"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
Jazz artists who came of age in the ’50s, ’60s or early ’70s tend to place a premium on originality. These were years of rapid evolution, and players wanted to do their part to advance the music. So when, in their waning years, musicians from this era resort to playing tunes out of the standard repertory, it’s generally a sign of spiritual exhaustion — like when a movie actor lands a sitcom.
It’s interesting, then, that pianist Keith Jarrett — one of the more unusual talents in the past 35 years of the music — now finds himself in his most creative phase playing almost nothing but classics. Since forming in 1983, his trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock has staked a claim as the preeminent jazz group interpreting standards; it’s probably the closest a piano trio has come to the Olympian heights of the late Bill Evans’ trios. At the piano, Jarrett, 55, has an improvisational zeal matched by a technique that is equal parts meditation and explosion. He is one of the few living jazz pianists with an instantly recognizable sound.
Little in his background suggests that standards would be his ultimate creative ticket. Growing up in Allentown, Pa., he was a prodigy, performing original pieces publicly while in grade school and gigging in jazz clubs as a teenager. Drummer Art Blakey claimed him as a member of his band, the Jazz Messengers, for a brief period in the mid-’60s, after which saxophonist Charles Lloyd introduced him to huge crowds with a group that featured DeJohnette.
Jarrett joined Miles Davis’ groundbreaking DeJohnette-propelled electric group in 1970, and soon after launched a solo career that would take him in various directions. There was Jarrett the classical recording artist, Jarrett the leader of two separate jazz quartets and Jarrett the huge-selling solo-piano improviser.
He has recorded around 75 albums, performed with top symphony orchestras around the world, rounded up numerous Grammy nominations and received a steady stream of awards and honors from governments and the press. Four years ago he was stricken with chronic fatigue syndrome — an enervating malady which the medical establishment scarcely comprehends — and was unable to play the piano for nearly two years. During his recovery an artistic breakthrough came: an album of solo piano, recorded in his home studio, called “The Melody at Night, With You.” For this 1999 release, Jarrett leaves behind his trademark effusion to focus intimately on the songs’ melodies. Ethereally delicate and almost unbearably intimate, it’s a love letter to his wife, Rose Anne, to recuperation, to the jazz repertory and to the piano.
Last year Jarrett returned to touring with the trio — albeit gingerly — recording in Paris the just-released double CD “Whisper Not,” his 12th album with the group. Last summer he played select dates with the trio, most recently closing the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
Jarrett spoke with Salon by phone from his home in rural New Jersey.
The playing on “The Melody at Night, With You” is pared down to the essence of the songs. The new live CD, “Whisper Not,” also sounds more stripped down than anything you’ve done before with the band. How did these developments come about?
Well, because of this illness, I was forced to look at what I was doing as if it would be the last thing I would ever do. I had to stop playing, because of this illness … there was no solution to this thing. I wasn’t able to play for two years. And when I started to recover, I realized that the time off I had wasn’t such a bad thing. I realized that improvisers should probably always have time off. But musicians are always gigging and never have a chance to stop for a minute — unless something drastic occurs.
So when I started recovering, I said to myself that I’d better be my own worst critic. I didn’t know if I’d keep recovering; I thought I might relapse and never be able to play again. I would listen to stuff I’d recorded and a lot of it I didn’t like. I realized I didn’t like the long intros. I didn’t like digging into the keyboard so much. Because when you do that the piano doesn’t open up as much. I decided to pare things down. I wanted to get to the heart of my playing, and to do that I really had to slice away. That’s what happens to mature artists. But it does not happen without reflection.
There is very little improvisation on “The Melody at Night, With You.”
So many people don’t understand “The Melody at Night,” because they think it’s cocktail piano. So it was gratifying to hear someone say, “Nobody knows how hard it is to do what Keith did with that record.” It’s a lot harder to play softly. But after I made the record I thought, “We’re gonna release this, and nobody’s gonna hear it.” What I was doing was not typical of what I’m known for, like improvisational virtuosity. There are no trappings. There’s no echo. And some people made the mistake of thinking they were hearing the sickness. They think it’s pale or something. But the record was actually a celebration of my recovery. I was in a state of grace. I was connected to the heart of these songs.
Some of the tunes were not even in my head when I sat down to play them. “Be My Love” was one of those — not in my wildest imagination did I think I’d play that one. But obviously it was an emotion I was trying to get out. “The Melody at Night” was an ecstatic moment in my life. I look for that experience every time I play, but how often do you get it onto a recording?
You’ve been playing standards pretty exclusively for the past 17 years or so, ever since you formed the trio with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock. But before that you had built up a repertoire of dozens of original songs. Why don’t you play them anymore?
The biggest reason is, you don’t have to be coming on stage saying, “We’re playing our music.” There’s a possessiveness that goes along with that. A valuable player doesn’t have to play anything new to have value, because it’s not about the material, it’s about the playing.
Take a player like Sonny Rollins — he can play anything. If he’s having a good night, and let’s assume he is, then he completely transcends the song. And it’s obvious that it’s not about the material. Anyway, if you already have a piece of music ingrained in your body, why would you not play it?
