What makes a Keith Jarrett show special? Off the bat, the fact that Jarrett is among the world's most respected pianists, one of a tiny handful of jazz musicians who's found an adoring audience beyond that niche (not unlike his old associate Miles Davis). Jarrett's warm, hum-along '70s work influenced the likes of Steely Dan (sue-ably so, in fact), and he's equally accomplished in the classical world. In short, Jarrett's rep as a musician accounts for the hundred-dollar ticket price all by itself.
Add to that his jaw-dropping skills as an improviser. You are hearing music, at a Keith Jarrett performance, which has never been heard before; that sounds fully formed, and at the same time buzzes with a current of newness.
Then there's Jarrett's legendary surliness to contend with; his YouTube-d history of splenetic outbursts directed at audience members who cough while he's playing or try to take pictures of him. Wikipedia devotes a section of his biography to "Idiosyncrasies." Of course you want to see Keith Jarrett play Carnegie Hall.
The first thing that made Jarrett's performance remarkable last night, though, was how affable—even jolly—he was. Following a handful of improvisations that ran from Rothko black to rose-petal pretty, the pianist walked across the stage to a mike stand. One could feel a collective intake of breath: What was he about to say? Well...Jarrett smiled and started talking about his trousers. How he hadn't worn them in 25 years, and how they were now not just uncomfortable—they felt alien to him. This, he suggested, made him think of himself, and his behavior of yore. With sincerity, he said, "In the spirit of wrong pants days, I apologize for everything I've ever said." He wouldn't make an apology for the future, he joked—but he was sorry for what he'd done.
Jarrett added that he'd taken flak from critics about improvising sets of shorter pieces, rather than going for one long 40-minute marathon, and that they thought this was indicative of lack of endurance. Not so, he said. The hardest part of any improvisation is the first note.
Only once did Jarrett stop playing midway through an improvisation and jump away from the piano. He took the mike again; it's like looking at an object and wanting it to do something for you, he said, but nothing's happening. Jarrett shot an accusing glance at the gleaming piano. He sat down again and began to play: a tangled, gnarly, swirling piece that suggested he was actually wrestling with the instrument. He grunted and stamped his feet. The man sitting next to me murmured his approval: "Yeah, that's it," as if speaking for the piano, "you got it." The piece finished, the crowd roared its approval, and Jarrett bowed for his first standing ovation. I lost count of how many times he returned to the stage to play again. "You don't wanna stop!" said the man/voice of the piano sitting to my left, grinning.
If ever there was an argument about the idea of music, and indeed art, as "flowing," Jarrett exemplified it last night. By the end of the concert, he couldn't keep away from the piano. It's rather like when one makes a wineglass "sing"; it takes a while to get that first tone, but once you have it, you only need to whisper a touch for a response.
This felt like a set of "hits," except, of course, that none of these pieces had been played before. Rather like looking back at one's own life through new eyes and finding new perspective—or just wearing some old pants that don't fit anymore.