playing, whether someone else’s as with new band or all original music. A band needs to have an identity. Of course, the personalities who are playing it will give it what it needs. Sometimes cooperative bands where everyone writes a song don’t work as well because people’s ideas are so vastly different.

My first band was with Richie, George, and Peter Donald. George was one of my roommates in Boston. Peter lived in Cambridge, and we did jam sessions and gigs. I met Beirach in New York. We did Dave Liebman’s record, Sweet Hand, and there was a tune, “Dr. Faustus,” that had an open section for me to just go nuts. Every time I’d play a phrase and end up on a note, Beirach would always play the perfect chord underneath me. I said, “How do you this?” He said, “Man, I have perfect pitch.” The quartet was a harmonic band, very architecturally sound, almost like a Frank Lloyd Wright building. It was a wonderful band to play in, but I was looking for something more open, which I got with Marc and Peter. With them, I got immersed in the guitar synthesizer, which some people hated, but it inspired me to write a lot of different kinds of tunes. The end came at Catalina’s in Los Angeles. Back in the dressing room, Erskine said to me, “Are we not men? Do we really need all this other stuff to play music with?” I said, “I agree. Screw this synthesizer stuff. I’m going to whittle down my gear.” I kept one little box that did some sounds, and the rest of it was just guitar. No I’m synth-free. But if I speak to you in five years, I may want to get back into something like that. It keeps you interested. Sometimes just playing the guitar when there’s no one to play off of isn’t that interesting. With the synthesizer you could imagine you were a flutist or violinist or trumpet player, and you might phrase differently, although the sounds were synthetic, never like real instruments.

TP: Has Manfred Eicher ever discouraged you from going in a particular direction?

JA: I had a band when I was living in San Francisco that was mostly L.A.-based. You couldn’t ask for better musicians. I spent a lot of time writing music for them—the only way I can describe it is that it had a kind of optimistic, brighter sound, a slightly more poppish feel. I sent a tape to Manfred and anxiously awaited his response. When he finally called, he said, “John, do you really want to go in this younger direction?” Meaning the music sounded kind of young. More Pat Metheny-influenced. Maybe I was being influenced by hearing Pat.

TP: Might all these projects have existed had you not had a consistent label over all these years?

JA: Probably not, no.

TP: I don’t know whether you’ll accept the idea, but let’s go by the supposition that each of these different bands fits in one way or another into the prevailing currents or zeitgeist, whatever you want to call it, of the time in which they were made.

JA: Ok.

TP: How does this band, this approach fit into what’s going on now?

JA: If you look at everything else that’s going on around, you probably don’t see a lot of it. Of course, lots of people are still playing standard tunes. But the direction of the younger musicians has very little to do with this. They’re doing original compositions, which are harmonically much different than these kind of tunes, and they seem to be experimenting with a lot of very different meters. I hate to use the word “nostalgia,” because I don’t look at it that way, but this kind of straight-up jazz album doesn’t really fit with what’s going on in a lot of ways. You could look at the last few things I did with Mark Feldman and that group, which I consider to be modern jazz, but people might say think it sounds more like chamber music or classical music because of the violin. and the sound of it.

Manfred actually sent me an email not long ago about how much he liked the record, something like, “I think this recording is really needed at this time.” I’m trying to find the right word for it. It’s a tribute to part of the history of jazz. It’s an interpretation. It’s paying homage. It’s coming full circle for sure, starting this way and then going off in all these different places, and then coming back and saying, “well, this really is home, in a way.” Who says you can never go home again? Thomas Wolfe? But in a way, you do go home, though home looks different. You don’t want to go back to the same little room you were in with the pennants on the wall and your mother yelling at you to get up, it’s time for breakfast, you’ve got to get to school, and stop that noise, and get out of the bathroom; let someone else in there once in awhile—we only had one bathroom in the house. But this is a way of going to the musical home.

TP: Do you have any sense of your impact or position in the timeline of guitar playing in this idiom? You’re older than Metheny or Mike Stern or Bill Frisell or John Scofield, who are people you tend to get lumped with, and younger than Grant Green or Jim Hall or Wes Montgomery. So if we’re to look at you in a third-person way, are you a transitional figure?

JA: I’ve thought about it, but I don’t really give it much thought. I’m like a guitar early baby boomer. I was born in ‘44, which means that instead of growing up listening to the Beatles, I grew up listening to Bill Haley and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. The timeframe when you grow up makes an impact on you. I had first-hand exposure to Monk and Coltrane and Sonny and Miles, a little more direct connection to that than the guys you mentioned. Then, too, I was around in the late ‘60s, when everything exploded—everybody wearing Indian shirts and smoking hash and trying to play different kinds of music. I’m part of the generation that was like, “We don’t want to play bebop; let’s get psychedelic; let’s tune in, drop out.” These other guys grew up after that. So maybe I am some sort of transitional object!

I do know that I opened doors when I started playing this more open-ended stuff in the ‘70s. No other guitar player had really been doing it as visibly as I did, when I was traveling around the world. Sonny Sharrock and Pete Cosey were a little more out than I was. I was playing free with a lot of structural knowledge. I’d come up playing standard tunes and blues, so I knew all these forms. I wasn’t coming out of a vacuum. I had all this jazz background, and then I was thrown into all of this. Can you make music out of this? Can you survive in this oddball environment where there’s no guidelines? I like to think that guitar players might have thought, “wow, that’s pretty free, but it doesn’t sound out there completely; it sounds like it’s coming from someplace.” That’s always been what I like to do. When I play, I kind of listen to myself as if I’m trying to develop something. In a band like this, my playing is a little more inside, for the most part, because of the structures of the pieces. But sometimes when I play with other bands, like Feldman, we get into complete zones of abstraction that can go on for quite a while. I’m very comfortable in that, and I like to experience that.

So I’m a little more multi-kulti in a sense. But as I get older, this full circle thing becomes kind of very important to me. I’ve been through all these weird stages of playing jazz-rock, playing free, trying to incorporate Indian and ethnic influences in the music, using synthesizers. But at the same time I’m still playing “Stella By Starlight.” It’s odd. And I still like to do all this stuff—except for the synthesizers.


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For Tomasz Stanko’s 73rd Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2008

Polish trumpet master and first-class composer Tomasz Stanko turns 73 today. To mark the occasion, here’s a “director’s cut” of a DownBeat feature  I was given the opportunity to write about him in 2008.

* * *

In 1993, four years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, Poland’s most prominent jazz musician, met drummer Michal Miskiewicz, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and pianist Marcin Wasilewski, teenagers who had recently convened as Simple Acoustic Trio. Recently signed with ECM, Stanko was working the international circuit with a quartet of European all-stars—pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Tony Oxley. For local gigs, though, he was looking to hire less expensive, Polish musicians.

“I didn’t have a drummer,” Stanko said in May on a raw, rainy New York afternoon that evoked springtime in Warsaw. Trim at 66, a black beret covering his shaved head, circular glasses framing his gaunt, goateed oval face, he looked like a character from the pen-and-ink illustrations the Polish writer Bruno Schultz created for his short stories of the 1930s. Stanko wore a well-tailored jacket with a brown-check, pressed blue jeans and buffed brown-leather shoes. He spoke precise, thickly accented English, with idiosyncratic turns of phrase.

“Someone told me about this young drummer, the son of Henryk Miskiewicz, a good, swinging mainstream saxophone player,” he continued. “I figured he’d have a good groove, and accepted the recommendation. Then I took a risk and brought his bass player, Slawomir, also a young guy. We had a gig in some small city in the south of Poland. I arrived just an hour or two before, we rehearsed for a few minutes, then played. They were fast, like professional people—maybe don’t know too much, but played good. Good swinging. I decided to keep them. Marcin was pushing them to recommend him to me, and a few months later I took him, too.

“Bobo and Tony are two of the best European musicians, but they were also good! Only different. Fresh. Their education is different. For example, for Michal it is completely natural to have in mind Tony Williams, Jo Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and Jack DeJohnette—everybody combined together. They know this from history. Not like me, step after step.”

Fifteen years later, Stanko and his quartet, an international draw since the 2001 release of The Soul Of Things, the first of their three ECM albums, were involved in another transition. Joined by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper the previous evening at the Museum of Modern Art, they’d performed repertoire by Polish pianist Krzysztof Komeda (1931–’69) in conjunction with a summer series that included films that Komeda scored during the ’60s for the Polish filmmakers Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski.

That evening at Birdland, the trio, now headlined by Wasilewski, launched a U.S. tour in support of January, its second ECM release, before embarking on the 2008 summer festival circuit. All on the flip side of 30, after seven years of performing at least 100 concerts a year with Stanko, they were preparing to spread their wings, leave the nest and begin their own career. Himself looking to the next step, Stanko, on several occasions, interrupted the conversation to field several calls from a broker about a prospective Manhattan apartment.
Oriented by a single 45-minute soundcheck, Harper played with flair and passion throughout the concert, showing an affinity for Komeda’s Strayhorn-esque “Ballad For Bernt.” “I like that I engaged with Billy,” Stanko said. “I wanted a sax player in Komeda’s style, with the open mind to play free, but sounds like mainstream—modal—what now is typical.”

Such ideas were anything but typical 45 years ago, when, at Michal Urbaniak’s recommendation, Komeda, like Stanko a resident of Cracow, called the 22-year-old trumpeter—then deploying the freedom principle á là Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry in a combo called the Jazz Darings—to join his band.

“Komeda was the top Polish musician, and his record from Knife In The Water was absolutely fantastic,” Stanko said. “I loved this music, and it was a dream to play with him. People don’t speak too much about it, but it was modern music for this time. He liked the same things as me—simplicity, lyricism and combining two things together, like predisposition to the tradition, but also open mind for free modern things.”

For sonic evidence of how in-the-zeitgeist Komeda’s modal, polytonal compositions were, consult two Youtube clips of his 1967 quartet, or, if you can find it, his 1965 quintet album Astigmatic, which can be mentioned in the same conversation with contemporaneous Blue Note dates of similar sensibility by Cherry, Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers. Stanko navigates the inside-out pathways in his improvisations, deploying the multihued, vocalized, tragicomic sonic personality that remains his trademark. In 1997, at the instigation of ECM head Manfred Eicher, he reconstructed a suite of Komeda pieces on the CD Kattorna.

“Komeda’s pieces, especially from the last period, do not get older,” Stanko said.

He referred to “Requiem,” which Komeda wrote in 1967 in response to the death of John Coltrane, and which Stanko interpreted on his 1997 Komeda celebration, Litania: The Music Of Krzysztof Komeda.

“This is not exactly jazz composition,” Stanko said. “Everything is written—order of solos, these bridges. But still, it is jazz composition. With whomever I play, it sounds different. His compositions live their own lives, perfect no matter how often evaluated. Three notes only, sometimes. One small motif, and this ballad inside. A simple bridge, but it gives you a lot of power. This is what best jazz compositions have—power inside. They have their own logic, like computer program. He cared for every detail, even a half-note higher or lower.”

In Stanko’s view, Komeda developed certain characteristic syntax and themes from fulfilling the narrative imperatives of the plays and films he scored. Indeed, although he denies any programmatic intent, Stanko’s own investigations have the quality of an imaginary soundtrack.

“Many times, this angularity that I liked in Komeda’s music comes from movies,” Stanko said. “Sometimes motifs have to be longer, sometimes shorter. Sometimes he’d have to give more bars to make longer motif. Then he finds this original composer style. To me, though, music is abstraction. This abstraction means not sad, not happy. It’s music. This is the color of this art.”

However Stanko conceptualizes musical flow, his ideas gestated after the death of Stalin in Soviet Bloc Poland, where musicians and filmmakers were granted a degree of mobility and freedom of expression unavailable to the public at large. He was born to a family whose cultural mores might serve as a paradigm of the pre-war intelligentsia—his father was a judge who doubled as a professional violinist, while his mother was a librarian in a conservatory. The teenage Stanko soaked up Italian neo-realist cinema (“all the Fellini”), existential novels and tracts (Kafka, Schultz, Sartre), and regarded painters like Modigliani, Kandinsky and Klee as gurus. He decided on trumpet after seeing Dave Brubeck play in Cracow in 1957, and listened to Miles Davis (“I liked that he don’t play too much, his control of the band, the contrast between him and sax players”), Don Ellis (“he was playing and starring in Poland”), Booker Little with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln (“he was my favorite because of legatos—I love legatos”), Cherry with Coleman, and Bill Dixon with Cecil Taylor.

“I formed through art, not only through jazz,” Stanko said. “I have always predisposition for novelty, for avant-garde, something new, and I like artist-desperadoes. Because in this life, you get illumination, like Charlie Parker. Jazz musicians have this illumination. Illumination built this modern music. For example, if I was listening to Coltrane at Village Vanguard, ‘Chasin’ The Trane,’ I didn’t know it was blues. For many months, I assumed that this was free. Then I recognized, ‘This is only the blues.’ Instinct dictated to us.

“The filmmakers were influenced by jazz—especially Polanski. Jazz musicians have a big position in Poland at this time throughout the society. Like, biggest. Because we can travel. We were often in Paris. Komeda was a couple of times in Copenhagen, because we had concerts. I had a tailor, and paid a lot of money for clothes. I want to feel fashionable, good-looking, attract the ladies. Anyway, our position was high. Probably these Communist Party people were a little bit snobby for these artists. Maybe the children was into more of these different people. Probably they don’t feel danger from music, from jazz. Jazz for them was something like the same for us, a synonym of freedom.”


“In the beginning, we were focused on America, on American playing, because the Communist time had passed away,” said Wasilewski, the day after the trio that now carries his name played a sold-out set at Birdland.

“We grabbed from ECM recordings from the ’70s, like Jack DeJohnette and Jon Christensen with Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek,” Miskiewicz said. “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Tony Williams, as well as Kenny Garrett, Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes From The Underground, the Branford Marsalis Quartet.”

“When I was 5 or 6, I was competing with my cousin, because we had only one Walkman,” Wasilewski said. “I heard tapes like Michael Brecker or Pat Metheny, volumes one and two of Keith Jarrett Standards Live, some of Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions. Good ECM records. I didn’t know I was listening to great music.”

Wasilewski sat between his partners at a conference table in a meeting room in ECM’s Midtown Manhattan offices. Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz were 5 when the shipyard workers of Gdansk began the nationwide strike that would lead to the development of Solidarity, the first independent labor union to exist in the Soviet Bloc. When the Berlin Wall came down, they were 14.

“What happened in Poland in the ’60s did not influence us much,” said Miskiewicz, two years their junior.

“At the same time, our generation had to respect what was before—for older musicians,” Wasilewski said. “Then in the ’90s, it became a DJ’s world, and it’s now popular to sample and mix music from the Polish Jazz label from the ’60s. This generation realized that the ’60s were important.”

In February 1995, one year after they joined Stanko, before any of them had reached 20, the Simple Acoustic Trio recorded Komeda (Gowi), a mature recital of eight Komeda tracks. Compared to now, Wasilewski’s lines have more notes, the dialogue is more florid and the transitions are less sophisticated, but the group is recognizable. In contrast to the prevailing European-ethos of eschewing blues and swing toward the end of constructing an individual tonal identity from local vernaculars, these musicians followed Stanko’s example on Komeda’s Astigmatic, engaging and responding to the building blocks of American post-bop modern jazz—McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Jarrett—on its own terms, embracing an inclusive playing field.

“It seemed like an obvious thing to do,” Wasilewski said of the repertoire. “We were listening to Komeda’s quintet recording with Tomasz. He was in the air. An older saxophone player gave us music sheets with Komeda’s compositions in a workshop. We rehearsed it, and were totally fresh to play together.”

“It was easy to play, easy to improvise,” Miskiewicz said. “After we made the recording, we started to be more interested in Komeda as a person, what his feelings might have been.”

“He was a window to explore the Polish roots we could be influenced by,” Kurkiewicz said. “But there was a big jazz scene, opposite to the system, and jazz was a synonym of freedom. It was common for jazz to be put into the movies—it wasn’t just Komeda.”

“Komeda wasn’t a virtuoso player, but it doesn’t matter,” Wasilewski said. “Thelonious Monk as well was not so technically great. But at the same time, Thelonious Monk is one of the most important composers in jazz history. With Komeda it’s the same, but unfortunately he had accident, he died much earlier than he should.”

Born in Koszalin, a medieval city on the Baltic Sea, Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz met as 14-year-olds, at a music academy in Katowice, in southern Silesia. “We were really focusing on playing jazz—jazz competitions, contests, some band contests, workshops, learning jazz every summer with Polish and also American teachers from Berklee School of Music.” At a workshop in 1993, they met Miśkiewicz, then 16, and immediately joined forces.

“We want to connect the European and American ways of playing—it doesn’t matter what either one means,” Wasilewski said.

Well, it did seem to matter.

“Rubato tempo playing,” Wasilewski elaborated. “More influence from classical music. More influenced from different folk music. With the European Union, Europe is very much the same now. But Bulgarian, Romanian, French, and Norwegian folk music. Polish folk music, though we don’t like it—it’s not so inspiring. Hungarian is more entertaining, stranger, more attractive maybe for us than for Hungarian people. Jazz for me is a kind of folk music.”

“We respect the traditional way of playing, and we respect the soul of it,” Miśkiewicz said.

“From the beginning we did a lot of jazz and blues form, and it was actually our best form,” Wasilewski said. “Next we would like to work on developing forms.” He mentioned his admiration for outcats Alexander von Schlippenbach and Peter Brotzmann, with whom Stanko had played back in the day in the Globe Unity Orchestra.

“They use not only playing ability,” Kurkiewicz added. “They use the soul, the ghosts, the spirits. It’s important for musicians to be aware of this.”


“It seems that always, whole history of art, people think that if you are old, art is over,” Stanko said. “In our time, everything was more rich, more intense. I try to be like Miles, a little under, a little downstairs, and see what’s really going on.”

Today’s musicians don’t face official censorship, as Stanko did during his youth in Poland. Perhaps the stakes were higher then.

“My generation don’t care about money like these young people now care,” the trumpeter said. “They only care money. But this is not important. The important thing is music. Always fresh slate. For this reason, I rely on musicians I play with to give me power. Billy Harper give me power. He was fresh in this band, playing free.”

Reflecting on the Komeda compositions that had inspired Harper the night before, Stanko reflected on the Polish cultural streams that inflect both his and Komeda’s musical production. “We have a predisposition for anarchy, but also for lyricism, and that is in my music,” he said. “Maybe our weather, the same weather like today, a melancholic mood, a little depression coming from melancholic, but also an ‘agghhh’ coming from a little drinking too much.”

Drinking perhaps, but then there are the existential realities for Poles who lived first under German and then Soviet occupation. “My father had a quarter Jewish blood, and he looked also quite much like a Jew,” Stanko said. “In wartime, he was working in the administration of a Polish city. The Resistance was active, and the S.S. was taking people from the streets, and they make a line and every tenth person they shoot. Father had fast reflexes. He spoke German, and he start to speak to the Germans that he work in the city in this administration, and he’s musician—I don’t know—and then they said, ‘Go away.’ I don’t think he thought himself Jewish. I don’t either, although I am happy that I have this blood. I also don’t feel much Polish. I feel international. I feel human.”



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For Steve Kuhn’s 78th Birthday, a Verbatim Interview Conducted for the Website on July 29, 2009

Best of birthdays to pianist Steve Kuhn, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’ve pasted below an unedited version of a rather lightly-edited conversation that appeared on the website in the summer of 2009, when ECM released Mostly Coltrane, with Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, David Finck on bass, and Joey Baron on drums.

* * *

Steve Kuhn (July 29, 2009):

TP:   How did this album come together? How did you arrive at the notion of revisiting repertoire by Coltrane that you played and also material that you hadn’t played?

SK:   I’d never heard it either. Every year for the last five or six years, around John’s birthday, which is September 23rd, we do a week at Birdland commemorating his birthday—Joe Lovano, myself, and Lonnie Plaxico (sometimes Henry Grimes is added), and Andrew Cyrille, sometimes with Billy Hart. Some nights it’s a sextet with two drums and two basses; some nights it’s just a quartet. The repertoire was the earlier Coltrane as well as the later Coltrane, and the later stuff I really had no idea about. I didn’t listen to him that much once he started just getting out there, for lack of a better phrase. I also had moved to Sweden around that time…

TP:   You moved there in ‘67, I believe?

