Jarrett: Solo Piano, Etc.

As if leading groups and making the occasional sideman appearance weren’t enough, Keith began giving solo piano concerts in the 1970s and continued them on and off through the following decades. The concerts were fully improvised, and as such, they were more about time, place, and inspiration than “look what I can do on piano.” They epitomize the idea of musician as conduit, and they get to the heart of what Jarrett’s improvisational craft is about - “drowning” as he calls it. It might seem indulgent to the cynical, but the process is exactly the opposite of that.

Most of the titles below document live concerts, though a few are studio sets and there are also some examples of Jarrett playing solo on other instruments.

(I’ve decided not to include the 1981 title Concerts, because at the time of writing, an expanded reissue is due for future release. It will eventually appear on this page.)

Facing You
Nov. 1971 / ECM

Jarrett’s first solo piano foray is a studio recording of several mid-sized tracks. Producer Manfred Eicher coaxed solo albums from Paul Bley and Chick Corea around the same time, and Jarrett in comparison is the most impetuous of the lot. His improvisations sound like they were racing to get out into the world. “In Front” jumps into the harmonically rich soulfulness that would fuel a lot of his 1970s tunes; the caffeinated left hand rhythms and loose melodies in the right form a one-man band. “Lalene” goes for a laid-back vibe, and for older jazz references, look to the fractured stride of “Starbright”, a short, enthusiastic piece. Some of the pieces sound premeditated, at least as sketches, and the easygoing “Vapallia” would become a full-fledged tune for the American quartet. Facing You has none of the weight of the concert records but it’s a fine beginning to the solo book.

Solo Concerts
March & July 1973 / ECM

The grandfather of the live solo albums is definitive on both the macro and micro levels. Tabula rasa, Jarrett sits at the piano and improvises long stretches of coherent, enjoyable music. Free of preconceived form, the performance becomes the form. It might be highly rhythmic, it might be ballad-like, it might be abstract, or it quite often will be a blend of all of the above and much more.

The March concert from Lausanne centers on friendly vamps that sit like islands in a 63-minute continuum. Germinal ideas grow into momentous waves and recede; transient melodies suggest new emotional places and the ship changes course. In the middle of the set, he plays the piano like a percussion instrument, tapping wood and plucking strings from the inside. Jarrett’s left hand is a marvel as it locks into the angular ostinatos that underpin his vibrant vamps. The coda of hammered chords goes on for a while; perhaps Jarrett needed the minimalist release from everything that preceded it.

The Bremen concert from two months later is even more comprehensive. Clarion melodies, impromptu chord sequences, and rocking rhythms all unite into (what can be heard as) a very long song. The boogie-woogie gospel section that appears at 20:30 into Part 2 is absolutely exhilarating and goes on for a sweaty length, and what’s funny is that it’s preceded by a mesmerizing vamp climax that seemed hard to top in itself. That’s part of the fun: no one, not even Jarrett, knows what’s coming next, and the surprises move the music forward. Not long after the boogie-woogie, Jarrett becomes ensnared in a reflective trance that builds to the concert’s finale. For an encore, he launches into a rhythmic vignette.

Jarrett sounds wiser in the live solo context than he does on the group recordings of the time. A lot of responsibility comes with such a daring format and Jarrett lives up to it. Solo Concerts is a milestone and the music’s light still shines.

The Koln Concert
Jan. 1975 / ECM

I can’t help playing devil’s advocate with jazz albums that cross over into the popular consciousness, where every other person seems to have a copy on their shelf - Kind of Blue, Time Out, A Love Supreme, and to a lesser degree, Koln Concert, which sold a bucketful in its day and remains Jarrett’s most popular title. I politely wonder why these albums made the leap when so many other jazz albums didn’t, and Koln Concert is even more curious because it’s fully improvised piano. I can’t sling any mud at it because it does deserve all the praise, though I wonder if the millions of people who bought it ever extended their interest to Solo Concerts, or 1981’s Concerts set, both of which are superior to Koln.

