Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Keith Jarrett!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Keith Jarrett on The Köln Concert album
Keith Jarrett on The Köln Concert album

On May 8, 1945, Keith Jarrett was born. Jarrett is best known as a jazz pianist, but he’s also recorded a significant amount of classical music.

It is not unusual to discover that the subjects of these “Music Memories” post were child prodigies, but even by those standards, Jarrett displayed his talents early. He began taking piano lessons at 2, appeared on a television talent show at 5, and gave his first piano recital at 7; the program included music by Mozart and Beethoven, as well as two of his own compositions.

Jarrett discovered jazz in high school, and was drawn to it so strongly that he turned down an offer to study classical composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger was one of the most influential teachers in music history; her pupils included Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, Aaron Copland, Lalo Schifrin, and Astor Piazzola.

After high school, Jarrett spent a year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, then moved to New York. He was hired fairly quickly by Art Blakey to play with the Jazz Messengers, a loose collective of musicians that had been around for about fifteen years. Jarrett recorded one album as part of the Messengers, 1966’s Buttercorn Lady.

Book cover for Buttercorn Lady
Buttercorn Lady
Keith Jarrett, Art Blakey

Even as part of a large ensemble, Jarrett’s talent was obvious, and he was quickly hired away from the Messengers by saxophonist Charles Lloyd. The Charles Lloyd Quartet was doing free-form exploration and improvisation in jazz, in ways that paralleled what was going on in psychedelic rock at the time. That made them popular not only with jazz audiences, but with rock audiences, especially on the West Coast. The album Forest Flower is a good example of Jarrett’s work with Lloyd.

Jarrett recorded his first album under his own name in 1967. Life Between the Exit Signs was a trio album, featuring Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums; those three would continue to work together for the next decade.

The 1968 album Restoration Ruin is the oddity of Jarrett’s career. There’s very little piano on it; it’s a folk-rock album on which Jarrett plays virtually all of the instruments, and even sings.

Book cover for Restoration Ruin
Restoration Ruin
Keith Jarrett

The Charles Lloyd Quartet folded in 1968, and Jarrett was invited to join Miles Davis’s band. He appears on a few Davis albums in the early 1970s, Miles Davis at Fillmore and Live-Evil among them, usually playing electric keyboards. Jarrett was not very interested in electric instruments in jazz, and eventually abandoned them entirely, but he remained with Davis for a few years out of his respect for Davis’s talent.

In 1971, Jarrett reunited with Haden and Motian; now joined by Dewey Redman on saxophone, they became known as Jarrett’s “American” quartet. They recorded about a dozen albums over the next six years, from El Juicio (The Judgement) in 1971 to Bop-Be in 1976. Their music was strongly improvisational, and showed strong influences of gospel and of Middle Eastern music. Redman often played the suona, a Chinese double-reed instrument that he called a musette.

While still working with the American quartet, Jarrett also began a series of recordings with some Scandinavian musicians—Jan Garbarek on saxophone, Palle Danielsson on bass, and Jon Christensen on drums—who became known as the “European” quartet. Their music was broadly similar to the American quartet, but the avant-garde and Americana influences were replaced with hints of European folk and classical music. The European quartet released five albums, beginning with Belonging in 1974.

Book cover for Belonging
Keith Jarrett

And if leading two separate quartets wasn’t keeping him busy enough, in 1973, Jarrett began performing wholly improvised solo concerts. Those recordings have been his most popular, and 1975’s The Köln Concert is the best selling solo piano album in history. Jarrett’s favorite of these concerts is the 1991 Vienna Concert; in his liner notes to the album, he says, “I have courted the fire for a very long time, and many sparks have flown in the past, but the music on this recording speaks, finally, the language of the flame itself.”

Jarrett’s longest-lasting ensemble was known as the “Standards” trio. Featuring Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, this group recorded about 20 albums between 1983 and 2014. Unlike the earlier quartets, which were primarily improvisational, the Standards trio focused mostly on jazz and pop standards—their first two albums were called Standards, Volume 1 and Standards, Volume 2—though there is more improvisation in their later albums.

In addition to his jazz work, Jarrett began to write and perform classical music in the 1970s. Ritual is a solo piano piece performed by Dennis Russell Davies; Jarrett’s largest classical work is The Celestial Hawk, a 40-minute piece for piano, percussion, and orchestra.

As a solo classical pianist, Jarrett has generally focused on the large masterpieces for the instrument—Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues. His work with orchestra, on the other hand, has generally focused on concertos by less well-known composers, including Alan Hovhaness, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and Lou Harrison.

While Jarrett is best known as a pianist, he has recorded albums on the organ, clavichord, and harpsichord. During his years with the American quartet, he played saxophone and percussion fairly often. It’s been about 30 years since he recorded as anything other than a pianist, and he has occasionally mentioned his regret about giving up the saxophone.

Jarrett’s most recent releases have been of previously unreleased concerts from earlier in his career. After the Fall features the Standards trio in live performances from 1998, and La Fenice is a solo performance recorded in 2006.

Much more of Jarrett’s music is available for streaming at hoopla.