SK:   I moved there then, and he passed in ‘67. But I had not been listening much to the later stuff that he did, maybe from ‘64-‘65 on. Anyway, Joe Lovano is responsible for bringing in the later pieces.

Every year, we would do this tribute to John. Then last year, pretty much a year ago this month, I had a tour in Europe with my trio, with Joey Baron and David Finck, and one of the stops was the Baltica Festival in Salzau, in Northern Germany. Joe was going to be there. It was a saxophone theme last year, and he was sort of the artist-in-residence. So they arranged it that the trio would do a concert by itself, and then there would be a concert with Joe that would feature essentially the music of John Coltrane. That’s the genesis of that particular quartet.

A little bit before that concert, I met with Manfred Eicher. He’d heard about the annual Birdland thing, and very surprisingly, he said to me that he would like to record this music. Now, knowing Manfred as I do for the last thirty years or more, I’d think this would be the last thing he’d be thinking of. But he said he’d like to record the concert at Salzau, or go into a studio in Germany right after the concert, which was impossible for me, because we were on tour, and it was impossible for Joe as well. So it was decided that we try to do it in New York, and it just all came together in mid-December of last year, 2008. We went into the studio for a couple of days, and did this repertoire, which consisted of some earlier Coltrane stuff and a couple of standard songs  that I had played with him but were not written by him—“I Want To Talk About You,” Billy Eckstine, and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” which was a movie theme. The rest were Coltrane songs except for two solo pieces that I did. One I did spontaneously, called “Gratitude,” which is an homage to John, of course. Manfred also asked me to do a song of mine that I wrote many years ago called “Trance,” which I had never recorded solo. So I just sat down and did a version of “Trance” and “With Gratitude,” and other than that, everything else—except those two standards—were Coltrane songs.

TP:   Prior to 2004-05, when this annual performance of Coltrane’s music began, had you been performing Coltrane’s music or any of the tunes…

SK:   No, other than “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” occasionally—very occasionally. After I left John and went with Stan Getz in 1961, and he would feature the trio every set, usually, in clubs we’d play or concerts (at the time, the drummer was Roy Haynes and the bassist was Scott LaFaro, until Scott tragically passed; after that, there were a number of different bass players—Tommy Williams, John Nieves), I would play “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” quite a bit on those featured solo pieces within each set. But other than that, and occasionally with the trio in years since, I haven’t played any of John’s music. I’ve been asked to do that, but for some reason, I don’t know… Maybe I’d do a solo on “Naima” or something like that. But I just didn’t do it. Then this annual Birdland thing came along, and it started from there.

TP:   So the Birdland thing seemed attractive to you at the time that it was proposed.

SK:   Yes. In a way, it seemed like a chance to thank John, or be part of something that I was briefly a part of, in terms of the history of his groups, and at the same time revisit songs that we had played. When I was with him, we were doing a lot of the repertoire from Giant Steps and some other songs from around that time. But as I said, I never played any of John’s later compositions, so I had no idea how they sounded, how he recorded them. In a way, it was probably just as well. I just brought whatever I brought to it, and no frame of reference really.

TP:   Was the sequencing and arc of the album something you were thinking of from the beginning? Did Manfred Eicher have a fair amount of input?

SK:   Manfred did it all. He’s great at that. When he’s into the music, and he really likes the project, he’s an incredible producer, I think. The best I’ve ever worked with, really. He has a sense about these things. So he put the sequence together. He put together one preliminary sequence, and then he spent some time with it in Munich, and then sent me a CD test pressing with a sequence that he had thought of, and he asked if I had any strong objections to anything. It seemed to work fine. It was all his.

TP:   How about the sonics of the record? Coltrane’s quartet from 1960 to 1965, after you left, apart from the energy and the contents of the music, had a very specific sound. In the matter of interpretation, particularly with the songs you’d previously played, was there any sense of the prior versions, or your prior interpretation, hanging over you? Then also, I’m interested in how Manfred dealt with the group sound in the final product.

SK:   For me, no. Whatever frame of reference was deep in my subconscious, for sure, and John has been a big influence on me, of course, over the years. But also, it’s been since 1960, so it’s almost fifty years ago, that I worked with him, and although his influence carries over to this day, and always will, of course, really there was no conscious effort to emulate or to avoid certain things. It’s just the way it came out. Joey Baron to me did not… It’s tempting to fall into the Elvin Jones rhythmic feeling, which I don’t think Joey did at all. He plays the way he plays, which is incredible, I think. David Finck may not be as versed in that particular era. He’s a little bit younger. But essentially, he just was in the ground of it all, and I thought he did extremely well. Joe Lovano is obviously influenced by John, but also he plays the way he plays. So to me, the homage was there, but in terms of style or conceptually, there was no plan to do anything to emulate.
TP:   I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of your recordings, but I have a lot of your records and I’ve listened to most of them, and I can’t remember too many things on them that resemble the late Coltrane repertoire that you perform here. Can you speak to your relationship to that approach to music, and setting up a perspective, a point of view, an interpretation of those pieces?

SK:   The first I’d been aware of “free playing,” without any harmonic basis, just more or less getting sounds on the piano without any key centers… I’d been playing around with that for years, and did much more of it when I was much younger. Probably prior to the time that I worked with John, and afterward, to a certain extent, I was certainly influenced by the music of John Cage, and the post-12-tone composers. It was part of my growing-up, as it were. In later years, I’ve come back more to the standard songs that I grew up listening to when I was a kid, yet playing them in way that I think has my imprimatur—if that’s the word—on it as much as I can, not consciously, but playing them over a period of years. It’s a pretty wide repertoire, but just to have a specific way to approach these standards. Then there are also a bunch of originals of mine, some of which can at times reflect that kind of freer playing. I have some songs where the harmony just is stagnant for just as long as the solo lasts, or, there is no harmony, and then that kind of playing comes into effect, more or less. With some of John’s later things, I was able just to play those kind of freer things, without any harmonic ties whatsoever, just kinds of effects and the interaction between the bass and the drums—and with Joe as well. It’s just part of the way I grew up and was influenced by a whole bunch of different kinds of musics.

TP:   I’d like to talk about those things a little later. But let’s stick with the recording. Right before I came here, I pulled out Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane…

SK:   He came over to the house yesterday. For a lesson, of all things.

TP:   Some people in 1995 did an interview with you about your years with Coltrane that he cites in the book. I know you’ve been asked this 8 million times, but take me through how you came to join the group. We can refresh your memory, if you like, by…

SK:   No, it’s a story that, as you’ve said, I’ve told a lot. There isn’t much to it. I came to New York in the fall of 1959. I graduated from Harvard—miraculously, I don’t know. I got a B.A. in Liberal Arts. Then I was given a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts for three weeks during that summer, August 1959, and had a chance to just hang out, really. It was a three-week hang. George Russell, pass his soul, who passed yesterday, was on the faculty. The MJQ was on the faculty. So were Gunther Schuller, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, Herb Pomeroy. It was incredible. And the students! Ornette Coleman was a student. Don Cherry was a student. Gary McFarland was a student. I get to meet all these people, and “study” with them. I remember spending a couple of hours just talking music with Bill Evans, and he had some specific things that he wanted to talk about, and that was very helpful to me. Max Roach was there. In any case, each of the teachers had splinter groups, and the group I was assigned was Ornette, Don Cherry, myself, Larry Ridley was the bassist, and a trombone player named Kent McGarrity (if I’m not mistaken), and a drummer named Barry Greenspan (I think he opened a drum store somewhere). I’ve not seen Kent or Barry in ages, but Larry occasionally, and I have seen Ornette in just the last year. Of course, Don has passed. But that was the student group, and our leaders were John Lewis and Max Roach. So there was a real first-hand exposure to Ornette, and frankly, I really didn’t know what to do when he was soloing. So I just laid out, which seemed the most logical thing to do. John Lewis, bless his heart, said, “You can’t play chords.” I said, “I know. That’s why I’m not doing anything.” He said, “Why don’t you do sort of what I play behind Milt.” He was playing these single-finger, single-note little counterpoints behind Milt. But I never really cared much for that. I just thought Milt swung his ass off all the time, and it was sort of counter-productive to that. So I did it a little bit, just to placate him, but I wound up just not playing, sitting on my hands, while he and Don played. To this day, I would probably do the same thing. I would enjoy listening to him, but I wouldn’t know what to do behind him. Now, if it came time to my solo, then that’s another story.

But that’s how I got exposed to that. Then, a month or so later, I really was reluctant to come to New York. I was intimidated by the whole thing, but I really felt this was something I had to do. My father, bless him, from Boston, which is where I was living, drove me to New York and checked me into the Bryant Hotel on 54th and Broadway. I proceeded to call everybody I had known prior, who I’d met while I was a student at Harvard and at high school in the Boston area, and then called the different people I had met at Lenox just a few weeks prior. As it turns out, Kenny Dorham was one of the people I called, and he needed a piano player, and he hired me maybe two or three weeks after I got to the city. We worked in a club in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, called the Turbo Village, which was a funky-ass club with an upright piano, but I was delighted. I was completely happy about that. It was a quintet with Charles Davis, playing baritone at that time. Kenny. The bassist was Butch Warren, who is an extraordinarily gifted bassist who has had some issues over the years. The drummer was Buddy Enlow, who was passed, I believe.

TP:   That group recorded for the Time label.

SK:   Yes. That was the first recording that I did when I came to New York. I had recorded a couple of other things prior to that, but basically that was the first recording-recording that I had done as a sideman in New York when I got there.

So I was with that group, and then during that period of time, which was late 1959, I had heard that John was leaving Miles’ group and was looking to put a quartet together. Now, of course, I am basically kind of quiet and shy, but I got his number somehow, and I called him. I said, “I know you don’t know who I am. I am currently working with Kenny Dorham. I would love it if we could maybe get together sometime, or just talk about music, play a little bit, and meet,” and like that. After maybe a week or two passed, I got a call from him. He’d apparently called Kenny and asked around, and heard that I was supposedly this talented new kid in town or whatever. So he called me at the hotel, and we met in a studio in midtown Manhattan about three or four blocks from the Bryant, on 8th Avenue somewhere, a studio the size of the postage stamp. It had an upright piano in it, a couple of chairs, and that was it. We sat and talked and played; we played some of his songs from the Giant Steps recording and talked for a couple of hours, and that was it. I went back to the hotel, nothing was said yea or nay about working together.

Then maybe a week or two later, he called me again at the hotel and asked me if I would come out to Hollis, Queens, take the subway where he lived. He was living with Naima at the time, and their daughter Sayeeda, I guess. So I did that, went out one afternoon, and we essentially did the same kind of thing, just sat and talked about music. Nida, as he called Naima, cooked dinner, and then he drove me back to the Bryant Hotel. Again, said nothing, nothing really of any kind of commitment, yes or no. Again, a week or two passed, and the phone rings in the room, and I answer, and he said, “Steve, this is John. Would $135 a week be ok to start?” Now, at the time I was making $100 a week with Kenny Dorham, so just for that alone it was… But the fact that he wanted to hire me, I was just over the moon as far as that was concerned. So that’s how it started.

He had I believe a four-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery down on St. Marks Place, the old Jazz Gallery on the Lower East Side. So at the beginning of May we started to work there. It was six nights a week, and he kept getting extended two weeks at a time. I think eventually he was there 24 to 26 weeks straight, which is unheard-of. You never hear of that any more. Business was so good, and everybody was talking about him. I was with him for probably 8 weeks, and then McCoy joined. But that was the genesis of how it all came about.

TP:   When did you become cognizant of Coltrane?

SK:   Certainly when I was in high school. Yeah, when I was living in Boston and going to high school in Newton, Massachusetts. I had bought records that he was on, the early Miles quintet records… That was probably it.

TP:   They came out when you were a senior in high school.

SK:   not before then?

TP:   He did those records in 1955 and 1956.

SK:   What records did he do before 1955?

TP:   Very few. With Johnny Hodges then. He did a few things with Dizzy, playing alto.

SK:   Well, then, I was a senior in high school, and through college. So I stand corrected. But I had heard all the stuff he did with Miles, and thought he was… Even at the beginning, when I could hear the reeds, the squeaks, and all that, I could see that this man was incredibly talented, and was different, and had… He just captivated me completely. So I listened to everything that came out with him on it, and also some of the things he started to do as a leader. So when I came to New York, I had a pretty good knowledge of the stuff that he had done recording-wise up til then.

TP:   He’d been with Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Mal Waldron on some Prestige things…

SK:   Yes. Kenny Drew also, on Blue Train.

TP:   What were the challenges for you in playing with Coltrane at the time? You were 22, and you were fairly experienced. You’d played clubs, played piano for a number of major soloists, like Coleman Hawkins, Vic Dickinson, and Chet Baker, a well-seasoned, well-schooled pianist with a jazz sensibility. So the challenges for a pianist as up-to-date as you—you knew modern classical music, you’d done the time at Lenox School, and also straight-ahead jazz—dealing with this information in 1960.

SK:   I was looking for my own voice, of course. I was somewhat cocky in those days, because I’d had a lot of press when I was living in Boston. The wunderkind. I was playing when I was 13. I was working at Storyville, up there, playing solo piano. Then I was working at a club in Boston called the Stable, which had the best of the New England musicians, and some great people came through there. I was working there with Herb Pomeroy’s sextet at times, and playing intermission, or solo piano, as it were. So I’d gotten some good press when I was up there, and I came to New York sort of full of myself, which is the way it was. I was brought down pretty quickly. In any case, as I said, I started working with Kenny Dorham, and then to work with John, part of my ego just couldn’t…I couldn’t resist going along with that.

But then I started to work with him, and I really didn’t know what he wanted. In the more  or less straight-ahead music, I was comping behind his solos, but then he was also starting to do things like “So What,” where there was one or two harmonies through a whole song, and then there was a chance to stretch out a lot harmonically. At times, instead of comping, or laying down the carpet for him, I would get out there with him, to try not to challenge him but just to make him push himself further, and maybe stimulate him, musically speaking. That probably was not what he wanted, but he could not articulate that to me. I asked him from time to time, because I had a sense… I wasn’t happy with my own playing. I was looking for my voice, and trying just to find a way. So from night to night, one night I was more pleased than others, but generally I was not too thrilled with what I was doing. So I would ask him periodically, “John, is there anything you’d like me to do that I’m not doing, and vice-versa?” I’ll never forget this as long as I live. Every time, he said, “I cannot tell you how to play. I respect you too much as a musician; I cannot tell you how to play.” That’s all he would say. I mean, he never spoke much anyway; he was very quiet. So I tried and I tried.

A couple of times during that 8-week period, I wanted to give my notice, because I really just was not happy with what I was doing. When the time finally came that he told me he wanted to make a change, despite the fact that I had thought about leaving, when it actually came to it and he told me, I was crushed, more for my ego than anything else probably. But I had not known at the time he hired me that he wanted McCoy right from the beginning, and McCoy had a contract with the Jazztet, with Art Farmer and Benny Golson, and he couldn’t get out of that until the time when John said to me, “I want to make a change. Had I known that before, it would have been fine. Any chance.. If I could work with him one night, it would have been worth it. And we were working six nights a week, so it was pretty intense.

TP:   Three or four sets a night probably, back in 1960.

SK:   At least three. I don’t remember. But it was a lot of playing. I remember during those weeks, Ornette would come on intermissions, and John and he would hang out. Or Sonny Rollins. It was just a hive of activity of great players coming in, and the energy in the room was unbelievable. What I remember, I had never experienced before, on the bandstand, was he would solo, and after his solo, people would literally get up out of their seats as if it were a revival meeting in church or something. The energy, the reaction was just extraordinary, and just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was really quite something. I’d never experienced that, up to that point certainly.

TP:   This was with Pete LaRoca and Steve Davis.

SK:   Yes. I was the first of that quartet to leave. Then Elvin joined. Then Jimmy Garrison came on.

TP:   Can you describe the milieu in New York. A lot of people now are writing about 1959 for press marketing reasons, as in Miles Davis did Kind of Blue and Ornette hit New York that year, and so on. On the other hand, a lot of things were percolating in 1959 and 1960. So you arrived at a time of confluence of activity in Greenwich Village. In addition to Coltrane and Ornette, Mingus was doing all sorts of stuff, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian spent two months in a club before recording Waltz for Debby, and Lennie Tristano was at the Half Note, and Max Roach was doing things. All the poets, all the dancers. So many things were happening. Give me a sense of what it was like.

SK:   Every night, I remember going out to clubs, just to hang out. Occasionally, I was asked to sit in. But it was every, every single night. At the Bryant Hotel, I was just across the street from the original Birdland, so I would be in there quite a bit, going in, and they got to know who I was after a while, so they didn’t charge me at the door. I would sit in the bullpen area or stand at the bar, and had a chance to listen to a lot of people, and wound up working there a bit, too, with Kenny Dorham and Stan Getz and different people throughout the years. But it was a very intense musical time, I think, in the jazz world, as you described it. It was something that no longer exists, unfortunately, for a lot of young players who come to town. I bemoan the fact, for their sakes. We used to have sessions every night. There were loft sessions. There was a baritone saxophone player, Jay Cameron, who had a loft. Every night of the week there was a session there. So you could always play. You could always go up there and play, you’d meet all the guys who were in town, the new people coming in. That’s how you networked and connected. It helped me a great deal. Plus, wanting to play all the time, every day, when you were that age. So there were these outlets, like Jay’s loft and other places, and those, to my knowledge, don’t exist any more, and I just feel badly for the young people who come to town.

Also, just to touch on it, I never felt any black-white racial kind of thing at all. I think John hired me because he thought I could play. Kenny Dorham hired me because I could play. There was no real line there at that time—which unfortunately changed in the mid ‘60s, after the revolution, or whatever you want to call it. But when I came to New York, if you could play, fine. The temptations and the other things were always there, too, more so than they are now, with the substance abuse. I managed to stay fairly clear of that, but I did have some issues with that, but for the most part managed to avoid that. But there was a lot of camaraderie with people who were strung out at the time, and those people hung out together, and they would get high together and all that. I was sort of on the periphery of that, although I got into it just briefly at different times. So there was a lot going on there. But I think the myth that you needed to be high to play, to create your solos…I found that to be completely fallacious. I tried playing high a number of times, and I thought I sounded like shit—and I’m sure I did. The tendency to play chorus after chorus after chorus, and it gets really boring, not only to the musician (perhaps—unless he’s so stoned, he doesn’t know), but certainly to the listener, I would think. Over the years that has dissipated to a great extent, I’m sure.

But it was this very, very special time. And as I was living at the hotel, 54th and Broadway, I was really in the middle of the midtown activity, and then I would be in the Village a lot, too. So there was a lot of stuff going on, good and bad, but mostly productive.

TP:   Do you feel you were a different player at the end of your time with Coltrane than you were before joining him? Or is it hard to ascertain that given how brief a time it was?

SK:   It really is hard. I’m sure it helped shape whatever voice I have today. It definitely impacted that. But for that, I couldn’t really say… I certainly was thinking about where I was dissatisfied with John. I was working Kenny prior to that, and after I left John I went back to Kenny for another year, and those questions never came up. But with John they did, because there was a lot of searching, trying to stretch the parameters of the music, and that’s where my insecurities or whatever came into play. With Kenny, it was basically the meat and potatoes. I learned a great deal from him in terms of how to comp, and voicing chords, and just getting the exposure in the different venues that we played throughout the country. But the repertoire was pretty straight-ahead. With John it wasn’t. That was really the main difference.

TP:   Then you were with Getz from approximately 1961 to 1963.

SK:   It was two years all told, but there was an 8-month hiatus in between when he broke up the band. Originally, it was Pete LaRoca, Scott LaFaro, and myself. Then Scotty wanted to leave, and Stan said, “Why?” Well, it had to do with he wanted another drummer. Scotty was something else. So Stan said, “Who do you want?” Scott said, “Roy Haynes.” So, P.S., that’s… Stan was a big fan of Stan’s anyway.

TP:   Well, Roy was on those 1950-1951 Roost recordings.