The story behind the concert is that Jarrett hadn’t slept in a couple of days and was dealing with a sub-par piano, along with other circumstantial inconveniences of the touring musician. Yet out came this infectious, hypnotic music, part of which may have come from Jarrett grabbing lifelines in order to stay alert. The development of the 25-minute opening part is easy to follow, and the middle-register oscillations have a direct beauty. Circuitous routes are bypassed and Jarrett aims right for the heart. The later parts of the concert are more sophisticated, and my favorite excerpt is the winding premise of “Part 2a”. Though it doesn’t have the range of other solo titles, the Koln performance is very engaging. And how’s this for good fortune: given the negative circumstances leading up to the show, Jarrett and producer Eicher were just about to call off the scheduled recording but decided to go ahead with it at the last minute, just to have a record of the event for their own purposes. And so Koln almost never made it to tape to begin with.

May 1976 / ECM

These eleven studio tracks feature some of Jarrett’s most advanced playing to date, although it sometimes leads to pure sonic abstraction, where Jarrett explores the physicality of the instrument as much as musical premises. Since it’s such a good sounding piano, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and hearing him focus his technique can be enchanting in itself - note the rhythmic entanglements and inner ferocity of “Sundial Part 2” and the interesting “Staircase Part 1”. Classical flavors infuse a lot of the program, and there are also samples of Jarrett’s vamp-driven joy (“Hourglass Part 1”) and mysterious harmony (the circular bassline and passionate improvising of “Sand Part 1”). Decorative ballad ruminations are heard in “Hourglass Part 2” and “Sand Part 2”, and the beautiful opening melody of “Sundial Part 3” is a treasure.

Without a hall or audience to connect with, Jarrett is left to his own inspirations in the studio, thus the occasional sense of isolation. Parts of the album remain impenetrable, and even the best passages may take a while to digest, but after a decade of owning Staircase, I take it off the shelf as often as the better concert recordings.

(Staircase was recorded the same month as Survivors’ Suite, and the Bicentennial as a whole is a productive year in Jarrett’s discography.)

Sept. 1976 / ECM

In which Jarrett goes on location to Ottobeuren Abbey in Germany and improvises on pipe organ. This single CD only presents four “movements” from the much longer, original double LP set, which was called Hymns Spheres. The magnificent recording captures the heft of the instrument and plenty of acoustical overtones.

Naturally, the organ suggests a different playing style than piano, its sustaining power enabling stacked chords and droning tones. Sudden tacets let sound echo from the benedictine walls. In the first movement, the ecclesiastical connotations are powerful enough to raise the hair on an ex-believer like myself. In the fourth and seventh movements, Jarrett uses the organ’s stops to morph unusual sonorities into an outer space soundtrack. Even though he shunned electric keyboards, Jarrett finds the timbral variety of the organ fascinating and it provides as much sonic interest as some of the vintage ‘70s synthesizers.

I forget how moving this disc is until I pop it in and the old goosebumps appear. It reveals a side of Jarrett that can’t be found on the piano recordings, and it’s got a massive aura.

Sun Bear Concerts
Nov. 1976 / ECM

The apotheosis: six discs for five Japanese concert performances, each clocking in at about 75 minutes, each split into two roughly equal halves. One disc is allotted to each city/night, and the last disc holds brief encores from three of the shows. In this extended study of Jarrett’s improvised solo piano, there’s enough rewarding listening for a lifetime. Perhaps because of the proximity of the concerts in time and space, the whole box plays like a vast suite. It takes patience to hear it that way because any single concert takes a while to assimilate, and to align five of them as a unit, well, that’s some work. I remember the gradual epiphany of realizing how well everything in Sun Bear fit together, and for me, it’s the masterwork of all of Jarrett’s solo titles. If I were handing out stars, this box would get five in a hurry.

Each disc is a separate suite unto itself - grids within grids, expeditions into personal mountain ranges. The best starting point is Kyoto, I think, as it weaves an inviting mosaic of melody and rhythm, and Jarrett’s improv stream is easy to get into. Nagoya develops smoothly as well. The joyous sound of the earlier concerts is present, along with a new serenity and depth. All of the components - gospel grooves, classical dances, intimations of song, pointillist tapestries - are organically linked. Nothing is rushed or forced, and the transitions are marvelous, like seeing the various colors of a tree change as the sun sets behind it. Even the turbulent passages accent the main stream of each performance. Some of the criticism that followed the release of Sun Bear charged Jarrett with resorting to boring vamps too often, because he was supposedly out of ideas. For one thing, there are very few “dead spots” in this collection, vamps or no, and secondly, those critics totally missed the point. The process involves a rhythmic continuum because that’s how it all moves forward, and Jarrett’s way of riding a pulse is invigorating anyway. If we’re going to complain about repetition, we may as well trash the whole enterprise and consult a Top 40 chart.

