Keith Jarrett - La Scala

Published September 26, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

The Teatro alla Scala in Milan is the world's most famous opera house, so when pianist Keith Jarrett went there on Feb. 13, 1995, to play and record this solo recital, he was invading hallowed ground for Italian musicians. According to his own account, he triumphed, at least so far as he affected an elderly man who had been the assistant to the conductors of La Scala for the previous 25 years -- that gentleman proclaimed Jarrett's recital his most moving musical experience.

It certainly must have been different from the well-rehearsed productions of Italian classics he was used to. When Keith Jarrett plays solo, he tries to empty his mind of preconceived ideas,
musical or otherwise, and let the spirit take him where it may. It's a daring procedure and it
doesn't always work throughout a whole performance or piece, sometimes leading to periods of seemingly
aimless repetition or fey impressionism when Jarrett appears to be waiting for a new idea. And that's what he is doing: He once said he doesn't want to force any performance -- when he gets
stuck, he keeps playing until the music tells him what to do next.

He was in a lyrical mood at La Scala. He starts with a turn and a gently falling phrase that he works and expands for much of the first improvisation. He rarely becomes agitated -- the piece takes on in its more energetic moments a genial folk quality, perhaps because of the way he
exploits the pentatonic scale. (Jarrett once told me that his "folk" moments strike ethnic groups
differently: Some Japanese listeners heard Asian qualities in a performance that sounded to me
vaguely Spanish.) There are minutes in which he obsessively repeats a simple left hand pattern.
There are also minutes of lyrical charm. His second improvisation begins with an angular series of
phrases that promises more rhythmic life. The beginning of this piece is full of nervous one-note
runs. The texture isn't maintained for long. The lyricism of the first piece must have been still
resonating in Jarrett's mind, for it recurs and takes over. He finishes with an encore: a rendition of "Over the Rainbow." Jarrett's solo concerts are always chancy. Some jazz listeners find them the
nearest thing to New Age music. But the intelligence and integrity in Jarrett's playing, his ability to call on the devices and sounds of free jazz, folk and contemporary classical music while maintaining his own sound, distinguish this concert, despite its occasional flaccid moments, from the mood music of the New Age.

By Michael Ullman

Michael Ullman is a jazz writer and lecturer in the music department of Tufts University.

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