SK:   I think so, yeah. So that was the group until Scott was tragically killed in the summer of ‘61. Then Stan hired John Nieves, a bassist from Boston, whom I had known, of course, growing up there…

TP:   Playing with Scott LaFaro and Roy Haynes in a rhythm section, were you able to be interdependent in a similar way as Bill Evans and Motian were with him?

SK:   We played more straight-ahead, I think, with Stan, but we did some trio stuff. He opened up my ears a great deal in terms of rhythm things. Rhythmically, Roy was and is unique in his approach to the drums, and he’s an incredible soloist as well. So it was different. When Stan had come back from living in Sweden, he called Scott and asked him to put a trio together—he wanted him to join. Scotty said, “if I can get the trio I want.” Initially, it was Pete LaRoca and myself, as I said. So we met Stan at the Village Vanguard afternoon and played with him, and he hired us all just like that.

But working with Scotty and Roy was different, but within the parameters that I felt somewhat comfortable. But it was very enjoyable to play with them.

TP:   You used the phrase “meat and potatoes.” Since these days standards comprise a consequential component of your musical production, I’m wondering who your early pianistic influences were as far as jazz. You were coming up in the ‘50s…

SK:   For me, Art Tatum is God, as Fats Waller said. But to this day, there’s nobody who comes near what he did—for me. Certainly, the way I play, it’s probably hard to hear the tie. At times, maybe it isn’t. What he was able to do… His sound, his harmonic sophistication, and his swing was unparalleled. By himself. He didn’t need a rhythmic section. In fact, he was better off alone. The recordings that he did by himself, to this day… Just a few weeks ago, I heard something I hadn’t heard in a while. It was just astounding, what he was able to do. He really grabbed my attention big-time, and moreso over the years.

Fats Waller was an influence. The boogie-woogie pianists—Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Pinetop Smith. I used to play boogie-woogie years ago, and I loved it. It was a welcome relief from playing the classical repertoire that I grew up playing, when I started studying, when I was 5 years old, I guess. So the boogie-woogie pianists, some of the swing pianists, and then I was influenced by a while by Erroll Garner, who I thought was incredible, to do what he could do. Bud Powell was a big influence. Lennie Tristano, to an extent. I appreciated intellectually what he was doing, but he never really touched my heart the way Bud did. Red Garland was an influence. Wynton Kelly was an influence.

Bill Evans was an influence. In a way, the first time I heard Bill play… I was at Harvard at the time, and he did a concert with George Russell at Brandeis University, and that’s the first time I had heard Bill play, and I heard what he was doing, and I said to myself, “Oh, shit. He’s doing what I’m trying to do, but he’s got it together.” That really caught me by surprise, and it took me a bit to get past that.

TP:   Can you describe that?

SK:   It was very thoughtful playing. It was fairly sparse. He had a great sound on the instrument. It was more of an intellectual approach, but it touched my heart at the same time. So it really was a combination of both. Once I got past that, when you listen to him play, it’s the heart. That for me is the bottom line to communicate music, is about touching the heart. It’s not about how fast you play or how slick you do this, or how you reharmonize that. It’s not about that at all, as far as I’m concerned. But there was a similarity in our playing before I had ever heard him, and then I heard what he did. I think maybe I swing more, or swung more than he did, in that I was more influenced by the Bud Powells and the Wynton Kellys and the Red Garlands, but I appreciated what he was doing, and it was certainly in my DNA, as it were, things that he was doing that I could relate to.

Those are the main people. After Bill, I think that was it, in terms of influence. Bill was an influence in other ways, too, because I had a chance to meet him, and when I came to New York he was like a big brother to me. He was very helpful and encouraging, and times when I was depressed, and woe is me, and why me… When I came, as I said earlier, I was the wunderkind, and now I no longer was. I had the experience with John, which was great, but I was let go (even though he wanted McCoy from the beginning). It was a hard. It’s a hard life. To this day, it’s a rough way to live.

TP:   You have to have a very thick skin.

SK:   Absolutely. You’re putting yourself out there, and you just have to accept it. Whatever. Try to get work, and you don’t have a big enough name… You just have to persevere. If it’s in your heart of hearts to do it, as I tell kids all the time, then go for it. You’ll know at some point whether this is what you want to do, or you’ll capitulate and do something else—which is fine. But if it’s in your heart of hearts, you’ll do it.

TP:   Now, the prior ECM recording, the strings recording with Carlos Franzetti’s arrangements, got quite a bit of press at the time, and apart from Franzetti’s remarkable orchestrational abilities, it presented you in a way that represented another aspect of your formative years, i.e., your extensive classical training as a young and being taught by Margaret Chaloff as well. Since your years with Gary McFarland, and certainly since the ‘70s, you’ve brought forth both aspects of your musical personality.

SK:   Sure. It’s all part of the package.

TP:   You’ve stated that Margaret Chaloff had a tremendous impact on who you became as a musician.

SK:   Absolutely. Apropos of that, that’s what Lewis Porter came to me for yesterday. Lewis was perplexed, because as a pianist, he can play a 7-foot piano, let’s say, but when he was exposed to play a 9-foot, concert grand piano, he was having problems. I said, “Lewis, it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a Wurlitzer, an upright, or a 20-foot—it’s the same approach.” Then Ia tried to go through the Russian school of technique, which is what she taught me, and it took me any number of years before it got into my subconscious, where I didn’t have to think about it. So I fed him a lot of information yesterday. But basically, what she taught was basically getting a sound on the instrument, a piano sound, and explaining how that happens, and the genesis of all that, and then, if you understand that concept, it will enable you…in terms of how you approach it and things that you do, it will enable you dynamically to play as soft as you want or as loud as you want, or anywhere in-between, and slow speed-wise, slow or fast. It’s all to do with this kind of technique, which is about relaxation… It’s too involved. I’m not qualified to teach it, but I know the general parameters. Ultimately, you get a sound on the piano, and you really don’t scuffle that much in terms of fast or slow or in between. It enables you to do all of that, if you really understand and apply what she did. When I started with her, she told me that basically all the great Russian classical pianists have this technique—Gieseking, Horowitz, and so on. They all understand this, and this is the way they’re schooled. I came to believe her after a while, but it took me… I started studying with her when I was 13, I think, when I moved to Boston, and when I finished high school at 17, I stopped studying formally with her. But still, through college, while I was in Boston, she was like a surrogate mother to me. We were extremely close, and I would spend a lot of time, when I could, at her apartment, just talking about music. She was a big fan of mine, which I’m forever grateful for.

TP:   Your years at Harvard came directly after her son died as well.

SK:   Yes. But through Margaret, I met Serge, and was able to play with him when I was 13-14 years old, which was a great education for me, musically speaking. There was never anything else involved; it was just about the music. Serge was an extraordinarily talented guy who, unfortunately, had a substance abuse problem which killed him. But he came back to Boston in those last years, because his money was gone, he wasn’t doing too well with his health—and he stayed with his mother. But he was working around his Boston, and his mother recommended me to him. Some of the jobs he got around town were just trio jobs. It was drums, piano, and baritone saxophone. Working like that, of course, I had a chance to work without a bass, which was strange, but I learned how to not overcompensate, just to forget about there not being a bass and just play. Then things he taught me harmonically, and playing a vast repertoire of standard songs, which I had never done before. He had a hair-trigger temper, perhaps because of the substance abuse—I don’t know. If I made a mistake, or if something bothered him, he would think nothing, in the middle of a tune, in front of an audience, just to turn around and start yelling and screaming, and, “No, motherfucker, it’s this and it’s this, or it should be that.” I guess some people would have just wilted under it. I sort of thrived, in a way, and it was a challenge. I thought, “All right, goddammit,” and I did it.  I learned under those kind of situations. Some people wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I reacted the way I did. It was challenging to me, but I learned a great deal from him. He was very, very special, and his mother, to this day, is my mentor. She had incredible energy. She was ageless. When she passed, I guess she was in her eighties. She had more energy than I’ve ever had in her life. She didn’t look her age. Just an extraordinary woman, one that comes along once in a generation. Her life was devoted to her students. She taught, whether they could afford it or not. Some students she taught for nothing. Some fairly wealthy Bostonians came to her for whatever reason. She would charge them accordingly, but she was a sliding scale. Some kids had no money whatsoever. It didn’t matter. So I learned a great deal from her, in many ways.

TP:   You mentioned playing with Herb Pomeroy during those years. Perhaps because it housed to many music conservatories, Boston had a pretty powerful scene then, with very advanced musicians.

SK:   I would think so. There was a wonderful pianist, who passed away, Dick Twardzik, who was from Boston. Peter Lipman, a drummer. Both had problems with substance abuse, which killed them both. But they were on the scene. Also Joe Gordon, a wonderful trumpet player from Boston. Charlie Mariano came out of Boston. Quite a few people who eventually became well-known outside of the area. I was able to play with these guys, and also learned a great deal.

TP:   You dedicated the recording with Franzetti to your parents and grandparents. You’re of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Were your parents born here or born there?

SK:   My mother was born in Budapest, but she came over when she was 2 or 3 years old. My father was born here. But both sets of grandparents were born in Hungary. This was just a tribute to them, the fact that they came to this country and enabled me to express myself, just to play music in a society where there was no repression or oppression, where I could do whatever I wanted. Unfortunately, both parents passed away before this music came out.

TP:   That recording is comprised of entirely original music. You’ve made a number of records, many for the Japanese market, where they give you a theme and give you a list of tunes, and you select…

SK:   They give me a list of songs. If I want to play one of them or all of them, that’s fine. If I don’t want to play any of them, that’s fine, too. But in a way, having recorded a lot, and used… in terms of repertoire, unless I’m writing new material…and they like standards there… I’ve recorded a lot of standards. So it’s helpful each time we have a project to do, that I get a list of songs, and I choose from them. It makes it easier, in a way, in terms of the repertoire. The challenge is that some of these songs have been recorded a zillion times by different people, so I need to find a way to play these songs that’s interesting to me and the trio with whom I’m recording.

TP:   How long does it take to find a point of view?

SK:   Generally, I’ll have a three- to four-week notice before he’s coming to New York. I get a list from Todd Barkan, who generally co-produces these recordings. Two of the recordings in recent years have been classical music themes, some that I grew up with. But I got hold of a classical fake book—I didn’t even know these existed—and went through page-by-page, playing melodies. “Oh, this sounds familiar; let me see if this has a ring to it or something that I can relate to, or takes me back to when I was playing when I was a kid.” I would hunt for those kinds of songs. The first recording I did, called Pavane for A Dead Princess, was easier. There were 9 or 10 songs on there of classical themes. The second one, which is called Baubles, Bangles and Beads, which is the one I did most recently for them, has more classical themes, but it was harder to find themes that I could relate to, because I’d used up the ones that I really liked. That in itself is challenging, to try to find… He wasn’t specific about which classical themes he wanted.  But in standards he is. Sometimes I do a good number of them, and sometimes half. It varies.

TP:   But you’ve done perhaps ten recordings for this label, and others with a similar feel for Concord, Reservoir, and other domestic independents. Last year, ECM reissued Backward Glances, which contained of your ‘70s recordings, including your excellent solo record. These dates are very different in flavor than the things you did in the ‘60s with Coltrane, Stan Getz and Art Farmer, and presumably even the first recordings you did in the late ‘60s after you moved to Europe, one with the Palle Danielsson-Jon Christenson rhythm section, and then in 1969 with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. What were you thinking about during those years?

SK:   I was living in Sweden between 1967 and 1971, and while I was there, perhaps in 1969 or 1970, I’d heard about Manfred, that he was starting up a record company in Germany and that he was sort of interested in recording me. But nothing ever happened until I came back to New York in 1971, and we communicated maybe in 1972 or 1973.

TP:   By then, he’d begun to record Keith Jarrett and his first solo recitals.

SK:   I guess so. My first recording for ECM was 1974, which was Trance, a quartet recording with Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette, and Susan Evans on percussion that we did in New York. A couple of months after that, he wanted to mix the recording in the studio in Oslo, Norway, and  I flew there, and in the course of the day that we were mixing the Trance recording, he said, ‘If the studio is available tomorrow, I want you to do a solo recording.” Without warning or anything. I had no idea what I was going to do. P.S., the studio was available, and I stayed up most of the night, just churning, “What am I going to record?’ I wound up doing originals that I’d written, but never thought of doing solo, and there was one spontaneous improvisation called “Prelude in G.” As I said earlier, when Manfred is into the music, he’s a great guide and a great producer, and he led me through this. I would do one piece, and he said, “Ok, that’s fine. Now, the next piece, start with a little more motion” or “a little less motion,” or try this, try that. He really led me through it, and in three hours, I had done it. He was ecstatic about it. At that time, he said it was the best solo recording that he’d done, and to this day he’s very complimentary about it. I’d never done anything like it before, and it was quite challenging, but apparently it worked out ok, as far as he was concerned.

TP:   When did you begin to compose in a serious way?

SK:   In terms of any consistent of volume of songs, it happened in Sweden. I was living with [singer] Monica Zetterlund, and I had recorded everything that was in my trio repertoire on that 1969 BYG recording in Paris with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. That was actually Swallow’s last recording on acoustic bass. He’d already given away his acoustic basses, so he borrowed the bass for that date. After the date, Swallow, who is like the brother I never had, said, “Ok, now it’s time; you’ve got to start writing. Seriously.” Monica got on my case as well. “You’ve got to start writing.” I realized it, too—what else am I going to play? So that was the moment, the epiphany part of it. I went back to Stockholm. It was the summertime. We had a house on an island right outside of Stockholm, and I sat in a chair in the yard… We had three boxer dogs, and I was sort of in charge of them, and they were running around the yard. Of course, summers in Sweden are like spring and fall, not very hot and very little humidity, so it was comfortable to sit aside—you don’t get sunburned and all. And I started writing music. Some of the songs that I wrote, I put lyrics to as well, some stream-of-consciousness, some more serious. But in a period of a month or two, I wrote 12 or 13 songs, which is the most prolific I’d ever been up to that point and probably since. But then I had some material.

TP:   These recordings don’t particularly reference things you’d been doing in New York during the ‘60s, and they’re not particularly dissonant or referential to the avant garde, there’s a lot of lyricism, a song-like feeling. So looking retrospectively at your career, the ‘70s seems like discrete interlude, and the impression is that over the last 25 years—and this is a gross generalization and reductive—you’ve integrated within your approach to the trio the different attitudes to music-making explored up to then.

SK:   I’d say so. Of course. As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time with the standards. I grew up listening to the standard songs, played a lot of them on commercial jobs I’d done over the years, had a good knowledge of the standard songs, and a lot of them resonated for me. The question was how to play them and have my stamp on it, so to speak, where it became interesting, and interesting for the trio as well. So that was part of the repertoire, and then also to play these originals.

Working with Manfred at ECM, almost every recording I did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s for the most part was original music. That’s what he wanted, and that was the discipline I need to write. Some guys I know write every day. They sit down at the piano or wherever they do it, and write. Sometimes they come up with nothing, sometimes… Gary McFarland was great at this. Every morning, maybe between 10 and noon, he would sit down at the piano and crank it out. I admire that greatly. I was never able to do that. I can do it when I have an assignment. Like, Manfred said, “We’re doing this album; you need to have 8 pieces.” So I would just at the piano, and perspire, and stare at a blank piece of manuscript paper, and try a little something at the piano, and have an idea about what kind of tempo it is or what kind of song it’s going to be, and go from there—and gradually stuff would come. But it’s labor. It’s arduous for me. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with “Oh my goodness, this is a melody in my head,” and I have a piece of paper on the side of the bed and I write it down. That happens very infrequently. Most of the time, it’s just sitting and grinding it out.

But Manfred was very responsible for me doing this, because he wanted original music. I always thank him for that, because I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

TP:   I guess Swallow will be part of your next New York engagement, in mid August at the Jazz Standard, along with Al Foster, with whom you also perform a good deal. You go back to which band with Swallow? Art Farmer? You must have known him earlier.

SK:   Yes, I did.

TP:   He’s a Yale man and you’re a Harvard man.

SK:   I think he was there for two years, and he dropped out. He couldn’t stand it. He’s a sweetheart. I adore him.

In any case, I had done some trio work with him and Pete LaRoca before Art Farmer. It had been them and Jim Hall with Art’s quartet, and then Jim left. So Swallow and Pete recommended me. Instead of the guitar, Art hired me, and it was the piano. That was for a year, and it was great to play with those guys. Art was an extraordinarily talented trumpet player as well. So it was a nice year. Then we started to work a bit more as a trio after that period, before I went to Sweden. But I’d met Swallow. We played in different situations since probably 1960 or 1961.

TP:   There are several different trios. For ECM, you’ve recorded with David Finck and Joey Baron. You’ve also done a number of things with David and Billy Drummond. Perhaps fewer projects, but still some in the 90s with Swallow and Aldo Romano. Then also, occasional things with the All Star Trio with Ron Carter (also an Art Farmer alumnus) and Al Foster. Do you find yourself playing differently with the different bands? Do the differences in the band sounds have more to do with the personnel, or do they put you in a different space?

SK:   I sort of play the way I play. When I work with Ron and Al, for example, we’re of an age, so we’ve got a very similar frame of reference in terms of growing up, listening to certain things. So there are certain references we each do, and it triggers a response. The trio sort of runs itself, in a sense, but it doesn’t make it better or worse—it’s just different. When I work with David and Billy Drummond, for example, or Joey Baron, they’re twenty years younger than I am, so they bring what they bring, and I learn certainly from them, and hopefully they’ll learn something from me. I’m probably more “leader-like” in that sense. With Ron and Al, since we are of an age, it’s just common experiences that we share. In terms of the music, it’s different. Not better or worse, as I said, but it’s just a different experience. So it all works. It’s just depending upon the personnel.

TP:   A more general question. Do you get to listen to much music by younger musicians? Do you find yourself listening less these days? Listening more?

SK:   Much less. When I first came to New York, every night, as I said, I was out, listening-listening-listening. Then after a while, I’ve just had it up to the eyeballs. I know there are a lot of young, talented people out there. People send me CDs.  Some I listen to, some I don’t, some I skim through. It depends. But I don’t listen as much as I used to, certainly.

TP:   Back to Coltrane’s music, which you hadn’t played or listened to for forty-plus years, and then you’ve since revisited…how does it strike you now… Well, first of all, in the ‘60s, the music Coltrane was playing at the time of his death, seemed radically different to people who liked Coltrane in the period when you were playing with him. That period was already classic; people’s ears had caught up by then. But the recording, which consists of repertoire from both periods, sounds very much of a piece. Do you have any general statements to make about Coltrane’s music in the broader scheme of things?

SK:   As it’s reflected on the record?

TP:   I’ll rephrase the question. Your personal involvement in Coltrane’s first wave of originality, what he was doing right after Giant Steps and during the Atlantic period, allowed to assimilate it in your DNA in a way that no pianist other than McCoy Tyner had an opportunity to do. You didn’t listen too much to the later music. But here you are revisiting this music, after forty years of dealing with it not so much. What impression does this music make upon you now?

SK:   It’s part of my growing up. As I said, not having heard the later stuff, when playing this music now, I approach it the way I approach it. I had no point of reference other than my own development as a musician. I’m in my early seventies, and it’s reflective of how I’ve evolved over the last fifty years. It’s amazing to me that when I worked with John, he was just a dozen years older than I was, but he could have been a hundred years older in terms of where I perceived him to be musically. The gap in development was extraordinary. To think about what he did, and that he passed away at such an early age… You tend to wonder whether he’d said all he was really going to say, and that perhaps he would have become a parody of himself, had he lived, were he alive today. We’ll never know, of course. But it’s interesting to speculate on that, whether he may just have run the course. I remember seeing him from time to time after my time after him, running into him on the street or maybe hearing him somewhere, and I’d say, “hello,” and he’d say, “Tell me something new.” He was very interested in Xenakis, for example, because of the mathematics in his composing. I knew a little bit, though I’m certainly not an authority. But he’d always ask me about contemporary composers, the 20th century composers, and what they were doing. He was very much interested in whatever was going on at that time.

So his influence on me is undeniable. It’s there. But what I bring to it now is what I bring to it, and hopefully I have some sort of voice that is my voice, more than it’s been, and continues to evolve. That’s pretty much all I can say.

TP:   Have you now gone back to Coltrane’s later records?