The Sapporo concert is my favorite; the first half undergoes a broad metamorphosis, while the second half initiates an exuberant groove and then turns to dangerous terrain, followed by a gamelan-like lattice in the encore. Osaka and Tokyo both have tremendous portions as well. The essential skill in the solo concerts is balancing active and passive creation, and I don’t think Sun Bear has ever been surpassed in demonstrating that.

Invocations / The Moth and the Flame
Nov. 1979 & Oct. 1980 / ECM

Disc 1 returns Jarrett to the Ottobeuren Abbey pipe organ for a series of Invocations bookended by soprano sax sermons. In contrast to the static power of Spheres, Jarrett draws more activity out of the organ this time, and “Mirages, Realities” seethes with motion similar to his piano concerts. The beginning of “Power, Resolve” carries much weight, but the rest of it and almost all of “Celebration” fall into silly gestures that are further confused by the ambient reverberations. The dissonant cacophony of “Shock, Scatter” is too ugly to even work as a joke. The simplest piece, “Recognition”, is the most effective, and the organ pulses breath-like under a bluesy soprano lament (overdubbed). That track and “Mirages, Realities” are the only ones that demand repeat visits.

Disc 2 contains a five-part piano suite entitled The Moth and the Flame, a studio effort from 1979. “Part I” captures Jarrett at his very best, improvising a classical roadmap with jazzy flair. If you only have seven minutes to convince a skeptic of Jarrett’s brilliance, the exhilarating outpour of “Part I” ought to do the trick. “Part II” is an extravagant ballad, and “Part III” boogies on a happy vamp in the style of the Koln concert. The questionable “Part IV” offers eight minutes of dazzling flourishes for a tune that never arrives, while “Part V” returns to classical wanderings. I assume The Moth and the Flame and Invocations were paired because they both access grand European traditions in their keyboard work. Invocations is uneven, while most of Moth is pretty good.

G.I. Gurdjieff - Sacred Hymns
Mar. 1980 / ECM

Jarrett wasn’t the only musician to take interest in the spiritual playboy Gurdjieff, whose focus on awakening and developing the self is exactly the sort of discipline that might resonate with a serious, progressive musician. Jarrett read Gurdjieff’s works earlier in his career (Fort Yawuh is an anagram of Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way), while this recording of the man’s compositions (which date from the 1920s) seems more of an exorcism or closure, or, as Jarrett put it, an “exercise in disappearing personality.” Whatever Gurdjieff’s strengths at motivating and/or manipulating people, his musical talent was very basic, and his hymns are little more than pedestrian minor etudes that get zero embellishment from Jarrett. It’s strictly a recital. The potential interest in this album is that Gurdjieff taught a notion of Objective Art that would have the same profound effect on anyone in its presence - but apparently he wasn’t speaking of his own art, which is frankly too banal to be profound. Being a maverick in psychology doesn’t make one an adventurer in tonal harmony. In the canon of Jarrett solo works, this sideline entry is too humble and historical to either praise or complain about.

May-July 1985 / ECM

Disillusioned by a performing stint in the classical world (even though it was well received), Jarrett found himself in need of rejuvenation. So he holed up in his home studio and recorded lots of small pieces using earthy instrumentation - flutes, recorders, tablas, various percussion, along with piano, guitar, and other instruments. 26 pieces made it to this double album, song-like, raga-like, prayer-like. The music is primitive in the positive sense that genre and cellophane aren’t even remote considerations. Jarrett rediscovered his essence in a most private, direct manner, and it was after the fact that he decided to make the endeavor public, just to have a “document of the state” out in the world.