But isn’t the music you’ve written yourself the most deeply ingrained in your body?
No. Uh uh. One time I was listening to a piece of my own, and I said, “That sounds vaguely familiar …” It wasn’t a part of me. Your own music comes out of your head and emotions, but it’s not etched in your system.
Do tunes have any meaning at all beyond how you play them?
Sure. We have to like them. For example, I don’t play “Hello Dolly” with the trio.
How did DeJohnette and Peacock react when you told them you just wanted to play standards?
At first, when I said to Gary, “Let’s just play standards; I wanna play things we already know,” Gary was shocked for a minute. But when we started to do it, he got unshocked. I surmised, when I first proposed forming the trio, that just getting together every now and then and playing — not rehearsing — would be of value to them. I was right. And that’s our approach. We really never know what we’re gonna play when we get onstage. Gary likes to know what key we’re gonna be in, but that’s about it.
With Jack and Gary, our combined experience in years is immense. Jack and Gary both lead bands. Jack has played — still plays — piano, Gary has played piano and a bunch of other instruments. I’ve played saxophone and other instruments, too. So I said, “Let’s just not worry about the material.” And it’s created a kind of freedom, I think for all of us, that we’ve never had before. We’ve gotten to a place that you can get to only when you’ve gotten all your preferences out of your system.
After one of our recent shows, I think in Boston, Gary came up to me and said, “I thought I had experienced the epitome of swing. I was completely mistaken. This was the most swinging thing I’ve ever experienced in my whole life.”
The trio can go literally any place, and we do, in concert. Once we’re inside a tune, we can do anything with it. We can end up playing completely outside, then we can play something completely familiar. We can play time, or no time. And in the rare cases where playing standards doesn’t work, we don’t have to do that either. We ended up in a hall last summer where the standards didn’t sound good in the room. So I said, Let’s not do this. So we didn’t. We played a whole concert where there was no tune.
The first time I ever saw you perform, in Milwaukee in 1974, you were opening for Larry Coryell’s electric fusion band, and not happy about it. You said some angry words to the audience from the stage. Any recollection of this?
Oh, that was with the quartet, right? And that was when Coryell was playing with the Eleventh House? That was not a well-planned thing. We were supposed to headline, but how were we supposed to come on after that? What were we suppose to do, come out and sound really tiny? So we changed the order.
When you’re up against an electric band like that, it’s like you’re on two separate planets. We wanted to make use of air, and they were using wires. It’s like a toxic exercise. I actually get a metallic taste in my mouth when I think about electric music. That’s why I don’t like recording studios — except my own, which is just a little room above the garage.
I can’t even tolerate my own playing on electric keyboards. It’s not about the musical ideas — the sound itself is toxic. It’s like eating plastic broccoli. I don’t know any jazz pianist who mainly plays electric who goes back to acoustic playing and sounds like they should be playing acoustic.
Even Herbie Hancock?
Yes. I’m not talking ideas, or even presentation. It’s like in politics: You have to sell something to become an electric player — like your skin or your heart.
With acoustic piano there’s so much more of a tactile response, so much more life in it. There are so many different ways of touching the acoustic piano, getting different sounds out, that I can’t imagine why anyone would leave it. If you’re a player, you don’t have enough time in your life to leave it.
But you don’t regret playing all that electric music with Miles Davis?
Well, the power of what we were trying to do was there. Just the instruments sucked. I don’t think I could have done it if I didn’t also have an acoustic band going at the same time. And I knew it wasn’t gonna last. We would put cotton in our ears every night — Jack and I — we couldn’t stand the volume.
But they’re gonna release the Cellar Door dates at Columbia, so you’ll be able to hear at a good length what we sounded like. These were the gigs that most of the cuts on “Live Evil” were taken from. The Cellar Door in Washington in 1970. I think they’re gonna release six CDs next fall. [Note: the personnel of the Miles Davis Band then was Davis, trumpet; Gary Bartz, saxophone; Michael Henderson, electric bass; DeJohnette, drums; Airto Moreira, percussion; Jarrett, keyboards and John McLaughlin guesting on guitar.]
We were a lot freer than “Live Evil” sounds like we were. And the first four CDs will be without John [McLaughlin], because John wasn’t in the band. You wouldn’t know that from “Live Evil,” but John only played with us one night. I think it was a marketing concept to add electric guitar. It kind of threw a curve ball into the band. I wasn’t sure — nobody was sure — what the rules were.
How did you come to join Davis’ band?
Well somehow Miles heard about me. In the mid-’60s I brought a trio into this tiny club in Paris. It maybe held 10 people. The band was Aldo Romano [drums] and J.F. Jenny-Clarke [bass]. I would have brought Charlie and Paul [bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian, with whom Jarrett mainly played in the late '60s and '70s], but I couldn’t afford to take them. So, anyway, we’re playing in this tiny club, and one night Miles walks in with his whole band. And he says [Jarrett imitates Davis' rasp], “I want these guys to hear this.”
When I was in the band Miles asked me once, “How do you play from nothing?” Because sometimes I would just play solo. I said, “I don’t know. I guess if I knew I’d be in trouble.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)