SK:   No. I really have no desire to either. Just having played them at Birdland for the last five or six years, just to play them the way I play them. I’m really not that interested, frankly. I’m interested in what he wrote, but the curiosity ends there, pretty much. So I think what I recorded is reflective of whatever it is of John’s, of course, but it’s reflective of what I am doing these days. I brought whatever voice I have.

TP:   Do you have a new big project in the works?

SK:   What I’d like to do—ad within the last year a couple of people have approached me with a “Why don’t you?”—is to do a recording with Claus Ogerman. I’d forgotten, but I heard a recording he did with Danilo Perez last year, and just to hear his writing made me recall how special he is. I don’t know if this will ever happen. I spoke to Manfred about it, and Manfred being Manfred (they both live in Munich), said, “It sounds like something that is possible, but we need to talk about it.” I guess he has certain reservations about what Claus does. So we haven’t really talked about it specifically, but that’s something that might happen. I don’t know. I’d like to do some original music of mine with him, and maybe some classical themes. Or some of the older stuff. His writing, I think, is extraordinary. But he’s approaching 80 now. I just don’t know. But in recent months this has been brought to my attention, and I listen to that recording and something he did with Michael Brecker. So I’m focusing on Claus’ writing now. He did something with Bill back in the day, too.

Other than that, ECM is planning to reissue three more LPs, Trance being one of them, and a live recording at Fat Tuesdays that I did when I had the group with Sheila Jordan, and a quartet recording with Steve Slagle.

Also, in 2003, I had a quintuple bypass operation, which I’m only mentioning as a point of reference. Five weeks after the surgery, I had a concert in California, the music of Gary McFarland from The October Suite, which has never been played outside of the studio since we did it in 1966. Mark Masters, who is affiliated with Claremont College out there, has been reviving things from back in the day, different composers, and he’s a big fan of Gary’s. So I flew out to California with David Finck, and we did this recording. For me, Gary’s music holds up; it sounds as lovely as it did back then. My playing on the original recording I could have done a helluva lot better, I think. So that night at Claremont College was recorded, and I’ve just gotten hold of the recording. There was also a trio segment with Peter Erskine on drums. So we did some trio songs and did “The October Suite” with musicians from Los Angeles. My playing is a helluva lot better than it was on the original recording, so I’m going to see if I can get someone interested in putting it out. I’ve been listening to this within the last week or so. I hope this happens. It’s extraordinary to think what Gary was doing back then. He was an original talent. Very special.

TP:   So when you tell students to decide whether they can handle this for the long haul, you know what you’re talking about.

SK:   Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS] But for me, it’s a raison d’etre. If I don’t have the music… I’ve said this to the love of my life. I’ve been involved with a woman, Martha, for the last 9½ years, the longest relationship I ever had. I told her, “when I go, carry me off the bandstand.” Otherwise, I don’t know what I would do. I do some private teaching, and I enjoy it. But playing with the trio or in other contexts—but especially the trio—is it for me. That’s what keeps the blood flowing. I’ll never retire, certainly. So that’s the way it should end.

TP:   You’ve probably led a more interesting life than many of your fellow Harvard-‘59 graduates.

SK:   It was the 50th reunion this past June, so I went up there. But I can’t stand these kind of gatherings. I’m shy, and you look at people who you haven’t seen in 50 years, and you’re looking at their name tags, and you don’t know… They have a vague ring of familiarity, but fifty years has gone by. So I booked a night at Sculler’s, the jazz club up there. The night before Sculler’s, there was a little party of people that I’d gone to school with, and then some people I hadn’t seen in fifty years. It was done by a friend in Newton, Massachusetts, and it was really quite lovely. So to reconnect with these people… Then the following night, we did this night with the trio with Billy Drummond and David Finck at Sculler’s, and a lot of classmates came. It was really quite nice. I didn’t go to the commencement, I didn’t take any pictures, but that party the night before and Sculler’s, was my 50th reunion of the class of 1959. It’s unbelievable how fast those years go by.

TP:   At Harvard, you must have been considered a very interesting student.

SK:   I was a maverick in the department. At the time, they didn’t recognize anything after Stravinsky. So jazz was a complete waste of… It was not music, certainly. It was heresy. The only professor I had at Harvard who accepted it and was lovely, was Walter Piston, and he was about to retire the year I graduated or the following year—I don’t remember. He taught a course there called Techniques of 20th Century Music. Every week he would assign a small class of us to write something in this style, write something in 12-tone, and so on. He was very relaxed. He knew I was involved in jazz, and he was very nice, very mellow. But every other professor I had during the time I was there, I had problems with. I was somewhat of a rebel, and I wasn’t shy about expressing that. But they really did not recognize anything much into the 20th century at all.

TP:   But you were performing. They couldn’t have been had much power over you.

SK:   It didn’t matter. The music was heresy to them. It was nonsense. I didn’t go there for that. I was fortunate enough to be accepted, which blew my mind at the time, but I didn’t go to Harvard for the music. In the four years I was there, I took six music courses—four theory courses and two history courses. Every undergraduate has to choose a major, so I chose music, but I didn’t go there for the music. I was fortunate to be accepted, and got a B.A. in Liberal Arts, and studied English and Psychology and some science courses, and different kinds of things.


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Filed under ECM,, Joe Lovano, Joey Baron, Piano

For Keith Jarrett’s 69th Birthday, Full Interviews From 2000, 2001, and 2008, plus an 2008 Interview with Manfred Eicher

For Keith Jarrett’s 69th birthday, I’m posting a series of interviews I’ve conducted with him for various articles over the last 14 years. The 2000 interview was for a interview (it seems to be no longer on the Internet) on the occasion of the release of the trio release, Whisper Not. I coalesced this and a fall 2001 interview for a DownBeat piece generated by Jarrett’s earning “Best Acoustic Pianist” Award for 2001. The 2008 interview was generated by Jarrett’s election to the DownBeat Hall of Fame. I also previously interviewed Mr. Jarrett in 2002 for a long DB piece about the late Paul Motian (you can find it at the very bottom of that post). By the way, you’ll notice that the links to the DownBeat articles are contained with a DownBeat “micro-site” that contains DB’s Jarrett archive, beginning with a 1974 interview with the late Bob Palmer, and concluding with a 2013 interview with Ethan Iverson, whose 2009 interview with Jarrett  can be found here. Happy hunting.

* * *

Keith Jarrett (10-10-00):

TP:    The first thing that occurs to me in looking at this CD in relation to the other “standards” CDs is the preponderance of tunes associated with Bebop and the vocabulary of Bebop.  It’s an incredible selection of material.  Can you talk about why you were focusing on this particular repertoire at this particular time when the record was done?

JARRETT:  Well, it’s kind of a long story.  I don’t know how long a story you want.

TP:    I did read a clip on the Internet from an interview you gave an English paper in which you said that this was partly due to your illness, and you don’t have to exert as heavy a touch playing this music — it’s lighter, more dancing, a different quality of effort for you.

JARRETT:  Yeah.  The funny thing is, when I had that theory, I wasn’t prepared to run into the piano in Paris that is on this particular recording! [LAUGHS] It was the least… In general, German Steinways are bad for Bebop anyway, but this particular piano was like a Mack truck, very heavy and thick action.  So I had to throw all that out the window for this concert.  Luckily, it was the last of four concerts in Europe, and I just decided, “Well, I’ll just have to use whatever energy I’ve got, and if I make it through the concert, that’s good; if I don’t, at least it’s the last one.

TP:    Were you playing this repertoire throughout those four engagements?

JARRETT:  Yes.  Actually, you might know that the trio doesn’t normally rehearse.  I’ve said that many times.  The very first time we actually rehearsed was while I was still sick, trying to determine whether I could actually handle playing with them, maybe just the dynamics, you know.  I could play alone a little, but that’s not the same.  Since I had such a long space where I wasn’t playing, it just naturally occurred to me that… Actually, if you think about what we recorded in sequence just before this release, you’ll notice that it was starting to happen anyway.  I mean, we were starting to go in this direction a little more than we had before.

TP:    You played “John’s Abbey.”

JARRETT:  Yes, and even the way of playing.  We’re in time more, we’re not playing around the time as much.  So in one way it was natural, and in another way it had to do with getting back into concerts with a fresh outlook that also fit my energy level at the time.  But then, of course, meeting pianos that I had to work like amazingly hard to get anything out of, that made it beside the point.  Because I think that Bebop players that we’ve heard on record, or if we’re old enough in person… I think probably, without exception, the pianos those guys were playing had been pounded to death, and were probably all fairly light action and, if they were lucky, they were in tune.  But I would guess that the pianos the bebop players used, since they were all club date pianos, had their stuffing knocked out of them before Bebop came along, and those guys might not have been able to play that way at all if they weren’t playing on rather used instruments.

TP:    That’s fascinating.  I’ve never heard it stated like that before, but it certainly does make sense.

JARRETT:  I think it would have to follow also that the sound that we like in their playing has a lot to do with the pianos not being perfect.  If you listen to the way the horn players play in any jazz really, but in Bebop because we’re talking about it, their intonation is dependent on their phrasing.  A piano is a real structured thing, and it’s basically a percussion instrument, and when a piano is in perfect operating condition, let’s say ready for a Chopin recital, it doesn’t have much personality, because it’s so even.  In a funny way, I’m not sure how Jazz would have come about if everything had been perfect from the beginning.

TP:    So it’s a music whose strengths derive from imperfections or even mistakes.

JARRETT:  I would just say that there’s a character that comes about… Well, if you think of human beings and you look at somebody’s face, if they don’t have any lines on their face, you’ll say that their face is sort of characterless.  Well, those lines would be imperfections to a plastic surgeon.  But to you, you’re getting some information about them.  And I think Bebop, because of how fleet-footed it is, if a piano has a… Well, I released this “Deer Head Inn” recording you might be familiar with.

TP:    With Paul Motian on drums instead of Jack DeJohnette.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Well, that piano was absolutely… I shouldn’t say absolutely terrible, because that wouldn’t be fair.  I mean, it was a club piano.  And I couldn’t have played it louder if… Some people have reviewed it as though I was playing sort of not at the highest dynamic possible.  But I was.  So the problem you encounter with, like, the instruments that are not perfect kind of create a character that is contagious sometimes, and in improvising, an improvisor kind of works with that.

TP:    That said, is there a different aesthetic to performing jazz, to improvising within this vocabulary vis-a-vis dealing with the Classical vocabulary?

JARRETT:  Oh yeah.

TP:    How does the aesthetic diverge?  You’re saying that a lot of the character of jazz comes out of the peculiarities of the situation, whether it’s the particular way in which a particular piano has been pounded…

JARRETT:  Let me interrupt you for a minute.  You’ve probably heard a lot of jazz.  So if you think of some Wynton Kelly solos… If you were listening to them and you knew a lot about how pianos sound and what condition it might have been in, you’d probably realize that almost all the time, when things were really cooking, there was a particular quality of the piano that would never be able to be considered a good quality for anything but Jazz, I guess.  That’s what I was trying to get at.

TP:    How did that operate in these concert halls, then, when you have superb pianos articulating this music?

JARRETT:  Well, this is my special problem and this is my special expertise, I guess.  I’m coming from both places at the same time.  I’m coming from… Maybe if we play a ballad, I need the piano to do things that only an optimally adjusted piano can do.  But when we’re playing a bebop head, I wish the piano could change, like, radically.  And I am probably one of the few players that can move between those two places on the same instrument.  In other words, instead of one of those things not being effective, I’m finding a way more often than not to make the piano do what it actually doesn’t want to do, and sound appropriate for the situation.  It’s almost impossible to talk about it.  I wouldn’t even know how to talk about it to a pianist.

TP:    I actually think I do understand in pretty much of a layman’s way what you said.

JARRETT:  Let’s say you take a stiff thing, a fairly new, perfectly conditioned Steinway, the bushings are all new, therefore the keys are all evenly adjusted.   But when the bushings are new, the keys are tight.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Except that isn’t really great when you want to play like a horn.

TP:    You can’t get that vocal inflection.

JARRETT:  That’s right.  And if you listen to the new CD, if you knew how hard that piano made it for me… Some of these things for me are personal triumphs for me [LAUGHS], just from what I already knew about the instrument.  I was forcing it to start to speak.  Every now and then, I just would be able to get it to speak.

TP:     I’d like to talk to you about the content.  Is this material that you learned and knew and internalized during your early years of playing, during your apprenticeship years?  Are these all tunes that are almost vernacular to you from your beginnings in music?

JARRETT:  No, actually not at all.  One of my sons is studying at NEC, and I think they are more vernacular to him.  For me, I just started to think about going to…for varying reasons, to eliminate the long introductions that I’ve often played before standards, and for the other reasons we spoke about… Moving towards a bebop thing was also good because I wasn’t all that… I hadn’t played these tunes very much at all.  So I knew the tunes from hearing them, but I hadn’t spent any time playing them.

TP:    Ah, so there goes my theory.


TP:    I was thinking that in your Boston days playing in the bar, you had done the various standards and bebop material.

JARRETT:  No.  Actually, I came along around the time when that wasn’t the thing to do any more.  I mean, I don’t know what we were playing.  I’m trying to remember.  Most of the jam sessions I was involved in in the beginning, they didn’t even have pianos, so I was playing marimba a lot. [LAUGHS] But I don’t think we played bebop tunes.

TP:    As a kid, did you listen to a lot of Bud Powell or George Shearing or Ahmad Jamal or Monk?  Was that part of your listening diet when you were first discovering jazz?  Because they were coming out at that time.

JARRETT:  Of those players… I once did a blindfold test in Paris for the Paris jazz magazine when I was with Charles Lloyd, in the ’60s.  And I wrote a list,, before I went in, of people that I was sure he was going to play for me, just to see if it was going to work out that way — just a little projection thing.  One of the names was Bud Powell, but I had never really heard Bud.  But I figured he was going to play them for me because, you know, it’s a legend.  And as soon as he played whatever he played, after the first couple of bars I knew it had to be Bud Powell because it was too good to be anybody else.  So I wasn’t steeped in these guys.  The only one of the people you mentioned, the white album of Ahmad Jamal, the “Portrait” album was something that accidentally came into my hands when I was fairly young, and that remains to me one of the milestones of trio recording — just what the trio can do.

TP:    Is that the one that has the famous version of “Poinciana” on it?

JARRETT:  Yes.  Well, maybe not.  Maybe that’s on a different release.  But it’s the same series.

TP:    So Ahmad Jamal was an inspiration for you as a younger player.

JARRETT:  Well, it wasn’t so much him as how he used the trio.  I think if there are trios that have created potentials for what that combination can do,, I would say it was his trio, at least in modern jazz, and Bill Evans.

TP:    Well, on “Poinciana,” Jack DeJohnette shows that he paid a lot of attention to Vernell Fournier when he was a young guy in Chicago.

JARRETT:  Well, Jack and Gary and I were together in a van going to a Berkeley, California concert.  This might have been ten years ago or something.  We had already been playing together quite a long time.  And we just were talking about everything, and the past and musicians, and we all ended up talking suddenly about Ahmad.  I mentioned the White album, and they both looked at me, stunned, because all three of us had had the same momentous experience when we heard that particular album.  I mean, we didn’t know each other until years and years later.  But that album meant the same thing to all three of us when we first heard it.

TP:    Well, it’s interesting, because you and Jack DeJohnette both had such significant experiences with Miles Davis, who was also inspired by Ahmad Jamal.

JARRETT:  Well, Miles would say the same thing.  I think Miles would say it was his use of space that he was influenced by, and I would have said more or less the same thing — that what they weren’t playing was very important, too.  The grooves they got with almost no ornamentation was pretty amazing.

TP:    So in dealing with tunes like “Hallucinations” or “Conception” or “Round Midnight” or “Groovin’ High” it’s a very fresh experience for you.

JARRETT:  Yes, that’s true.

TP:    One would assume that someone of your generation and period and what one might assume would be your orientation, would have the iconic versions of these tunes in your head.  But indeed, the tabula rasa approach can actually work for you with this repertoire.

JARRETT:  Yes, it can and it did.  And actually, we’re out of that phase now, and I’m glad we documented it when we did.  I mean, we do some of these things.  But at this moment in time, the summer of ’99, that was the first tour we did since I got ill, and this was the fourth concert.  So I wasn’t steeped in it at all.  I was fresh about it.

TP:    Can you talk a little generally about what the bebop period means to you, either musically or socially or aesthetically?

JARRETT:  Okay.  Well…let’s see…

TP:    Not to give you too specific a question there.

JARRETT:  Well, that makes it harder to answer.

TP:    Well, take any one of those that you care to.  I’m asking you the question because it seems pertinent to the content of this album.

JARRETT:  Well, here’s one thing that no one has mentioned yet in print that I’ve seen, about any of my playing.  Maybe they’re not going to mention it about this either.  But I am much more influenced by horn players than by pianists.  When I feel that I’ve been successful and with the trio in a jazz context, unless it’s maybe one of those long vamps where I am more like a string instrument, but a more primitive one… That happened occasionally on “Blue Note” or some of other releases.  When we’re playing tunes, it occurred to me (I think it was really around the tour this recording comes from, and then it’s continued through to this last summer, where we did another tour) that I was basically hearing Charlie Parker when I tried to play.  I mean it wasn’t like I was hearing what a piano would do.  I was hearing what a horn would do.  And the phrasing from that period has a character that I can’t quite figure out how to describe, but I would say that it’s both soft and hard.  In other words, it seems to have all the elements of jazz.  The Bebop era to me has the elements that all other periods of jazz have used, one way or another.  And it just focuses on the line.  I mean, if you listen to Ornette, there is… If you listen to anybody play jazz who is a good player, somewhere in there, Bebop has the qualities they’re using.  Whereas if you go back to the very earliest playing that we know on recordings, you know, they hadn’t flatted the fifth much yet… There are just these little differences.  But to me, Bebop is somehow center stage to what modern jazz has done even since then.  I don’t think you can really include Albert Ayler in that necessarily [LAUGHS] or a few other guys.  But you know, we’re using the same instruments, we’re using the same configurations.

TP:    I think it’s certainly the case with your quartet with Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden and Motian; your point is very operative with that whole body of work.


TP:    In forming your sensibility… I know you’ve been playing since you were unimaginably young.  But did listening to records, did listening to styles, to tonal personalities have a big influence on how your sensibility developed when you were younger, or did it come more from the functional imperatives of performance, applying your fundamentals to any given situation?

JARRETT:  I think you’re asking a bigger question than you intend to.  I was doing a tour once with J.F. Jenny-Clark [bassist] and Aldo Romano [drummer] in the ’60s, sometime like, say, ’67…I can’t really be sure.  Up to that time, I thought that what a jazz player is supposed to do is work on his voice and find out what he actually… Let’s see how to say this.   Up to that time, I was working on who I was musically.  If I’d played something that sounded like somebody else or something else, I think what I used to do would be to say, “No-no, that’s really not me.”  Then next time I’d hope that I could find where I was in that particular piece.  But one evening we were playing, and we took a break, and came back on stage, and when I came back on stage, I realized that what I thought was the last stage in a jazz player’s…what’s the word…in the things you work on… That to find your voice was probably way down the list.  Because once you find your voice, then the imperative is to play, and not think about that.  And so, I’m answering more than your question, but… Maybe I’m not even answering your question.

TP:    Tell me if this is an accurate paraphrase.  Are you saying that you decided to play, and whatever you played would be your voice?

JARRETT:  I think I determined by the time we finished the first set, and by the time I had played that much of my life (which wasn’t that much, but luckily, I started early, as I said), that it was possible to drop that other shit, and just say, “Well, I’m who I am when I’m playing.  I don’t have to be who I am and then make sure I am who I am by playing what I think I am.”  So that freed me to do really whatever I heard.  And it seems to me that if it’s… I don’t know whether it’s a forgotten thing, or whether it’s never been thought of. [LAUGHS] But I think it’s the way it works.  If a player doesn’t do that, if they get stuck in their own voice, then where do they go from there?

TP:    Is that a pitfall that you’ve observed?

JARRETT:  Sure.  You can, too, if you think about all the stylists we’ve had who started out being valuable contributors and then ended up being stylists.