Backstory aside, what does the listener get? Two hours of music that runs from very beautiful to exotic to the sorts of tapes you’d hear playing in a scented store that sells expensive knick-knacks. Breath and skin are tactile in almost everything. Jarrett’s relation to tablas, flutes, and even saz (a Turkish stringed instrument) has the same passion as his piano work, minus the fancy technique, though virtuosity matters not at all here. From my personal perspective, I’m only interested in how much of Spirits takes the listener into a special place and isn’t just a record of Jarrett’s revival. Several innocent melodies satisfy that concern, and some of the rhythms (he’s a compelling percussionist) tap into the hallmark Jarrett drive. Other times I feel like I’m wading through someone’s diary - don’t need to know, don’t belong. To link some of these tracks with the third-world pastiches of Jarrett’s American quartet is a mistake; it has nothing to do with styles, songs, or intentional art. Spirits is not something I’d recommend, but the listener who’s heard it will have a deeper understanding of Jarrett.

Dark Intervals
Apr. 1987 / ECM

A solemn Tokyo concert in which the improvisations are broken into discrete chunks. “Opening” sets the stage with droning bass register tones, and pieces like “Hymn” and “Ritual Prayer” live up to the piety of their titles. The stately reflection of “Americana” can make one’s soul pause, while “Parallels” winds about in a prim manner. The only track that recalls the vibrancy of past concerts is “Fire Dance”, a sexy rhythm ensconced in a forbidding scalar cloak - hence the album title, I presume. Now all of this might be a downer if it weren’t so very beautiful at times, and so geometric, where the shapes of the piano phrases influence the mood as much as the voicings do. Dark and crafty.

Paris Concert
Oct. 1988 / ECM

Self-derivative. The first six minutes wander under Bach’s guidance, and then a martial bass ostinato underlines ten minutes of minor scale rhapsodizing. A quiet interlude with a fetching melody is abandoned for the return of the martial pulse and several more minutes of the same music we had just heard. Near the half-hour mark, Jarrett shifts to a droning assault, out of inspiration and just marking time. The main program ends with a nice melody, too little too late. Perhaps Jarrett and Eicher thought this concert captured a new, streamlined side of the solo improvisations, but the content exhausts itself long before the main part is over. Two encores come to the rescue: a cover of Russ Freeman’s “The Wind” and a spontaneous “Blues” that winds up being the five most enjoyable minutes on the disc.

Vienna Concert
July 1991 / ECM

Jarrett mentions in a brief liner note that the Vienna performance is closer to the “flame” than any of his previous solo recordings. He reduces the music to bare elements: repetitive chord cycles, soft pulses, and occasional virtuosity. The atmosphere is heavy yet calm. Vienna proves that it’s not the content that matters so much as the player’s connection to the source. Half of the similarly stark Paris concert feels forced, while the majority of Vienna finds Jarrett exactly where the music requires him to be.

The first fifteen minutes dwell on a reflective chord pattern that turns fateful. Locked to a soft rhythm, Jarrett transits harmony from one shade to the next like a chameleon. The second section develops a solemn classical figure for a while. 25 minutes in, Jarrett actively “takes over” and unravels a busy vamp into turbulent threads. After several minutes of tearing up the keyboard, major chords emerge from the maelstrom. Jarrett develops them ecstatically, and then we are left with a tune of folk simplicity and classical decor. Part 1 ends just after 41 minutes.

Most of Part 2 stems from a pregnant vamp stated at the outset. Intensity and textures swell in natural waves. At 14 minutes, there’s a break into soft chords, then the waves roll back in. The decrescendo at the end involves a broken echo of the original vamp and a few final melodic signals, as if the flame has extinguished itself, or moved over the horizon, or gone back into the earth. You can actually hear the “source feed” diminish, and Jarrett may as well have stood up and said to the audience, “It’s gone now.”

In terms of the improvisational process, Vienna is Jarrett’s purest solo concert to date. The flame comment makes perfect sense - the simple essence is where everything else comes from. It doesn’t mean you’ll be smiling and tapping your foot, though.

