A Keith Jarrett solo concert is something I've waited a very long time to experience in person. When I first started listening to his music about 10 years ago, I was a stubborn teenager who was uninterested in anything but classical music and traditional Irish music (don't ask), and Jarrett's long-form improvised concerts were a step (a baby step, maybe, but a crucial one) toward jazz and (gasp) rock. I own more CDs by Jarrett than by any other artist, and with the exception of maybe Dylan, Billie Holiday and Bach, I've probably spent more hours listening to them. I even wrote my college admissions essay about Jarrett's trio. What I'm trying to say is that while in writing this column I usually try to keep up at least a bare minimum of journalistic reserve, in the past when I've written about him that reserve has been strained, and in writing about his solo concert at Carnegie Hall last Monday night (the first North American solo appearance in a decade) it would be foolish for me to even try.
In order not to disappoint, this would have to be one of the more profound concert experiences of my life -- and having lived with it for a week, I'm happy to report that it was. Jarrett's solo concerts have changed greatly in the more than three decades he's been doing them, from the generous and overwhelmingly romantic lyricism of Bremen/Lausanne and Köln to the austerity, compositional clarity and probing depth of Vienna and La Scala, and to my ears they just keep getting better. Jarrett's solo concerts have always been performed as a single, unbroken piece, but last year, as documented on the extraordinary "Radiance" recording, he changed the format and began performing discrete pieces, most under 10 minutes long, still all improvised -- and this was the format he used at Carnegie Hall. Improvising in smaller pieces has punctured the sometimes epic, overblown pretensions of the long-form concerts and allowed Jarrett to home in with more focus than ever before on the essential point of his music.
That point, as I hear it, is simply transcendence, what Jarrett has pursued in all his musical endeavors over the years. In this concert the pieces varied tremendously in style, but were unified in that pursuit. There were mantralike grooves and ecstatic gospel rave-ups -- long staples of Jarrett's music. There were the kind of heartbreaking, lyrical melodic pieces he's famous for, and inward-turned passages, almost improvised hymns, that seemed to come from a place of absolute calm and serenity. (Jarrett isn't quite as preoccupied with heart-melting melodies as he once was, but he still has the ability to spin them out at will, almost as if they were written in the air for him alone to read.) Most thrillingly there were pieces that were very nearly harmonically atonal, taking inspiration more from 20th century classical music (particularly Shostakovich, whose preludes Jarrett performs so very well, and Ligeti) than from free jazz. (These pieces feel like natural continuations of the free improvisations he's been performing with his trio over the last few years.) Throughout Jarrett's mastery, his complete fluency and surefootedness in even the most daring and difficult passages, was truly astounding.
Most everyone in the audience that night seemed to be as excited about the concert as I was -- and really, it would be difficult to have been there and not felt like you were hearing something very special. Standing ovations are pretty much automatic for any performer of Jarrett's stature these days, but not all standing ovations are created equal, and this one had a little something extra, and Jarrett was called back to the stage again and again, eventually performing five encores. This was one of the great artists of our time at the top of his game, still breaking artistic ground at 60. Being in Carnegie Hall that night is an experience I'm going to treasure for the rest of my life.