TP:    Or prisoners of their own cliches.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Nature doesn’t follow that rule.  Nature doesn’t say, “I’ve got these materials; I’m only going to use them for one thing.  Make sure it’s me.”  Nature says, “I’m going to do as many things with this as I can, and let’s see how much there is.”

TP:    Let me ask you about this trio.  It’s one of the longest-standing entities in improvised music.  Obviously, each one is a master of their instrument and incredibly resourceful and imaginative.  But what is it about each of them, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, that makes them so suited to interact with you?

JARRETT:  I don’t know!  I guess if you interviewed each one of them, it would be interesting to get their take on this.  Not just mine.  You know the story about when we first recorded and…

TP:    Not really.  Would you care to tell it?

JARRETT:  Well, I guess I did a recording with Gary and Jack of Gary’s music, which was previous to the “Standards” thing.  Then I sort of forgot that happened somehow, and I was thinking I wanted to do… Probably Manfred and I were talking about “what about doing some kind of trio recording?”  He might have suggested Gary.  I don’t even remember who suggested who, or how it came about.  But once it came together… Now, I played with Jack since ’65.

TP:    I didn’t know it went back that far.

JARRETT:  Oh yes, with Charles Lloyd.  The first time I played with Charles Lloyd was in that band.  Jack heard me with Blakey before I met him, and Jack recommended me to Charles Lloyd when Steve…I don’t know, they needed a pianist for some reason.  I heard Gary play with Bill at the Jazz Workshop in Boston with Paul Motian.  I was impressed with Gary, not to mention also the recording “Trio ’64.”  And I don’t know, for some reason, I think we all… So you don’t know the dinner-before-the-first-recording story.

TP:    No, I don’t.  Would you prefer I look it up and not have to retell it?

JARRETT:  Oh, no.  I asked them to have dinner before we started recording, because I wanted to explain to them… You have to remember this was ’83, and it was not hip to play standard tunes in ’83.  It was not at all the thing to do.  Gary had been through the avant-garde quite soundly, and involved in a lot of different music.  Jack was with Sun Ra, and had done a lot of other crazy things.  And I had done a lot of things also.  We were sitting at dinner, and I said, “Okay, this is what it’s about.  We’ve all been bandleaders and we’ve all played our own music, and we’ve all played the music of the other bandleaders we work with.  But when I say you know how freeing it is to be just playing, you guys know what I mean.”  And of course, they knew what I meant.  In other words, not to rehearse your own material, not to say “use brushes here, we’ll go into time here,” the whole kit and kaboodle of that stuff.  I said, “Well, that’s why what I want to do is play standards.”

I think up until that moment Gary thought I was insane, and he couldn’t figure out why I’d want to do that.  I was a young pianist and I was a composer.  Why would I want to do that?  Then we did it, and I think it started to sink in that this was such a special situation that we could actually… Every time we play it’s like a reunion, instead of a program-producing, rehearsing mode thing.  And then I think over the years… There were times in the early years in the trio… First of all, I didn’t think we should play concerts at all.  I thought, “Okay, this is the recording, and that’s it.  Because I don’t want to go into big rooms; I don’t think the music will be happy there.”  So we did a club date at the Vanguard, then I think we noticed how great the music was again.  Then I decided we should do a tour of Japan because the halls in Japan are smaller and much better sounding than any other…well, certainly than our country! [LAUGHS] They are very similar to each other, and they are generally not bigger than about 1500 seats.  Then that worked, and I guess everybody was hooked on this working.  Every now and then, Gary or Jack would say, “You know, maybe we should play some new material.”  And then we’d try some new material, and they’d have the experience of knowing what I was talking about again, at that first dinner, like, “Yeah, here we are working on material.”  Well, playing jazz doesn’t depend on the material.  So what we’re doing, I think, is much more the core of what jazz is.  It’s not like we’re at a jam session, but we’re close.

TP:    Is it like the famous Miles Davis quote that he was… I think you may have expressed this.  That he was paying the people in the band to rehearse.

JARRETT:  You mean every time we played.

TP:    Yes.

JARRETT:  I’m not sure if I said that…

TP:    I don’t know if it was you or someone else who said it.  But I noticed the comment somewhere or another a day or two ago.  But it sounds very much like that same aesthetic or that same imperative.

JARRETT:  Well, I think Miles would have wanted it to be… Yeah, he never wanted to impress material on the band.  He wanted the band to find the material.  It’s only different in the sense that… My thought was, “What if we used material that was so impressed on us already, whether it’s in our head or in our fingers, that we don’t have to worry about it.”  Also, I knew that neither Jack nor Gary had played this stuff for a long time, and neither had I.  So I had the feeling this would be such a short-lived…a good idea but short-lived.  Well, it’s anything but short-lived.  And it got to be a better idea the more we played, and every time we play we find out more about it.

Now, what happened on the last tour is, I talked to Gary and Jack about maybe not playing material of any kind at some of these concerts, just as a theory for the future.  They said, “Yeah, right.”  And I didn’t know what I was talking about either.  We ended up in Montreux, Switzerland, in a hall that had funny sound; not that it was terrible, it was just kind of funny.  The tunes didn’t sound right.  No matter what we did, it just didn’t sound like the right thing for the room.  So I thought this is the time; just pull the carpet out from under ourselves completely.

TP:    That’s something you made a career out of doing as a solo pianist, but I guess not in a group setting.

JARRETT:  Well, in a group it’s a bitch, because I mean, the group has to be like wired together.  You know? [LAUGHS] There’s no format.  We have to be superconductors for each other or something.  And mistakes aren’t the same thing.  I mean, there are no mistakes.  Everything is etched there.  You have to use whatever you play.

TP:    It seems you did something like that on the “Bye Bye Blackbird” record, on that long piece called “For Miles.”

JARRETT:  Yeah, sort of.  But we stayed tonal, and we stayed within a sort of Miles vibe.  At least that’s what we were trying to do.

TP:    I haven’t heard this yet.  Of course, maybe that will be part of your next document.  But are you saying that you’re going back to the full range of all your experiences, that Gary can touch on the things he did with Albert Ayler and you can touch on your… Again, is it encompassing everything from very consonant melody to the most dissonant of timbre-making or something?

JARRETT:  Yeah.  It can be like chamber music for a minute, and then it can just find its way to some other zone, and it can be sounding like we’re playing the blues, but there’s no bar lines.  So yeah.  And that happened a couple of times.  Then in the best tradition of keeping things alive, we didn’t try to do it again.  If it happens again, it will happen again.

TP:    This makes what you’re doing with the songbook and jazz standard material sound as though it’s very consonant with everything you’ve stood for over the years in your approach to music.  It’s the sort of all-material-is-grist-for-the-mill type of principle, and you seem to embody it to the max.

JARRETT:  Well, plus change is the eternal thing.  I mean, the trio has a style in that we can’t play what we don’t hear, and we have limitations because we are human beings, and we only hear what we hear when we’re playing.  So Gary has things his fingers end up playing, and I have things my fingers end up playing, and Jack has ways of playing that are his.  But I think that’s where it ends.  And that’s where it’s supposed to end.  That was what the principle of the thing was.  So whether with material that we’re ultra-familiar with or with no material at all, I did have to say to them, like, “You remember this; you did this; don’t be worried about it. [LAUGHS] We all did this before.”  Because it was like a new thing all of a sudden.  And to me, that’s what’s consonant about it in terms of what I’ve done up to now.  It’s like a menu.  If somebody said, “how do you know you want to order steak?”…you don’t have an answer for that, but you do know.

I think in music, for players one great difficulty is that they get locked into their own food sources.  It’s like a biofeedback.  If you’re stuck in a tape loop, you’re stuck in a tape loop.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a small one or a big one.  It’s the fact of being stuck that makes what you do ineffectual to the listener.  Say somebody is a fan of somebody else.  Well, you can go only so far with that.  That fan can be stupid enough to accept the person they’re listening to doing the exact same thing the exact same way forever.  But what we’re talking about is the creative act, and when you’re trying to let that… The creative act continues to demand different things of you as a player.  It’s like the act asks you.  You don’t say, “I think it would be very creative of me to do this.” [LAUGHS] That’s not how it works.

To get back to the question you asked about why these guys, I think the reason is that it’s been working this long.  If you reverse how these questions are answered, it’s the future that proves the past.  We’re still doing things that knock us out together, and therefore we’re together!

TP:    Is practice and performance very different for you?

JARRETT:  Yeah, practice is… I don’t practice improvising.

TP:    You practice very specific tasks, as it were?

JARRETT:  No, actually I should change that.  I had to practice everything after I was sick.  But I can’t practice much, because it usually gets in the way of my performing.  It’s like it sets up patterns or my ears aren’t as open any more.  When I was a hundred percent fine, health-wise, I wouldn’t listen to piano music at all before solo concerts for months, including my own sometimes.  I would not have played the piano for months before playing Avery Fisher Hall or something.  And in the trio, it’s good to just not develop patterns.  I mean, the whole thing is to… I’ve often said the art of the improvisor is the art of forgetting.  Our brains can probably forget better than our fingers.

TP:    There are a lot of musicians, improvisors, who don’t listen back to their work.  That’s what they tell you anyway.

JARRETT:  Yes.  I am not one of those people.

TP:    You seem to listen voraciously to your output.

JARRETT:  Yes.  I listen more now than I did… When I got ill, I really had no choice but to listen to a lot of things I had done, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever do anything else again.  I was sort of leery of a lot of my choices musically and the ways that I had played.  So that’s another part of the answer to why we changed repertoire, to get out of the… It’s not just that we went to bebop.  It’s also that we went away from something else.  So I didn’t have the option of falling into things that I… I had enough time to erase those patterns, because I hadn’t played piano for a couple of years after I got sick.

TP:    That was ’96 to ’98?


TP:    So no piano for two years.

JARRETT:  That’s right.  I would say I touched the instrument.  Actually, “The Melody At Night With You” was done during those two years.  But I would never have been able to practice or anything like that.


* * *

Keith Jarrett (9-20-01):

TP:    When I spoke with you last year you spoke about moving into the area you’re addressing on Inside Out.  First of all, have your performances during the last 8-9 months basically been a mixture of the free playing and the standards playing, or has it been a mixture?  Is it dependent on the hall and the piano?  How does it play out in live performance which way you go?

JARRETT:  I hesitate to even guess the reasons sometimes, but it’s an improvisational call, just as everything else would be.  In London, when we did that recording… Usually, when we do a soundcheck, we try not to… I mean, we don’t want to play the concert for the soundcheck.  So we might choose some tune to just see how it feels, the way most people probably do soundchecks.  Nothing seemed to feel right.  There are some halls that, for whatever reason, whether they’re too dry or too lively or very… I wouldn’t be able to describe the reasons.  But we then might say to ourselves…I mean, I say to myself this may be one of those times when we can’t trust our usual choices.  That’s how it last began.  When did I speak to you?

TP:    On October 10th, to be precise.

JARRETT:  That was after this tour.

TP:    In this case, the article is going to be about you and the piano and what you’ve been doing in recent years.  Because you won the Readers Poll as Best Pianist, so the people voted for you, and we’re talking about recent activity.

JARRETT:  Well, for one thing, I’ve put all my marbles for the moment into the trio.  So my pianistic… I’m not spreading myself… Although I never was really spreading myself thin, because I’d turn off one thing when I did the other thing.  But I feel that there is much more possibility of focusing on what I do with the piano in this trio context. So that’s one of the things.

TP:    A possibility of focusing on what you do with the piano in the trio context.

JARRETT:  Right.  In other words, if a player decides what he’s doing is the whole… I mean, this is where he has to put his universe.  I’m doing more of that now than I was when I was doing many things within the year, like solo concerts or classical concerts, and then trio concerts too.  In other words, I guess I want to get out of this one context, and that has led to the trio starting… Well, when we went into the Bebop era, and we hadn’t done that.  I changed the way my left hand was behaving a lot of the time.

TP:    You changed the way it was behaving.

JARRETT:  Yes.  In order to feel more appropriate for the different material.

TP:    Did you make it more of a comping function and less of an orchestral function?

JARRETT:   I think I was using… I mean, it’s just a guess because I don’t listen to my old stuff that much.

TP:    Oh, you don’t.

JARRETT:  Not often.  It’s all old.

TP:    I asked you this before: “You seem to listen voraciously to your output,” and you said, “Yes, I listen more now than I did.”  When you got ill, you had  no choice but to listen to a lot of things you’d done because you weren’t sure you’d ever get to do it again.

JARRETT:  Yeah, that’s right.  But since we talked, I probably haven’t listened at all.  But when I started to try to play again with the trio, I think I must have told you that gave me an opportunity to rethink, for example, what my left hand’s function would be under certain circumstances.  So in a bebop situation, when I want to feel more of the era that the bop tune might have come from, there are various things that pianists might have been tending to do back in that time.  They might have been using more… Instead of Bill Evans impressionistic middle-of-the-keyboard sound in their left hand, they might have been down lower doing some 7ths or that kind of thing.  So when I would be practicing to try to remember how to play again, since I hadn’t played for so long, I could get rid of a lot of habit patterns, and that was one that I was happy to broaden.  I was broadening the palette of my left hand.  When you’re improvising, you often are only thinking of the line, and with a pianist that would be the right hand — most of the time.  I always thought like a horn player anyway, so I really don’t like thick textures in a rhythm section context.  I don’t like solos that… I mean, I’m not Brubeckian in that sense.  I don’t often feel that way when the trio is all playing together.  But there are other ways of getting a linear thing going without thickening the sauce.  I didn’t want to get in Gary’s way either, so I didn’t want to play obviously loud roots and things in my left hand.  That’s just one of the things that changed.

But then after we started to get into the bebop thing, which felt fresh to us because we hadn’t been thinking about that material for so long, it started to become… Every now and then, at a hall, there was that experience of “Oh shit, there’s nothing really that we can do with this.  I mean, we can give the audience the best we can do, but isn’t there something else we can try?”  I guess none of us had thought about it.  One day on an airplane I just said to Gary and Jack, “Sometime we might just scrap the material.”  That’s how it started.  It wasn’t quite successful the first time.  It was a very cautious thing.

It’s funny, because now when I listen to Inside Out it seems like a prelude to what we’re doing now.  It’s very weird.  I was asked to write an article for the New York Times about free improvisation, and I did, and I just kind of decided I’m temporarily not wanting them to run this.  I was writing it from the point of view of someone who already had gone much further than this recording!  So I was writing about what we were doing instead of what we had done a year ago.

TP:    Further in what sense?

JARRETT:  Further into the head space of free playing.  In other words, I would put it this way.  The uniqueness of Inside Out is that it seems like a suite of pieces.  But that leads to the feeling that there are structures, even though we didn’t have those structures ahead of time.

TP:    It certainly does feel structured.  It seems to me that it’s from the innate musicality of you all working together.  I think the term you used was “as superconductors” for each other.

JARRETT:  Yes, and because of how long we’ve worked together.  If someone were to say, “Why are you still playing with the same two guys?” I could point to this kind of thing and say, “How would anybody do this with people they didn’t trust?”  We’ve learned to trust each other in a very specific and 100% way.  The difference between what we’re doing now and what we have occasionally done since this recording… One of the concerts will be released next probably, the tapes from Tokyo, is that it’s become less and less like a suite and more like… If it’s a suite of anything, it’s a suite of impromptu less structured things.  So in a way it’s freer and in a way it’s not as easy to listen to.

TP:    It’s one long  piece, more or less?

JARRETT:  Often, yes.  Often that’s true.

TP:    When I think of people who are pioneers in playing free, one things of you, because you did this in the ’60s.  One thinks of Paul Bley, who was doing it — and Gary Peacock, for the matter.  One thinks of Cecil Taylor, although he’d say he’s proceeding off of composed structures and these are meta-compositions in a certain way.  One thinks of Sam Rivers, who did the tabula rasa concept with Dave Holland and others.  One difference is that, at least on this record, what you’re doing is quite lyric and consonant and not, for lack of a better word, as “Out” as the others, which gives a somewhat different impression, and is quite logical considering your absorption of a wide template of Western and non-Western musics.

JARRETT:  Yes.   I think it’s accessible also for that reason.  I think what’s interesting is that it will be a direct… It’s as though I’d written a two-volume saga so far, but the next volume isn’t released yet.  When Inside-Out comes out it will be the first volume of a two or three volume meditation on free music.

TP:    Do you see Whisper Not, the process of playing it, as free music, as the tabula rasa concept?  You said a year ago that that concept and aspiration of playing music was operative for that music?

JARRETT:  Maybe you can rephrase?

TP:    To my ears, Inside Out sounds very much like Part 2 of something you began in Whisper Not.  The approach the pieces sounds so unencumbered by anything but pure listening and finding the material in the moment.

JARRETT:  Oh, certainly.  It’s only in the abstract region of analysis that these things are not related.  That’s what’s so funny about the nouveau conservative alienation of free playing from their whole vocabulary.  It’s possible to look at it that way, but it’s also possible to look at it as, you know, just another step.  Or not even that.  The same thing, but without an object.  Long ago I read a book called Consciousness Without An Object.  Just the title describes what free playing can be.  But on Inside Out, as I said in the liner notes, the objects sort of appear before our eyes, and it’s mostly the piano that invokes them.  So I sort of invoke something, in the way I might invoke it in a solo concert.  And they see right away what I am hearing, or very shortly thereafter they see what they are hearing, and we all find the center of that thing.  Whereas in Tokyo and in the recent things, we just go into the ozone immediately.

TP:    May I step back with you for a second?  Can you tell me the circumstances under which free playing became appealing to you in your own development and your own career?

JARRETT:  I think it was when my youngest brother, Christopher, used to play the piano.  I was a middle teenager.  he knew nothing about the instrument.  He was probably 7 or something.  He didn’t know anything about the piano, but I had been playing for…well, quite a long time.  And what he did on it, knowing nothing, was, to me, something that someone who knew a lot about it might not be able to do.  He would just throw his body into it, and something would happen.  It wasn’t all good, but there was stuff there that no one I knew could have had access to if they already knew the piano.  So I guess that was my first experience.

TP:    When did you start incorporating that way of thinking into your approach to the piano?

JARRETT:  Oh, it took a long time.  I had a bass player who asked me once, “do you really want to play that clean all the time?”  I said, “That’s a very good question.  And no, I don’t.”  I was at Berklee, I guess or I had just left Berklee, and I had to work for a long time to get some…I wouldn’t call it dirt, but some imperfections in the technique.  Because that’s where the soul lay, actually.  Now, if you asked a wonderful classical guitarist to transcribe a B.B. King solo and play it, it wouldn’t be convincing, and it wouldn’t be convincing because there would be one thing he’d be doing too correctly.

TP:    So for you there’s been a lot of fighting against technique over time.

JARRETT:  Yeah, that’s right.

TP:    It’s as though the technique sometimes is a burden for you.

JARRETT:  That’s true.  It is a burden.  It wouldn’t just be for me.  It would be for anyone who had been trained to be a virtuoso.

TP:    But putting that into your career, trace for me how that became part of the sequence of documents that becomes the oeuvre of Keith Jarrett.

JARRETT:  Ives made a big impression on me.  I heard him supposedly playing studies for some of his pieces, and I knew the pieces on the page… I had studied classically, so I had looked at this music and I knew it pretty well.  And his supposed studies for these written pieces didn’t seem at all even related to the pieces that he wrote!  I just loved the fact that he could disregard entirely what he thought he was trying to do, and there was so much grittiness and passion in it… I think it’s the passion part that you lose if you perfect something.  If there’s too much control, you’re going to lose something.  I mean, that was the great contribution of the ’60s…even those players who couldn’t play anything.  The contribution was that this could actually happen, that drummers could drown out bass players and that bass players didn’t necessarily mid, that there wasn’t a tuxedoed Modern Jazz Quartet mentality of what the possibilities of the music are.  I mean, I love the MJQ; it’s not that (?).

TP:    But was there any mentor figure or leader figure who gave you license to do that?  Was it Charles Lloyd maybe, or did Art Blakey have anything to say about that, or other people who aren’t prominent in your discography?

JARRETT:  Well, before I met Charles and before I was even with Blakey, I remember playing with a vocalist in Boston (I used to like to accompany vocalists; it’s another art, actually), and I was playing on the strings, and I guess Henry Cowell and Ives, and seeing Paul Bley with Jimmy Giuffre….those were important things.