La Scala
Feb. 1995 / ECM

Ever since Dark Intervals (or was it all prompted by Spirits?), Jarrett’s piano concert albums have had a very serious tone, and La Scala is the darkest of all. As in Paris and Vienna, Jarrett uncovers intense landscapes that don’t have much outward variety, though he sounds possessed by the Spanish rhapsodizing that takes up a lot of Part 1, and also by the dangerous flurries that open and close Part 2. More than most other concerts, Jarrett plays free from pulse, which gives the music a very spread out feel. Part 1 goes on for three-quarters of an hour, a lot of which is spent in the grip of a slow-motion bass part and/or exotic scalar fiddling. At one point the bassline vanishes and Jarrett rips fragmented melodies against suspenseful silence. If any other pianist were to get onstage and play exactly what Jarrett plays here, they’d be hooted off - “What are you doing?!” In context, I suppose this extended passage works, although it’s one of the most indulgent moments on any of his concert albums. The conclusion of Part 1 barely lightens the atmosphere of raw catharsis. Part 2, not quite as long, has the same intensity, and the tender encore “Over the Rainbow” is very welcome.

Some folks put La Scala on a pedestal as one of Jarrett’s ultimate achievements. After years of listening to it with an open heart, I’ve never reached the same conclusion. It’s an arduous journey, and undisciplined patches surround the persuasive parts. Now, that’s a comment on the record; I’m sure being present at the performance was a different experience. Jarrett’s liner blurb recalls the profound effect the concert had on a gentleman who afterward came backstage, tears in his eyes, etc. I can hear some of that beautiful reality on the CD, but the joy of old is dormant.

The Melody at Night, With You
1998 / ECM

Like Spirits, a private recording made public. Jarrett recorded these ten classics at home as a present for his wife, including such tender melodies as “I Loves You Porgy”, “Don’t Ever Leave Me”, “Something to Remember You By”, and even “Shenandoah”. In these intimate and romantic asides, there’s very little of the outgoing Jarrett we’ve come to know, except on Duke’s “I Got It Bad”. Jarrett doesn’t read the songs as improv vehicles, rather as texts in themselves, although a spontaneous extension grows out of “Blame It On My Youth”. I think it’s a very pretty record, though a lot of it sounds like high quality dinner music, to be frank. There’s no artistic revelation as there was in Spirits. It’s more like someone sharing a secret.

Oct. 2002 / ECM

Jarrett returns to a wide array of organic improvisations on this double-disc set, which contains seventeen tracks from two separate Japanese concerts. The first thirteen tracks represent a complete performance in Osaka, while the remaining four come from a Tokyo concert. Track lengths range from one minute to fourteen, and in that sense, it’s like Staircase or Dark Intervals in that isolated ideas take the place of long-form development. The music itself is kind of a throwback as well - some of these piano gyrations and moodscapes have been in hibernation since the 1970s. The improvisations range from self-contained “songs” (a couple of them are quite lovely) to groove pieces (like the penultimate Osaka track) to abstract inventions. Regarding the latter, there’s really no way to describe the musical process except to note the presence of hazard; it sounds like Jarrett almost plays things at random just to find ideas to chase. Most of the time, it works, and the first piece on the second disc is a great example of that. On the other hand, there’s a track somewhere in the middle of Disc 1 where the questions are never answered. Again, this ties in with some of the unresolved pieces heard on Staircase.

A couple of inscrutable parts aside, Radiance successfully resumes the variety of the older solo concerts, albeit in piecemeal fashion. Two highlights: the last piece on Disc 1 has an evocative chord sequence (and great soloing) that takes us right back to the best of the ‘70s, and the final track on Disc 2 is a swirling sound painting that also recalls that era. A challenging and significant set overall.

Nov-Dec. 2008 / ECM

Even apart from the personal revelations in Jarrett’s liner essay, Testament is one of his most emotionally rich solo piano efforts, recorded in Paris (disc 1) and London (discs 2 and 3). Like Radiance, this collection presents a series of individual pieces, some with ruminative or jazzy vibes, some atonal or groovy. The days of the marathon-length improvisations seem to be over (and hit their peak anyway in the Sun Bear and Vienna concerts). In partitioning his playing, Jarrett has room to develop the initial inspiration of each piece and also license to bring it to a close once realized.

The Paris concert comes in eight parts. Free explorations appear at the beginning, middle, and end, along with a lurking groove piece (Part II) and a couple of poignant ballads, among other things. Part VI is a marvelous concoction of bop, blues, and stride as only Jarrett could execute, with joyful melody lines, spiky bass counterpoint, and a recurring chord pattern, all organized on the fly. The only odd thing here, for me, is the ten-minute closing piece. Though interesting in itself, and certainly amazing from a technique standpoint, its restlessness doesn’t provide much resolution.

The London concert is even better by a few marks, and like Paris, it’s a supreme showcase for Jarrett’s many keyboard nuances, from the featherweight to the aggressive, in a series of distinct episodes:

Part I - Jarrett starts freely, building up ascending neoclassical cadences.

Part II - A left turn into craggy terrain, all serpentine lines, impulsive connections and punctuations. There’s enough continuity in this piece to suggest Jarrett is following a plan in his head, or abstracting a temporary tune to an extreme, which for the listener becomes like a brilliant puzzle.

Part III - Duke Ellington comes to mind in the friendly swing and harmony of this piece. Sometimes, things are what they used to be.

Part IV - A tone painting of rippling figures and sound waves that ends gently.

Part V - Another free excursion, moving steadily through a number of unresolved yet tightly wound threads.

Part VI - A bittersweet ballad, somewhat melodramatic in places.

Part VII - This sensual vamp recalls the trio piece “The Cure”. It’s the kind of slow groove that Jarrett can feed off for a while without getting boring.

Part VIII - A trilling, consonant reverie that tugs at the heart, yearning for memories to become real.

Part IX - A tangle of chromatic, swinging lines, like a bop solo without bass or drums.

Part X - The march-like rhythm of this piece reminds me of “Facing East” from the trio record Always Let Me Go, and it eventually achieves the purity of Vienna or La Scala, albeit in a major key.

Part XI - Another impromptu ballad, this time with polished harmonies you might hear in an elegant jazz standard. Jarrett extemporizes at length in this lovely performance.

Part XII - A happy benediction, at times emphasizing those folksy chord figures that Jarrett employed so much in his youth.

After letting Testament sink in for a while, I went back to Solo Concerts for comparison. Jarrett in 1973 had such confidence in sustaining invention for twenty, thirty, forty minutes at a time, treating the performance as a large continuum, while Testament focuses on one area at a time and perhaps goes deeper into those specific areas. There’s more exuberance to be heard in the old days, and more maturity in the later days. In any case, don’t miss this one.

Apr. 2011 / ECM

Some have said that this performance marks a return to form for Jarrett’s solo piano, but I would say that there has been a renewal of form going on since the discrete, wide ranging improvisations of Radiance, with Testament further focusing that approach. Rio strikes me as a distillation of those efforts, and more accessible perhaps in its songs and dances, while the atonal abstractions are logically structured. One can feel the Rio concert reaching a level of ‘perfection’ as its fifteen parts each tick by, and on first listen, I rooted for Jarrett to keep the inspiration up, which he mostly does.

As has been recently usual, the performance begins with a free associative air-clearing that warms up the pianist and general atmosphere. Jarrett then settles into specific areas for the ensuing pieces, utilizing grooves both laid-back and uplifting, catchy chord sequences, and a couple of romantic ballad moods that hint at time going by (“A kiss is just a kiss”). Most improvisations define a simple premise at the outset, something that could believably be off the top of Jarrett’s head yet happens to inspire a lot of thematically tight ideas. There’s a great sequence on the second disc where one of the ballads (Part VII) leads into a tune with infectious chord changes and then into a texturally seductive meditation, followed by an edgy free-improv reboot (Part X) and a tension-releasing blues. Amazing. The next two tracks, nice as they are, somewhat slow the momentum, but the final two parts of the concert take a terrific upswing, one a soulful foot-tapper of ‘70s vintage, the other a beautiful finale.

My only possible complaint about Rio is that none of its constituent parts are as extreme, tense, or daring as what can be heard on Testament, let alone other past recordings. Rio is affective, entertaining, and remarkably well formed as an improvised program – surely a success in itself – but I also like hearing Jarrett on the edge when surveying the unknown, maybe taking a few interesting missteps in search of unique rewards. Rio, through its very merits, misses that edge, but damn, it’s good.

Punter’s Synopsis

Without question: Solo Concerts

Magnum opus: Sun Bear

Somber but very good: Vienna Concert

Still curious? Staircase, Radiance, Testament

It’s not piano but it’s awesome: Spheres

Truth be told: Most titles above are remarkable and interesting in some regard.

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