TP:    Those showed you ways to elicit the qualities that you were seeking to elicit.

JARRETT:  Yes, I heard something.  Put it this way.  I heard a lack of something.  That bass player’s question to me started those balls rolling to try to find out what that lack, at least in my case, might be.  What did I really hear?

TP:    I’d like to take you back in another sense, and talking about stylistic influences within jazz.  You’re so much written about, and I know this information is out there.  But in this piece, in the context of Whisper Not, which the readers would have paid attention to in their voting… I asked you this last year, and you said that between Bud Powell, George Shearing, Monk, Ellington and Ahmad Jamal, all of whose music you’re performing, Jamal had a particularly visceral impact with the record that had “Poinciana.”  But were you paying attention to these people in terms of trying to assimilate vocabulary?

JARRETT:  No.  That wasn’t what I was doing, I would think.  Each story was different.  But with Ahmad, for example, it was what the trio wasn’t doing that was important to me.  Up to that point, I probably had heard Oscar Peterson and some Andre Previn with Red Mitchell and Shelley Manne, and Brubeck.  Then I heard Ahmad’s White Album, and I thought: “This is swinging more than any of the things I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less.  So what’s the secret here?”  I used to practice drums to that album all the time, because there was so much space in it..

TP:    So you and Jack are both influenced by Vernell Fournier.

JARRETT:  All three of us.  In a van going to a Berkeley, California, concert… I might have told you this.

TP:    You did tell me, and Gary Peacock reaffirmed Ahmad Jamal’s impact.  You seem in several records to be delving into the compositions of Bud Powell.  Can you address his impact on you?

JARRETT:  Well, Bud is the passion master.  That’s a terrible word.  I’ve never heard of that word before, so I wish I could think of something better.  I probably told you this, too that I did a blindfold test once…

TP:    I’m going to patch some of those things in.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Probably when it came down to it, if I heard an intensity in the playing, if you think of Ives… With Ahmad, the intensity was in the spaces actually.  It was the way they played simply that made the swing work the way it did.  There are times when this trio with Gary and Jack gets into a place where we’re swinging, and we know that you can’t get there by willing yourself and deciding you’re going to do it.  We all have to just be familiar with what it feels like when it was going on.  But in general, there was a thing that I got from passion and then there was a thing that I got from intelligence.  So I could say that to me Paul Bley was giving me a message that you could use intelligence in a certain way, back when I heard him with Jimmy Giuffre, and that it didn’t HAVE to swing — because that band did not really swing much! [LAUGHS]

TP:    It was pretty rubato.

JARRETT:  Yes.  But still, if you put all these things together, it does come up with something.  When I listen to Bud, what I hear is this commitment in his playing that is not just fingers coming down on the keys.  It’s coming from more of his body.  So that’s one I got from Bud.

TP:    You did title one of these pieces, after the fact, “From the Body.”

JARRETT:  Oh, I wasn’t thinking of that at all.  I was thinking of the fact that we have to bring this from the body, and not just from our head.

TP:    For you, as a classically trained musician, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make mentally in playing jazz?

JARRETT:  The technique.

TP:    Talk about how the technique is different.

JARRETT:  It’s almost… Mmm. [LAUGHS] Okay, there is a technique to playing Classical music.  The way they differ is that there is no technique that is THE thing to do in jazz.  It is a personal quest to find that.  They are so opposite in that respect that you can’t even compare it.  You can’t compare the techniques.  One is a technique; one isn’t a technique.  So when you’re looking for yourself, which is what the jazz audience would hope you’re doing (I hope they would hope that), you’ve got to throw away all the other rules.  That’s what was really a bitch, because I had already been given all these rules.

TP:    Right.  At the most formative period of your life.

JARRETT:  Yes.  And I was pretty fast… I picked these things up fast, so I went inside and I digested them fast, so I had to regurgitate them over a period of time!

There’s a body language in jazz that you would be avoiding at all costs in classical playing.  And I’m surely not the best representative of that on piano at the moment.

TP:    Of body language?  It’s part of your reputation, I must say.

JARRETT:  I mean, it’s correct that I move like that.  It’s just not correct that it’s a show.  It’s the last thing I’d want to move like; you know, if I was going to decide how to move.  But because you’re dredging stuff up from nowhere most of the time, or seemingly nowhere, you don’t have any chance to be poised and have a good etiquette at the keyboard.  So the technique of getting it out as a pianist in jazz is basically… First of all, you have to not care at all about your own health.  You have to not care about anything but getting out what you hear.  If techniques can differ more than that, I can’t imagine.  In Classical, when you’re rehearsing with an orchestra, you’re not even supposed to listen to the music.

TP:    Say that again.

JARRETT:  I have often been told, “You’re listening too much.”

TP:    When you play Classical music?

JARRETT:  Yes.  And I know what they mean.  I know what the conductor has meant at times.  It’s a bad thing to do, because you get engrossed in the entire affair.

TP:    Then you want to improvise.

JARRETT:  No.  No, but you might not come in on time.  Or you might just be off somewhere in the music.

TP:    Do you practice jazz?

JARRETT:  Well, since I was sick, yes; but before that, no.

TP:    But you practiced Classical music.


TP:    How is practicing jazz different than practicing classical music?

JARRETT:  It feels kind of stupid to practice jazz.

TP:    Is practicing jazz the same as playing?  Barry Harris said that Monk said that.  He said that once he and Monk played “My Ideal” for six or seven hours,  hundreds of variations on it, and that it was the same as playing.  And I’ve heard a similar story from maybe Walter Davis, Jr. on Bud Powell.  They went to his house, Bud was playing something, then they returned much later and Bud was still playing the same thing.

JARRETT:  It is the same, in a way.  I’ve never thought about it at all, but now that you’re telling me this… The thing that makes it the same is that you have to go to the same place to get it happening.  But with Classical, you don’t have to put everything together for sure until you’re performing.  So it is the same thing.  So now, when I go to the studio, I just make sure that I have the strength to do what I might have coming up… If I start playing tunes, if I don’t like what I’m playing, I’m either going to stop or I’m going to make it better.  And then it becomes a performance — for myself.

TP:    Why is jazz for you a trio endeavor vis-a-vis… Well, I guess that’s true on Melody… Let’s erase that question.


TP:    I guess you know where I was going on that one.

JARRETT:  I don’t really know where you were going.

TP:    Where I was going was that jazz to you seems to be a collective endeavor, specifically with this trio, whereas as a soloist it seems peripheral to the totality of your knowledge that’s coming out or that you’re accessing or drawing upon at any given time.  I mean, you hadn’t done standards as a solo pianist until The Melody…

JARRETT:  No, I actually I did a Japanese video that’s released, and I’ve also done it in performance.

TP:    So please allow me to erase that question.  I asked Gary Peacock if he noticed in you or felt any change in your sound in the aftermath of your illness.

JARRETT:  I’m sure he said yes.

TP:    He did.  He said a couple of things.

JARRETT:  He probably said, “Yes, and then it changed again.”

TP:    I’ll tell you what he said.  First he said that on the trio’s first outing after you resumed playing “we consciously tried to tone down the whole volume level of all of us.  His playing was lighter.  He was paying attention to not exerting himself so much physically.  And by quieting it down and getting softer, basically, instead of playing loud or having the volume levels high, what it did was allow his fingers to move in more of a horn-like fashion,” and that your playing sounded like a horn, which is possible to a certain extent when the volume level comes down.  He said that was something which the hall in San Francisco demanded.  Then I asked, “Stylistically is his playing  more compressed or more spare in any ways?” and he said, “No, I think it’s freer.  Less self.  More just the music.”  Do you have any speculations on this, vis-a-vis the tonal personality of Keith Jarrett?

JARRETT:  Well, I probably have speculations.  But  I remember on this last tour, which was in Europe only a couple of months ago: After the first or second concert, Gary said to me, “Your playing….I don’t know what to say about this, but it sparkles in a way that I don’t remember.”  Then later he said, “That wasn’t the right word,” and I can’t remember what he said the better word was.  But I knew what he meant.  There was a kind of… Wow, I wish I could think of adjectives.

TP:    Could it be something to do with cherishing every note?

JARRETT:  Well, it could be.  But I think it’s more of the joy of playing and  not knowing how long that joy will last.  And we all know that, but we don’t know it very well.  But after my illness, I knew it really-really-really well, that it’s always a privilege to be able to play at all.

TP:    And you might have taken it for granted before.

JARRETT:  Well, we all do.  Especially if you’ve played for 50 years!  53 out of 56.  I would say — although this isn’t really on anything that’s out there yet — that my playing has changed even since the time we did Inside Out.

TP:    From my perspective in listening to Whisper Not, it sounded very idiomatic and free as idiomatic music.  The way you put it a year ago was that you were playing more on the time.  I have an affinity for bebop, and it impressed me tremendously, as much as anything I’ve heard from you.  I feel similarly about Inside Out.  I’ve been personally moved by both records.  The words that occurred to me were “compressed,” “honed-in,” or… Well, I don’t know what the words are either.

JARRETT:  There’s a quality that I would call letting-go involved here, too.  When you play a phrase, you might want to… If I studied my own physical moves on a keyboard, I’d probably be making much different ones now if I were to compare them to before I got sick.  Then after I got more well, which still was happening even… This last tour was the first regular-sized tour I think we’ve done, meaning like eight concerts instead of five or three.  I would guess  that I am doing a lot of things differently that I don’t know I’m doing, and the result is that there’s a flow and a… I’m not trying so hard to… Yeah, there’s something about trying in here, too, and I don’t know what it is.

If I see a tennis player or a baseball player and see the way swing… You  know how some of the guys who can’t hit very far look like they’re putting immense energy into their swing, and some guys who do hit well look like they’re not doing that much.  I am still jumping around much more than my doctors would ever recommend.  In fact, probably more.  But where the energy goes is different than before.  So that’s one answer.  I just don’t know how to describe it.

TP:    Do you feel more connected to the tradition and lineage of jazz than you used to?  Or was there a hiatus when you put it aside and maybe came back to it more in dealing with bebop?

JARRETT:  I think a hiatus maybe, yeah.  When I was forced to try to reestablish my playing at home, I was then forced to practice playing tunes, and I never was doing that before.  Since I was alone, I had to make it sound right to myself.  So some of the things I changed because of that.  In other words, the trio wasn’t here every day, so I still had to feel good about what I was doing.  That allowed me to get more connected again to the history of the music and the performance practices of the past that I had already been playing long ago, like stride or… Well, I can’t really do that because my hands are too small, but I do something similar.

TP:    You did it just fine on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams.”

JARRETT:  That’s why that tune was done that way, because I had actually been practicing at home, and when I practiced that at home, that’s how I felt it should sound — the way it starts.  Then we go into a more modern way of playing it.  But at Montreux on this last tour… You asked me before what do we do in concert now; do we do it free or is it a mixture?  I can just give you this example.  Because we never know what it’s going to be.  Most of this tour was almost all tunes, and there was not that much so-called free stuff.  Then there was Montreux, when we started playing tunes, noticed that the sound and the piano was a certain way, and it was okay, but then I thought “I’m going to something else,” and we started to play “Ain’t Misbehaving” or something like that in that same stride manner, and then we played three tunes in a row in that style.  Now, this wasn’t the usual fooling around at the soundcheck thing where we often just kid around with that, but it got serious, and we were really playing that way.  After that, we played “Straight No Chaser” and took that  out and we were playing very free off the blues completely.  Then we played more ballads and tunes.  So it was like everything! [LAUGHS]

TP:    So it’s almost as though you’re accessing the full jazz tradition in an idiomatic way as you used to do with classical music.

JARRETT:  Possibly.  I know what you mean.

TP:    A broader question.  Has the experience of the last couple of years, of practicing and relearning, given you a different appreciation as a form unto itself?

JARRETT:  No, I don’t think so.

TP:    Can you address your feeling of what jazz is as a cultural inheritance for us, as a people?

JARRETT:  My writer’s self comes up when you ask me a question like that.  The writer is saying, “Now, you don’t dare answer this with a casual answer.”

TP:    It doesn’t sound to me like you answer anything that casually.

JARRETT:  But when I write I get even worse.  But I don’t know.  All I know is we need it.

TP:    Why do we need it?

JARRETT:  Because I think it may be the only art form at this point in time that asks the player…not the conductor, not any detached entities from the actual playing…that asks the player to find  out who he is and then decide if it’s good enough to speak from that self, and then that player has to live with who he said he was until the next time he plays.  It’s an incredibly rigorous and merciless thing, unless you’re doused with some drugs or something.  And strangely enough, that rigorous thing is the representation in musical form of freedom.  So it is a metaphor for important things.

In life, if you think you’re in control, you usually aren’t.  You’re usually just thinking you are.  If you think you don’t have any control, you usually relinquish all control and let everything happen and therefore have no effect.  To play jazz and make something valuable out of it, takes such a perfect balance of those two things — mastery and the relinquishing of control.

TP:    Many of your generation, yourself included, served consequential apprenticeships with masters.  The oral tradition held.  For you, perhaps that was operative in your brief time with Art Blakey, or maybe not.  You could tell me if it was that way for you with Charles Lloyd.  Were there any other figures like that for you?

JARRETT:  Paul was like younger than I was!

TP:    Well, how about Art Blakey.  A lot of people who passed through the Jazz Messengers say that once a Jazz Messenger, always a Jazz Messenger.  Did he have an effect on the way you think about music or life or…

JARRETT:  Not really.  But he was a sweet guy.  I loved working with him.  But no, I wouldn’t say…

TP:    How about the years with Charles Lloyd?

JARRETT:  Well, Charles gave me carte blanche to do whatever I felt to do.  At the time he wasn’t paying me enough for anybody to do what I was doing, but I didn’t care — I was a young guy.  But that was an important thing, to have no restrictions on what I did.  Very few players get in a situation like that,  that early, and I think it was a fortunate combination for me.

TP:    A combination of the zeitgeist and the personalities in the band.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Jack had just joined, and that’s been a long relationship.  Philosophically, Charles was an astute… This sounds bad, but he was an astute businessman, so he kind of like…if you didn’t have to do it and his band was doing it for him, he probably would let it happen! [LAUGHS]

TP:    When I spoke with you last year, I asked you to pinpoint the qualities in Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock that make you so suited, and you addressed the question by telling me that I should interview them and get their perspective. I asked Peacock, who said that it was ineffable, but that you all share a set of common experiences — Jamal, Miles Davis, etc.  I don’t know if I’m going to get to speak with Jack or not.  Is this a question you can address for me now?

JARRETT:  Well, I had an answer for this years ago, but I’m not as lucid as I was.

TP:    Good.  Then we can create a new one.

JARRETT:  But I’m not as lucid as I was a couple of years ago.  Well, when I think about us as a unit and then as separate personalities, to me it’s as though if we didn’t play together, we would have been making a big mistake.  Each of us would have made a mistake.  Whatever that mistake would be, I don’t know.  But not having played together would have been a mistake.  I don’t sit around and think cosmic things all the time.  But I think we were intended to be playing together.

Jack is an inclusionist.  He is the kind of guy who would not want to say anything bad about another player — or anything.  He would want to give credit to everybody.  Gary is a thinker and a very specific… I had a word for this, but I don’t know what it is any more.  Gary lives in his head a lot.  Jack is a heart guy.  And I am a skeptic. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You’re the Skeptic, Peacock is the Thinker, DeJohnette is the Heart, the Passion.

JARRETT:  I am skeptical even as far as being skeptical of my own thinking, yes.

TP:    How do you put that aside when you play?

JARRETT:  See, that’s wrong with doing this.  I’m not sure these words are accurate for what I’m thinking.  I’m not thinking of the right adjectives or the right…

TP:    Is the quality of thought different from when you play than when you talk?

JARRETT:  No.  In some funny way we are all so confident… I don’t know what to say about that.  You know how you repealed that one question?   I can’t answer this.  It’s too hard.  It’s like we’re a family, and I can’t come up with the right…

What I’m skeptical about is all belief systems.  Gary has found one for him.  He’s a Zen guy.  And he would say it’s not a belief system.  Jack has found things he believes to help him, the way Gary found something he believes helps him.  And I actually have seen that Zen has helped Gary a lot anyway.  So it’s not a question of whether it’s effective or not.  It’s just that I believe that because there is a practice involved, it is a system.  That’s maybe why I chose the word “skeptic.”  What I mean by “skeptical” in this case is I never want to close a door on something I didn’t include  because my feeling is that it’s not part of my practice or my belief system.  So I am skeptical of all of those, including my own when they come up.

TP:    You have in the past had certainly strongly held belief systems, yes?  Gurdjieff.

JARRETT:  But the funny thing is that if anyone ever looks deeply enough into Gurdjieff, the one thing he was saying is that it isn’t a system.  It’s just that what we’ve gotten, just like with a lot of things… The flak you get back from it is not the real thing.  The rep it has is not what it is.

TP:    In the process of the trio, you said that you invoke and Gary and Keith pick up, and then  it becomes an equilateral triologue.

JARRETT:  In this one recording.

TP:    On the one hand, your sound and predispositions define what the trio does.  On the other hand, there is this constant three-way interplay going on all the time.  To what extent are you the leader and how does that operate?  I know it’s naive question…

JARRETT:  No, that question is not naive.  It would be naive to not have that question! [LAUGHS] I hope that I am the leader in the way I would guess a good leader would be.  I consider Miles to have been an incredible bandleader, in the sense that he never told anybody what to play, but he gave them the feeling that they could find it out for themselves, and when they did, he didn’t say a word to them except, “Let’s play it.”

I am like a guide.  I am a programmatic guide.  I think if I weren’t there, you’d hear some great music, but it might not connect the way it does.  I mean, if I put somebody in my place, a great player… I have instincts about form, even over large periods of time…not architectural form, but what you sense on Inside Out.  It’s kind of a miniature version of what I’m talking about.  I think without my little pushes and pulls, it just wouldn’t cohere.

I can give you a great example.  In Montreux two years ago, that was the first place where we tried to play no tunes.  That was the same tour as this London release, the Inside Out record, and we hadn’t tried it before, and whenever I got soft, so did Jack and Gary.  When I sounded like I was finishing, they went down.  So it was threatening to stop.  The music would keep threatening to be over unless I did something.  So I had to talk to them about it in  London, and I said, “Just remember that you’re not obliged to follow anything.  None of us have to follow each other anywhere.”  That’s when it started to open up more, and that’s one of the reasons we chose this to release rather than Montreux.  So I am leading the band without trying to.

TP:    How much are you feeding off of them in the in-the-momentness of the thing?

JARRETT:  More now than… Do you mean in the free playing?

TP:    I mean in any playing.

JARRETT:  Well, I hope I’m feeding off of them as much as I can!

TP:    It’s another naive question, but I was curious what you’d say.

JARRETT:  Obviously, if I had to have a substitute player for either of them, I would be cancelling the concert.  So I guess I would prefer to be playing with them.

TP:    Jack does magical things.  The sounds he gets out of that drumset… It’s so quick.

JARRETT:  Oh, definitely.  Well, when you hear the Tokyo tapes, we all sound like we disappeared.  But me less than them, because unfortunately it’s pretty hard to make the piano elastic.  It keeps popping back into being a lever system.  But Jack becomes not the “Jack deJohnette, drummer” that everybody knows.  Gary has done a lot of different things, so… But I have the feeling that our identities become erased in the quality of energy we’re working with.  In our situation, though, I still think that because my instrument is the chordal one, if there are any guidelines… I mean, if there’s any moment when there’s a slump coming up or we feel something is not there, the only person who can suggest tonality, or a lack of it, or direction, or motion, or dynamics in any quick and coherent way that could be grasped by the other two is the piano.

TP:    On Inside Out how did you decide on how you sequenced the document?

JARRETT:  It’s in sequence, except that the fadeout then leads to the end of the next night’s set.  The encore was one of the few encores we did.  There wasn’t any more room on the CD.

TP:    On “Riot” are you fading into something or coming out of something?

JARRETT:  We’re fading in on this thing that was already about 25 minutes long.  That was just crazy.

TP:    Were the concerts on the 26th and 28th completely different in pacing, content, etc.?

JARRETT:  Yes.  But the first two tracks are absolutely the way it went down the first night.  So that’s the first set, I think.

TP:    The third piece?

JARRETT:  I think that’s the beginning of the second set the same night.  “Riot” was the second night.

TP:    On Saturday I took my first trip to Manhattan since the bombing.  The only subway line I can now use goes through the Chambers Street station which abutted the World Trade Center.  The first track was on my headphones as I was going through this now ghost station, and it had a quality that made me very happy I was listening to it at that particular moment.  It’s a spooky thing; everyone was dropping their New York attitude and peering out the windows into the station as they’re going through.

JARRETT:  It’s actually a funny album title to be coming out at this exact moment.  Everything has sort of turned that way, hasn’t it.

I don’t think I can do justice to covering these guys’ personalities!  We’ve been together for so long.  I don’t know if I even think of them as…  I had this cutesy way of describing them.  It was in the Downbeat article.  Whatever I said about it then, I guess I must have thought about it ahead of time, and was more correct, at least in a semi-humorous kind of way.  But these are deep players.  Personality is what we’re trying to get away from when we play.  And we’re of course limited by being who we are, but that’s a tough one.  they’re just too beautiful to use an adjective for them.

TP:    There must be some innate characteristic of that personality, because it’s obviously you and it’s obviously Gary Peacock and it’s obviously Jack DeJohnette.

JARRETT:  Yes.  But the hardest to describe for any of us would be ourselves.  So I could say that Gary tends to be on the scientific, he-doesn’t-like-belief-systems side of things, which is good for him, and it works for him, and I need that.  Jack is in some ways the… In Gurdjieff there was a thing about Third Force.  There was a positive, negative and harmonizing force.  In some ways, Jack is a harmonizing force, and a…I don’t know what to… An inclusionary… He’s inclusionary.  But nothing is great on its  own.  No one word makes that person as great as I feel they are.  You know what I mean?

But it’s a challenging thing for me to think of.  Because when we play together, there’s an alchemy going on, and that alchemy comes from — to some extent, of course — the chemical and psychological natures of all three of us..  As you said, we are different people.  But it’s that chemical combination that I see more than I see our separateness.  So when I think of us as separate people, yeah, I know what my tendencies are in conversation, and what Gary’s are and what Jack’s are.  If Gary and I are having an intense debate about whether there’s one Truth or many, Jack might be the guy who says, “Okay, let’s go have some coffee somewhere.”  But the thing is that it all drops away when we play.  But on the other hand, those intense conversations don’t happen any more.  We’ve been together for so long and we’ve all learned so much during that time, that we’re now not who we were back at the other Downbeat article.  We’ve grown since then.  When Gary and I talk now, we get to some incredibly beautiful, deep places, and we understand each other’s language.  Sometimes it takes 18 years to understand somebody’s language.

TP:    It can take a lifetime.

JARRETT:  Yeah, and you keep interpreting it wrong.  Gary used to interpret several words wrong, and I think it’s because of his upbringing and religion; he doesn’t have a good feeling about the word “God” or anything like that.  Jack doesn’t mind those words.  I kind of do.  So it’s a nice combination where it all ends up being neutral, and it’s time to play…

TP:    I suppose that process is a metaphor for what happens in the musical language as well over 18 years — the conversation and the dialogue and the understanding evolve to that kind of collective simplicity.

JARRETT:  Yeah.  And trust.

TP:    You cut through a lot of the verbosity or whatever, not that the trio was verbose… That’s an interesting coda you’re giving me.

JARRETT:  I’m trying to.  Because I don’t think that one-word thing is really cool at all.

TP:    Oh, I wasn’t asking for one word at all.

JARRETT:  That was my choice.  I was trying to think of the words I had thought of before.  We’ve been watching each other grow all that time.  So it’s sort of like we’re friends and we’ve been together this long, but it’s also like we were watching kids grow up — and we’re one of the kids.  When we play, we’re morphing into more and more of what we could have been before, but we didn’t know it yet.

TP:    How much more in this year and the early part of next year is the trio scheduled to tour?

JARRETT:  We have five concerts in the States, and that’s it for the rest of this year, and nothing planned for 2002.  I have an ongoing physical monitoring system, and I have to take time off to make sure everything is…

TP:    Can you comment a bit on your physical well-being these days?

JARRETT:  Well, except for these disk problems, which I’ve had for years, which is really on my case, and I’m trying to avoid surgery…

TP:    Was that exacerbated by the CFS?

JARRETT:  No.  That was exacerbated by music.  Better not to put this in the article in case I want to get insurance.  But I am still on the medications for the bacterial parasite that I was being treated for…

TP:    Are those allopathic or homeopathic.

JARRETT:  They’re major medical, like antibiotics and stuff..

TP:    So you’re on a constant diet of antibiotics and stuff.

JARRETT:  All I can tell you is that I believe if I hadn’t gone on this protocol, you wouldn’t have heard any more from me.


JARRETT:  Are you aware of the anagram of “Riot”?  It’s easy but I bet no one is going to think of it.  “Trio.” [LAUGHS] How do you like that?  It’s one of those that’s just too simple.

TP:    Can you tell me what your daily regimen is?

JARRETT:  Besides the 79 charcoal pills?  Now, sometimes because of my shoulder and my back, I have to not have this regimen at all.  But here’s the day.  I get up (I won’t tell you what time, because that’s not fair).  I have breakfast, and then I almost every day take a very brisk treadmill or outdoor walk, depending on the weather, for 2-1/2 miles or so.  Then I do some stretches and exercises for my upper body, which I really can’t… I usually have  to see the chiropractor every day, and I usually practice in the evenings, 45 minutes to whatever amount of time.

TP:    What have you been working on lately?

JARRETT:  Just moving my fingers.  I’ve been just playing tunes in the studio.  Sometimes the Goldberg Variations.  That’s it.  I’m going to get my studio worked on, and I’ll try to get that practicing in before it all goes down.

So it’s a very boring day.  Then I always read at night.  That’s a must.  What am I reading now?  If you saw the house, there are so many books around that people often ask, “Did you read all of these?”  And I have to say, “Not all of them, but more than you think.”  I got involved with a writer named Gene Wolfe, and I am surprised about this guy.  I’m trying to give him as much space and as much time as possible.  If you saw the book in a bookstore… If you were me, you would never buy a book with a cover like these.  They look like these…what do you call them…these Quest novels, like Ursula Leguin type… But the guy is into some stuff that I feel is very good for the mind, and I actually recommend him, but you have to meet him halfway.  So let him do what he’s doing and be patient.  But I think anybody who’s read good writing eventually realizes how great this guy’s writing is.

TP:    Have you tended over the years to be more involved in fiction or non-fiction or both?

JARRETT:  Both.  If I had to say which I’ve read more of, I’d say fiction.

TP:    Any favorite writers?

JARRETT:  A lot of them.

TP:    Tell me a couple.

JARRETT:  Robert Musil.  Calvino.

TP:    A true skeptic, Robert Musil was.

JARRETT:  Yes.  He was also interested in Sufism, which I didn’t realize until I read his book twice.  I read Antonio Demassio, who writes about the brain and how we perceive things  That’s a mindblower in itself.  That’s neuroscience, not fiction.  But one of the books is titled “The Feeling Of What Happens.”

I have two kids.  One of them is 30 already.


* * *

Keith Jarrett (Sept. 9, 2008):

TP:   How does it feel to be inducted into Downbeat’s Hall of Fame?

KJ:   I was getting Downbeat when I was a teenager, and I’m aware of the magazine’s deep roots and history, and of the people who are there. So yes, it’s meaningful, as far as people thinking my work is important. But if I think of what fame means right now, it’s not so meaningful! Years ago, in Vienna, when I was about to do a solo concert, the press was interested in talking to me and I did an interview with Der Spiegel. One of their first questions was, “What is it like to be a star?” I said, “Man, that is out of somebody else’s book, not mine.” Then also, I remember, at the only class reunion I ever went to, the question was, “So, are you successful?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “So are you making a lot of money?” So these words like “fame” and “star” have relative meaning. If you were asking, “What’s it like to get a Grammy?”, I’d think, “No.” It would be the beginning of the descent from the mountain.

TP:    In his biography of you, Ian Carr places the beginnings of your obsession with jazz to your late adolescence in Allentown, Pennsylvania, when your parents divorced, and you began doing little gigs in town.

KJ:   When I was around 14, which is when my parents were having trouble, I had a remarkably good classical teacher, but once a week I had to take a little time off from the end of the school day and to drive to Philadelphia for the lesson. She was a firm believer in my not spreading the peanut butter thin. In other words, she didn’t like that I was interested in anything else but the Debussy or the Beethoven that I was studying with her. Strangely, in about a week-and-a-half in Philadelphia, I’ll be playing again in what turns out to be where she used to live, and it will be jazz.

Allentown was a cultural vacuum. There was one record store, I think, called Speedy’s Record Shop. As a kid, I had an allowance maybe, but we didn’t have much money. Occasionally, I would play classical concerts for the local women’s club, and I’d save as much as I could to look for new things that I knew nothing about. Every now and then my brother and I would try to sneak records out of the stores, because we couldn’t afford them. It’s not easy to steal a record! We got caught once, which wasn’t fun. Of course, the selection for pianists was between Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn, and also Errol Garner and Brubeck. One pivotal moment came when I found the Ahmad Jamal white album. I didn’t know who Ahmad was, but it looked interesting. Years after the trio was already a working band, Gary, Jack and I started talking about the album, and found we’d all had the same experience with it. I was playing drums at the time, and I got my drumming together through emulating Vernell Fournier’s great brush playing in the sparse spaces of Ahmad’s music. It was my introduction to actual jazz versus popular jazz.

After high school, when I was in Boston, trying to go to Berklee, I got a job with a vocalist in the upstairs lounge of the Jazz Workshop. Herb Pomeroy, who was my big band instructor, was playing downstairs, and one night when Ray Santisi, who was one of my piano teachers, hadn’t shown up, Herb asked me if I wanted to play. Pete LaRoca was playing drums, He was my favorite drummer at the time, and this was just too much to conceive of. If Ray hadn’t shown up, I would never have gone back upstairs. It was the most beautiful way to go through the gate, to the nirvana place that one would want to be.  That was my first world-class connection as far as actually playing jazz.

TP:   By then, you were probably up on what Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner were doing…

KJ:   No, I wasn’t. In the beginning, I was pretty conservative. I hadn’t heard Coltrane yet—or at least I hadn’t liked Coltrane yet. People would say, “You must be listening to Bill a lot.” “Bill who?” “Bill Evans.” I had heard him, but wasn’t feeling like I was in that direction. Actually, I’d heard Bill when I came through Boston on a summer bus tour with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. I won’t make any derogatory statements about that experience, except that it was, in all ways, terrible—except that some of the people were nice. They realized that I was talented. They also respected that I was resisting the urge to do something inappropriate for the musical format, restraining myself from being a crazy person in this situation. That made it worthwhile to do those things for a certain amount of time. I think it’s a mistake for people always to be able do what they want. I think my sons see my career as always having my way. But that’s because they were born after all this other stuff.

TP:   Early on, did you know that music would be your life?

KJ:   Yes. I had a very normal childhood, because that’s the way I wanted it most of the time, and when I did classical lessons, since I wanted to go out and play sports with my friends, I’d turn forward the timer on the kitchen stove, as my grandmother wasn’t paying much attention. But when my mother or father would discover I’d done 2 or 2½ hours instead of the mandatory three, they’d say, “Then we’ll have to sell the piano.” For all I knew, they were serious—my father was a real estate man and probably had enough, but he had five kids, and if the piano wasn’t being used… That stopped me in my tracks. I would think, “No, that’s not an option.” When I was 8, I got my first grand piano, after actually paying for it myself from concerts in Allentown. I slept under it in order to be able to play it immediately upon waking up.

Q: You seem to have been quite focused and mature about how to proceed—resisting the temptation to rebel when playing with Fred Waring, rejecting an opportunity to study with Nadia Boulanger, waiting a couple of years before you matriculated at Berklee.

KJ:  I didn’t know what the future would bring, but I had really good instincts about who I was. I couldn’t have explained why I said no to Nadia—I was looking to study with her! To me, I was not negating an education. But I didn’t want to learn the names of things. I wanted to be involved in a process that was pure, and I didn’t want to get analytical about that process, or have anyone tell me that something wasn’t possible because it wasn’t musical. My ears were going to guide me. I don’t fit that well into any particular category. Whatever musical story I tell is not all jazz; at times, it’s something uncategorizable. If someone started to tell me, ‘Okay, this sound goes with this sound,’ I might believe it, and I might never have experimented putting different sounds next to each other.

When I heard Brubeck’s quartet live the first time, I remember thinking, almost verbatim, “There’s more than this.” There’s always more, and if you get it all down, maybe there isn’t any more. If you make a map of something, and that map isn’t changeable, you’re stuck with the map. For driving, that’s good, but for music, I’m not sure. Inclusion has been what it’s about for me.

TP:   You’ve said that saxophone players influenced you, not pianists.

KJ:   Let’s broaden the statement to include horn players. There’s a fluidity in an instrument that uses air. I’ve always wanted to get as close as possible to subtracting the mechanism of the piano from the whole affair. Now, that may no longer be true. Every little period of time I go through, I reinvent what I do, and will let the piano be a piano. You can see that in my recent solo things.

Early on, my favorite bands were usually pianoless—for instance, the Gerry Mulligan small big band. Strangely enough, I would call Monk’s bands often pianoless—he wasn’t always comping, and when he was, it was more orchestral. Even his solos were not pianistic, because he wasn’t a virtuosic player; he sort of played like a composer. For Ornette, no piano. People whose ears were open always attracted me, and I liked what Paul Bley was doing with the piano, especially when it was a funky instrument. When I heard him on a Bosendorfer on something that was recorded maybe 6 or 7 years ago, I would never have recognized him.

Pianists in jazz do not work on touch. I was lucky that I started with classical hearing. I was also lucky—or smart—to play Mozart around the time that the trio was playing ballads, because Mozart demands a certain refinement of touch that I had not developed until I started to play Mozart. Only since then has my ballad playing been closer to what I hear.

TP:   Can you talk about your conception of the trio with Haden and Motian vis-a-vis the present group?

KJ:   The early trio represented three free spirits, and I chose them because of that. We were in the midst of that revolution period. and I felt that we were defying the norms of the time. That means in all ways. Free playing wasn’t the same as free players thought it was. Most free players couldn’t play time. Most might not even be able to play their own instruments, but they could be extremely influential because they did things that no one was willing to try. If we wanted to swing, we could. If we didn’t, we didn’t. If the overall context demanded both, we could do that. At the Village Vanguard one night, Max Gordon said to me, “Keith, you know, you could get a lot more people here. You guys can really swing; you should do that.” I said, “Max, it’s going to take a while, but the people will come, because we’re doing exactly what we know we should be doing.” Now, how did I know that? I was a young upstart talking to an old club-owner who knew what he was talking about. But my instincts were good. Words come out of your mouth and you don’t remember, “Gee, I’m not sure when I’m going to eat my next meal.”

TP:   That’s how it was during the ‘60s, wasn’t it.

KJ:   That’s right. We were trying to build a tradition. I would say I wanted to be free of everyone’s bullshit, and that included my own. I was never trying to be a stylist. So I wasn’t going to be sparing. I was going to be merciless on myself. If I could write something that could find its way to a different place than everything else, and it was still something I felt very close to, then that would be successful.

Now, how does that pertain to the present trio in 2008? I would say we’re trying to preserve those precious values. As opposed to the ‘60s, now it’s like, if we don’t do it, who’s doing it? If I think of one thing that it is, it’s how Miles attacked the beat on his trumpet. When we went into the studio to do our so-called Miles tribute, Bye Bye Blackbird, a couple of weeks after he died, I talked to Jack and Gary, and I said, ‘We’re not doing a tribute album. Maybe we’re going to play some material that Miles played. But my idea is to play as though I were Miles, not play like a pianist who would play Miles.” If you extrapolate from that to what we do when we play standard material, we’re trying to find this place that we don’t hear many people coming from. We don’t hear people swinging that often, if I can speak for Gary (and maybe Jack, too). What young players know about the music is so stilted somehow. They do their best, and they might be great players, but there’s a lot of wasted energy going on.

TP:   In light of that remark, it’s interesting that so many younger players mention both your American and European quartets as extremely influential. Do you have any speculations on the impact of those explorations on the way jazz sounds today?

KJ:   I don’t. But possibly one reason why I don’t sense it is because it was so personal. One of the reasons why the American quartet was so interesting is because none of us knew what the hell we really were doing. With both quartets, I took into account everything about these guys while writing the pieces. As an example, I did this for Jan Garbarek with strings, on Arbor Zena and Luminescence, where I got inside what I thought was Jan’s way of playing. When he came over to rehearse for Luminescence and look at the sketch, I played it on the piano and did his part. He asked, “Do I play like this pattern?” I said, “Yeah, you do it all the time.” He said, “I had no idea.” There was something like a minor second, and then a third down, and then a second, and then another third, so it was completely out of a key. I heard him do that many times. Another example is that Dewey Redman did not like to play on chords.

TP:   Now, you went from working incessantly with two different groups, after always having worked in groups beforehand, to making solo concerts the focus of your activity. How did the idea of creating form from a tabula rasa begin to gestate for you?

KJ:   I was just curious about the process. So far as I know, no one was investigating it. It happened by accident. After Facing You,  I came on stage after Friedrich Gulda at a festival in Heidelberg. I started playing a song, which I don’t remember, then I attached that, without stopping, to another song. Then there was some kind of transitional material, and it ended up being whatever amount of minutes of that. That led to me to wonder whether those transitions themselves were something, which led me to investigate that. It’s such a different universe. I wasn’t really even ready for this discovery, because only recently did I become a good enough player to use both hands properly under those circumstances! So whatever amount of years I spent doing it, it was as an inferior player to who I am now when I play now.

TP:   By “recently” you mean what?

KJ:   Five or six or seven years ago.

TP:   So not until after you had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

KJ:   Correct. And I worked my ass off in a new way. I realized jazz pianists don’t do their left hand. It gets to be just like an appendage. When they do solo albums, typically what you hear is, “Where’s the bass? I’m waiting for the rhythm section.”

I have to credit the disease with giving me a tremendous amount of creative information—it was a great opportunity to sum up my work. I had no idea if I’d ever play again, so all I had to do was think about what happened to me. When I’d listen to my solo stuff, I’d think, “What the fuck am I doing? There’s too many notes here. If I did this again, no, I’d never play this, I’d never play that.” Over that period of time, I realized that, if I ever returned to playing solo, I’d never do it that way. When I started to practice and was able to play at all, I found myself stopping, because I’d be playing something I didn’t really hear in my head. I didn’t like it any more.

TP:   You went through a similar crisis during the ‘80s, when you made Spirits, and transitioned from one set of habits into a new realm of investigation.

KJ:   That’s correct. Although when you’re sitting at the same 88-key instrument and you’ve got the same two hands to undo the architecture you’ve built up over two decades of doing this thing you thought you understood, it’s a freaky experience to go through. However, the freakiness only lasts a second, and then you realize, “if I have the energy to do it ever again, I at least know where to start.”

TP:   You’ve remarked that you discovered Gurdjieff while you were on the road with Charles Lloyd, and later became involved in Sufism. Did the solo playing have anything to do with constructing some kind of aesthetic philosophy from those investigations?

KJ:   All through my entire history, there’s a mixture of philosophy, spirituality, and just plain musical desire—desire for the instrument. I never took drugs, for example. I didn’t need that. I would see people…I would roll cigarettes for them. I was with the Animals in London. Jimi Hendrix was interested in doing a project, and I was working on ideas of how to work with him. I wanted to do a project with Janis Joplin. There was a rough mix of ingredients in the ‘60s and ‘70s that we really don’t  have now. We might call this the “information age,” but I consider that complete bullshit. What IS the information? Of what value is it if it doesn’t attach itself to something? In the future, I can see that there might be an audience that literally thinks all music is equal, and there’s no such thing as good or bad. So I’m happy to be as old as I am, and I’m happy particularly to get this award while I’m alive, because in that sense it does mean something. Somebody is saying that something is better than something else, and that’s a relief.

TP:   What are your criteria for documentation? It’s different than the actual process of music-making.

KJ:   It’s not all that different, in my life. At this point, I record all solo concerts, and if it’s good enough I might send it to Manfred Eicher—although on a different day of the week, listening to the same music, I might have an absolutely different take on it. I don’t really like to do that. When you’re aware you’re recording, it’s completely different than when you’re not being documented. It changes both the trio and solo music. It’s possible to forget it for a while, but unfortunately, coughs mean something if they happen when you’re recording. They might mean you can’t use this track, and you know that you’ve just played this the best that you’ll ever play it. There’s no second takes.

In 2006 I played a solo concert at La Fenice, which is the opera house in Venice that was totally destroyed by fire, and wasn’t rebuilt for several decades. That concert might never come out, but at the moment it’s at the top of the list. Since 2006, it’s been up there a couple of times, but then I decided, “No, there’s something newer that’s more interesting.” For whatever reason, it did not manage to be the right thing. I am not using that as the Bush version of “the right thing,” that I know what’s right. Just the instincts weren’t there for this to come out, because other things were more timely.

TP:   Although you are always the “decider.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

KJ:   Yes.

TP:   Why don’t you do studio recordings, by the way?

KJ:   Well (a) I hate studios, and (b) more of the time I feel that what I do is for a public that’s actually in the space. Manfred and I talked about me doing another solo thing in the studio, and I’m open to it, but in general, that vibe is wrong for me. There’s too many wires around. Too many lightstands, too much metal around. The control room and the speakers are usually worse than the ones I have in my house. I don’t know if I could engage that.

TP:   Is there something about performing for an audience that facilitates your focus?

KJ:   No. It’s actually the opposite. It’s harder to be focused. However, given that, I have the valid feeling that there are people there who are ready for whatever happens. That facilitates something, but I can’t call it focus. Focus is easier alone probably.

TP:   Do you have inklings to return to performing classical music?

KJ:   Possibly. I don’t really know. I’ve been thinking about the possibility of recording the Goldberg Variations again, for one example. But I haven’t taken myself seriously enough to undertake it. That would be done in, oh, a hall like the Salle Pleyel, with no audience.

TP:   You’ve been quoted that it’s insane to do both jazz and classical music.

KJ:   Yes.

TP:   What in your personality or character allows you to do it?

KJ:   It’s insanity.

TP:   You certainly don’t sound insane.

KJ:   No, that’s one of the great things about insanity! The thing is, you can do it, but you have to do it with scrupulous concern for both your mental focus and the needs of the music you’re about to do. When I was working on Mozart’s concertos before I got sick, I was doing as little of anything that was not Mozart as I could. Many people wouldn’t have that possibility, and if they don’t, then I wouldn’t recommend it. Like, back-to-back, “Okay, this is the classical stuff, then I’ll do improvisation after.” In that sense, even I am not that insane. [LAUGHS] That would be total insanity. Unless you want to strip them both of their innate qualities.

I did a bunch of harpsichord recordings, and you cannot seriously conceive of playing piano when you’re working with the harpsichord. Now, a few days after you’ve finished a harpsichord project, you might want to play a solo piano concert because you’re curious what will come out. The fact that it’s new, that it feels somehow different again, are positives. But I would have to set the stuff up with immense care to be able to do it without going more insane.

TP:   Because of the retrospective nature of this piece, I have to ask about your experience with Miles Davis. It does seem that your time with Miles was crucial.

KJ:   I believe I can call it camaraderie. From the moment I started to play with him, we had an understanding that it was temporary, that I had this other direction that had nothing to do with electronic keyboards, and that I wasn’t at all into that. Around 1967, Miles brought his whole band to a little basement club in Paris where I was playing with Aldo Romano and J.F. Jenny-Clark, who is not alive any more, and later, every now and then, he would show up to hear the trio with Charlie and Paul. I’d walk past the table, and he’d say, “When are you going to play with my band?” I’d say, “Well, I have a lot of work coming up, but I really appreciate that you like the music,” blah-blah-blah. Once I came off the stage from set with Paul and Charlie, and he said, “Keith! You play the wrong instrument.” What could I say? “I know!” So my comments about horns and voice and so on, he was hearing that already, even though we were playing this strange music. A couple of times, he asked me how I could play from no music. I said, “I don’t know. I just do it.”

Once, after we’d spoken, I heard the band with Wayne, Herbie, Ron and Tony at the Village Gate, and Miles played a beautiful short solo—he played all short solos—and then the rest of the band played long solos. He walked off the stage, went to the bar, had some water, stood there for a long time, and then finally went back on stage and played a tune, and then went out. I heard that happen each tune, and I thought, “You know, I’d like to help out somehow, but I’m not sure what that means yet.” When I joined him, the band started turning electric, and I wasn’t sure what my role could possibly be. He asked me which instrument I wanted to play, and I said, “You know, Miles, I hate them equally, so I want both.” “Okay.”

When I say “camaraderie,” I mean that I was meant to be a part of this, and I could tell Miles felt that. What he really needed at the time I joined him was someone on keyboard who could be both challenging and funky, and I think that’s what I contributed. Once the band with Jack and I and Mtume started to play, Miles was staying on the stage the entire time, and going into his crouch—obviously, I made him happy for a while, He didn’t have any question about who should be in that band then.

TP:   Back to your position on the jazz timeline, it’s hard to find anyone under 50 who doesn’t mention you and your fellow sons of Miles as key to the way they think about things. How do you see it?

KJ:   I think they’re right. [LAUGHS] But I think many of us got waylaid. Keyboard players got enamored of electric instruments, and never could go back, and they never have been able to go back since. These are artistic decisions, and you can’t make them lightly. It’s like a painter throwing away their paint, saying, “Well, I want to get these,” but they’re all monotone, and then, “Well, no, I want my old paints back.” Sorry. They went out in the garbage.

My generation’s impact should have been greater, because there were a lot more great players. But Fusion somehow ate them up. I don’t include Miles exactly in that, because Miles got away with being able to play his stuff. I mean, he always wanted to do something different, something new, and if that’s your M.O., it won’t always be correct. Actually, a Japanese producer friend of mine asked Miles if he would sit in with the trio—as Jack and Gary and I all had played with him already—at the Antibes Festival for one or two tunes. I was hoping he’d say, “Sure, that’s a great idea.” I was sure he probably wouldn’t. But I think his answer is very important. He said (of course, through this third party), “No, I already played with Keith.” I wrote him a note back through the same guy, saying, “You played with me, but not on my instrument.”

TP:   Did he respond?

KJ:   No. But he knew what I was talking about.

TP:   It seems like your M.O., rather than that straight line, is more of a circle.

KJ:   Could be.

TP:   Circling back and picking up on things you’d done before in a different context.

KJ:   Yes. I think if I were a different kind of artist, I’d use found objects. I wouldn’t go looking for new technology. I remember seeing Herbie backstage somewhere when he’d just started getting seriously into electronics. Instead of having a conversation, he was saying, “Wow, have you heard this wire, this thing, connected to this and this over here?” I said, “Herbie…no. I don’t want to talk about wires. I really hate seeing them on the stage.”


* * *

Manfred Eicher on Keith Jarrett (Sept. 24, 2008):


TP:   To start, can you tell me how he came to join the label, how you became attracted to his music, and the process by which he began his contractual relationship with ECM?

EICHER:   I first heard Keith live in a festival in Norway with Charles Lloyd, and I heard him again with Charles Lloyd at   the Montreux Jazz Festival. I was very curious about his playing, and I was very moved by the trio as well that played with Jack DeJohnette and Ron McClure. That was before I even had a record label. I was just a student and playing in an orchestra in Berlin. So I moved around and heard people in jazz festivals. I heard Keith Jarrett also in Bologna in ‘68. Then when I had the label, I wrote to Keith, and sent him some test pressings—of a Chick Corea solo record as well as a Jan Garbarek record, Afric Pepperbird, which was my first recording, that I made in Oslo. Keith wrote back and said he liked this music and the sound, and he would be interested in talking to me. So he came to Munich with Miles Davis, and we met in the park in the afternoon after the concert, and talked about a lot of things, and decided to make a recording together. In my first letter to Keith actually, I introduced to him also a trio record. In fact, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock was the idea. But Gary at that time didn’t play the bass; he came back from Japan and the West Coast, and was not sure whether he should continue or not. I suggested another thing, but he called me back and said he would like to do a solo record first. So he did a solo record in Oslo in ‘70, and Facing You was the first.

TP:   Then he continued for a while under contract to you and to Impulse…

EICHER:   While we talked, this was, so to speak, between the contracts. He left Atlantic, went to Columbia, and then started something for Impulse as well with the American Quartet. But the solo things and the trio, and all those kinds of things, he started to record for ECM.

TP:   It seems with ECM, he was able to do almost anything he wanted, to document almost anything that was preoccupying him at a given time…

EICHER:   I wonder whether it was so easy. It had also to do with what was my aesthetic idea was with the label, how I wanted to introduce music. Keith was the ideal partner. I liked very much his piano playing. I liked his aesthetics. I liked his ideas. The first recording we made was a solo record in the studio, then the next recording was a live recording of a concert in Bremen and Lausanne, which resulted in a trio record set. At that time, it was unusual to have an entire solo concert, live recordings and so on, put in a 3-record box. It was quite new for that time. Then Keith showed me his string quartet writing and he showed me other things, so I became very interested to introduce that kind of work from Keith, which was not the work of a jazz musician per se, but of a wonderful musician and talent who had other talents than playing the piano. So we introduced these things, and they resulted in orchestral recordings with soloists like Jan Garbarek or Charlie Haden, Arbor Zena, for instance, or Luminiscence, and the records with string quartets and quintets with a flute player. So we have a nice oeuvre from the very beginning that introduced the musician Keith Jarrett.

TP:   Can you speak more concretely about how the qualities of his aesthetics merged with your sense of what you wanted to produce?

EICHER:   First of all, I thought his way of phrasing, his touch, his quality of suspension, his way of (?) and rubato playing was very close to me as a European. So I heard many influences of the great American kind of jazz book, and I heard many influences from Chopin, Debussy, and all those kinds of things that I liked and I grew up with. To me, it was an idea of a symbiotic thing, because also his touch had reached me right away and touched me quite a lot from the beginning. So from then on, it was clear that whenever I could work with Keith, I would like to work with him.

I’d also like not to forget his great compositions. His way of writing was very idiosyncratic and special. One could identify a composition immediately when hearing Keith’s work.

TP:   It also seems that the influence of both the American and European quartets has been immense on an international level.

EICHER:   Absolutely. The American quartet consisted of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian and Keith. It was a very individual group with a wonderful individual sound. But Keith also had another side which probably was a bit more virtuosic, more light rhythmically, weighted for the dialogue and interaction with players like Garbarek and Jon Christensen and Palle Daniellsen. When I suggested this group to Keith, he was very open, because he’d heard Jan Garbarek a long time ago, and he heard him again in the Molde Festival in Norway, playing trio with Arild Anderson and Edvard Vesala in a club. Keith and I were together, and he was convinced that this was the sound he would like to write for. So the Belonging group was Keith’s group that he was writing for. All the material that you hear there was around, and played by a lot of young jazz musicians—here, at least, in Europe. Pieces like “Belonging” and so on became classic.

TP:   The American Quartet’s influence has also been immense, maybe more on American musicians…

EICHER:   Not just American musicians. European musicians, too.

TP:   Everyone talks about that group.

EICHER:   A wonderful group. But it was so different. Keith could write for the idiosyncratic personalities in these groups very well. So these groups differ very much. Of course, it was entirely Keith’s introduction of the music, but the individuality of the players couldn’t be more different.

TP:    I was curious why, after years and years of playing in groups (and he seemed to like playing in groups and being in bands), he spent so much time absorbed in the tabula rasa solo concerts. Between 1977 and 1981, almost everything in his sessionography is a solo concerts. Can you discuss your experience of this?

EICHER:   That’s right. He started in the early ‘70s with solos, like Lausanne in 1972 or 1973, then followed by Cologne, the Japanese box, the Sun Bear concerts… There was always a lot of solo between the other groups. But then it became a very solitary thing for him to do solo only for a while, before he formed the trio with Jack and Gary. But I think none of us could have expected such a successful resonance to the first solo concert. These concerts became something different, became something else, because no improviser had played entire concerts before not interrupted by pieces, but entirely concerts that took sometimes 45 to 50 minutes, and maybe then a second set. That was something really new at the time, and it was very successful in Japan and in Europe, and Keith seemed to enjoy very much being on stage alone.

TP:    Do you have any speculations on why it seemed to suit the zeitgeist then?

EICHER:   I don’t know the zeitgeist…it’s still going on.

TP:   I mean, at the time, the late ‘70s…

EICHER:   Well, it’s speculative, because very different people… Like, Peter Stein used the music in Death, Distraction and Detroit, a production with Robert Wilson in Berlin, in the Schaub(?), which was a very advanced and important theater group in Berlin that went for this. Not many people would have used the Köln concert at that time. Marguerite Duras, in her diaries which were introduced in Liberacion, has written about Keith Jarrett’s Köln concert that she hears in France in the summer in different situations. Henry Miller. Many people have written… It was more than the zeitgeist. It was something that was coming out of the time, and blossomed out, and influenced a lot of people from very different genres, different kinds of music. All the art field was checking out what Keith was doing.

TP:   Most of his musical production since he was ill…well, a couple of solo concerts, and the trio is now in its 25th year. Can you speak of your first experience hearing this trio playing standard material?

EICHER:   Before they came together to play standards, we had already a recording under Gary Peacock’s leadership and with his pieces. That was the wished-for combination, the combination that I always wanted to have together in the studio to make this record, and it was something really remarkable, I guess. When I listen back to this record, it has such wonderful pieces, like “Vignette.” The way they played together was like they’d played always together.

So later on, Keith wanted to do a standard trio from the American Songbook, and we decided to do that. The evening before recording in Power Station in New York, we went to an Indian restaurant and talked about a lot of things, and made some plans, and went in the studio with the idea to make one record, but we had studio time for three days, and in those three days, when we came out of the studio, we had made three records, including the mixage. We had recorded and mixed. This process was unbelievable. The interaction between these three people was wonderful. You can hear it in the record which just came out again how close they were already in their understanding of each other, and how beautifully their exposition of each piece came out.

TP:   It’s certainly and developed, and they seem to take as much joy in it now as they did then. He’s also recorded a fair amount of European classical repertoire for you, and recorded as a classical musician. How did that transpire from your perspective?

EICHER:   We did a very special and remarkable recording on the piece of Arvo Pärt, “Fratres,” played together by Gideon Kramer and Keith Jarrett. It was their first meeting and recording, and the last recording. It’s still a classic, I would say, which you can hear on Arvo Pärt’s record Tabula Rasa. It’s an electrifying performance between Gideon and Keith. I would never miss that day and how it happened. It was wonderful.

Then we recorded all the Shostakovich, which still is in the catalog and very successful, and recorded Mozart, and he’s recorded Bach, The Well-Tempered Piano, Book 1 and 2—the second one was recorded on harpsichord. Then we did the wonderful recording with Kim Kashkashian and Keith on the Gamba sonata of Bach, and there are other plans eventually.

TP:   Can you speak to the qualities he brings to classical repertoire?

EICHER:   He plays it very truthfully as a musician without any outside musical ideas about showing his ability to do different phrasings and whatever. He has prepared himself very seriously for all these recordings. Some people thought Keith should maybe include more risky elements such as phrasing, and maybe even some cadenzas improvised, like in the concerts of Mozart. But he didn’t. In all the years after, many musicians, classical musicians talked to me about these recordings and how musical they feel they are. Keith’s approach was very pure and down-to-the-text, so to speak, not more, not less. I tend to listen to his Bach quite often. And to the Mozart…and if you wish, you can go into the whole scale what I listen to. But it’s very truthful, artistically done music, and without speculation for any kind of fashion or trend.

TP:   He said that immersing himself in Mozart was of great value to his jazz playing when he returned to performing after recuperating from CFS, that it developed his musicality, his touch, and also his left hand.

EICHER:   Definitely his touch and his left hand. He had a good partner in developing these things, with Dennis Russell Davis, the great American conductor who always was around when Keith played orchestra music, performing this music in America and Europe together.,

TP:   He said that he feels that his solo performances since the illness are far superior to what he was doing before, partly for the reasons that I mentioned. Can you speak about his personal evolution as a musician, both pianistically and conceptually?

EICHER:   Many things. I’ll relate it to the musical ideas and to the program of a musician. What Keith played in the ‘70s and ‘80s were quite different in musical approach than what he’s doing now, especially in the solo concerts. For me, his technical abilities playing the piano was always on a high level, and I would say that his touch has changed in all these years, and it’s remarkable how it did change this way, small nuances first and more and more into a fine-tuning. But it has also to do with his affinity for certain pianos that speak to him. All this together, I think, in the way he wants to be recorded today and how he was recorded in earlier times, digital, non-digital, piano tuning—all those kinds of things have a certain effect on what is documented, of course. But Keith’s playing these days is on the highest level as a pianist.

TP:   I spoke to him about documentation, and why concerts are successful, why he chooses to document one vis-a-vis another. He said that he records everything, that when he thinks something is good he then sends it to you, and what he decides to release pertains to his state of mind at the time. As an example, a solo concert from the opera house in Venice was at the top of his list, then something struck him as more interesting. How do you interact in determining what gets releases, the sequence of recordings, and the content. You’ve had a professional relationship for so long.

EICHER:   We’ve known each other 40 years or so. It has changed, his approach. In the early days, I was at every recording, and we were very close in deciding every little thing, in the studio and outside the studio, in how we approached it. Now it is not possible for us to be always in the same place. Sometimes we are just in different places, and then he trusts his engineer and manager, who are very important for decision-making. But when the music is done, Keith sends it, and then we start to talk and discuss and sometimes fine-tune on the thing, and then we decide together what to release. But we can always have a good agreement on what to be done. The sequence of releases is also discussed, and since they are concerts that go from A to the end, we don’t have to talk about the sequence inside a recording any more because we take the music as it is. If Keith feels it’s appropriate to do so, we release the music as it is.

TP:   That brings up the point that ECM is so known for the sound of the recordings, the way you address the sound in the studio, and it’s been a long time since he did a studio recording, and he doesn’t like being in the studio so much…

EICHER:   Any more. He used to like the studio very much, and he also has a studio at home. But in recent years…or for many years… It started with the trio. All these recordings are done outside the studio, in concert halls. That’s right. And he likes this approach. I think he needs also the interaction with the audience, and probably the risk of going to the edge there is more appropriate than being in an intimate studio where conditions are always very different. I think it’s not a question of better or worse. It’s a question also of interacting with the public.

Recordings like Belonging and the earlier recordings that we made in studios couldn’t have been made that easily in concert live. We have done wonderful recordings with great balance and sound that would only have been possible to make in a good studio situation. Later on, it did fly into other directions, and that’s also fine. It’s important to assist a musician in his needs and his ideas, and then get the best out of it.

TP:   Most of the Keith Jarrett Trio recordings of this century were made in 2001 and 2002. It seems that 2001 was a very interesting year for him, both as a trio and solo player.

EICHER:    That’s right. I don’t particularly look so much into the recording year. For me, time is flying so quickly that I forget sometimes that all these years have passed already. We are listening at the moment to a tape that we will release in January called Yesterdays, which is a Japanese recording from 2001. It sounds incredibly fresh and good. After he recovered from his illness, new life and new ideas were coming into the trio and the solo playing, so since then we have remarkable recordings already released, and we have still some very good recordings that wait to be released in our archive.

TP:   The Tokyo recording is also a trio date?

EICHER:   It’s a trio.

TP:   Will a solo recording come out in 2009?

EICHER:   I guess so. There will be a solo recording. Since we have not finally decided, Keith and I, I cannot talk about which one it will be, but it looks like there will be another solo record coming out.

TP:   Can you describe your overview of where Keith Jarrett fits into the timeline, both on the jazz stage and on the world stage?

EICHER:   When you think about how long Keith Jarrett already is an influential musician. It started when he played with Charles Lloyd, then later on got a lot of attention in Europe and with Miles and all, and he has written such wonderful songs, and is such a great listener when he plays with other musicians—and for the music always. He is one of the most influential and best musicians that I know. “Best” is always a strange term, but his musicianship and his personality, and also his influence to music-making means a lot to me.



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