Swans Commentary » swans.com March 27, 2006  



Keith Jarrett In San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House, March 19, 2006


by Gilles d'Aymery





(Swans - March 27, 2006)  The last time Keith Jarrett gave a solo performance in San Francisco was some twelve years ago and we missed it. No way were we going to repeat the blunder. The moment we heard about the forthcoming piano concert, late January, we bought two orchestra tickets and waited impatiently for the occasion. Like most attendees we arrived early, fully aware of Jarrett's policy -- "No Late Seating." Also alert to another of Mr. Jarrett's idiosyncrasies, we had plenty cough drops, all unwrapped and placed in a sandwich zipper bag. 19:30, an usher leads us to our seats in the third row of the orchestra, the very first two seats on the right facing the stage, where an imposing Steinway & Sons ebonized grand piano, with its polished and lacquered solid brass hardware (looked like gold), stood in its center, silent. 19:50, patrons are filling their seats among a chit-chat buzz that envelops the august hall. 20:00, the buzzing noise amplifies, but the legendary artist remains a ghost. 20:05, no sight of him yet. People begin wondering... 20:10...

The main lights are dimmed but for those highlighting the grand piano. The buzz dissipates to quiet anticipation. From behind the curtain walks Keith Jarrett to a deafening welcome applause. Dressed with black shoes and slacks, a long-sleeved mauve shirt, a jacquard vest, and his trademark sunglasses, he walks to the front of the piano and slightly bows to the standing audience. He looks so frail and tiny, at most 5'7" or 5'8" tall, very, very slim. He joins his hands together, placed against his torso, bows again slightly (how come such tiny hands and fingers can perform such miracles on the keyboard?) and turns around, makes two quick steps and sits at the magnificent living animal that he intends to ride, unleashing his deep secretive powers, for the next ninety minutes. The Hall is now quiet. From our location, we can observe his face. He sits there, straight, pensive, expressionless. Seconds elapse.

His head bends down out of our sight as though he had suddenly penetrated, body and soul, the bowels of the instrument of our desires. A note jumps, a high-pitched one that he lets stand for an instant that looks like an eternity. Then comes a second one, and a third. It's an excruciatingly slow beginning. He ends the first score quickly, raises, walks two steps and bows. The audience applauds with a mix of reservation and appreciation. He rejoins the instrument, undisturbed.

But we are. A young, 20-something blond man at the end of our aisle, in C-2, with his female companion sitting next to him, is surreptitiously recording the performance with what appears to be a small MP3 recorder, hidden on his lap under the program. The device flashes a distracting small green diode. As we endeavor to avoid that creepy intrusion, so distinctive of the American experiment where stealing is considered an art form, and bend backward to keep the diode out of sight and mind, Keith Jarrett carries on.

The diode keeps perturbing us but we are enthralled by Jarrett's slow path to becoming one with his living companion. The acoustics of this opera house, whose kitsch architecture matches the poorest taste one can imagine, is superb. The Steinway fills the hall with Keith's magic. He is leading us all in that enchanting province where radiant beauty is the lay of the land. He's coming to life in crescendos, diode notwithstanding.

Comes the intermission. Once again, he walks a couple of steps, bows, his hands joined in front of him, and disappears behind the curtain.

Twenty minutes later, the diode man having been chastised by George, the head usher, and the piano tuned by a technician, Keith Jarrett reappears. He walks to the piano, stops, turns around, and walks twenty feet away to a microphone. He taps it gently and says (if memory serves):

I don't have anything to say. I just like to walk over here.

He walks back to the piano. The audience applauds. He turns around again back to the mike.

Because of my reputation I am supposed to complain about something...

I'd just like to complain about government in general... (wild applause)

"I guess I don't have to say anything," he adds as he returns to the piano under thundering applause.

Part II of the concert begins. Diode man has hidden the recording machine under his leather jacket. All is well. Americans steal, we witness. And what a witnessing it is, all our human senses awakened. In his second score, Keith brings the famed tears to our eyes. We are in trance, shaking our heads back and forth, left and right, as we follow the tempo of the ballet.

Keith writhes, grunts, gyrates, hisses, expiates the crimes of injustice, or mere societal ugliness, within a world that he alone inhabits. While playing, he stands, his face grimacing with orgasm-like intensity, singing along. Whether he makes love to the piano or the piano makes love to him, ecstasy flowers from his miniature hands. He mixes the genres, bop, post bop, fusion, avant-garde, a tad of blues, alternating effortlessly between rhythmic, sensuous, melodious, spiritual scores.

A child prodigy and a genius, Keith Jarrett belongs to the pantheon of the greatest jazz musicians of all times, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chick Corea...but he's not just a jazz pianist. As Duke Ellington would have said, he is "beyond category." A classical composer, he's also performed the music of Mozart, Bach, Händel, Shostakovich, Bartók, and plays, or has played other musical instruments with immense talent (organ and saxophone).

Time gets suspended in that other, unknown dimension where he's led the audience. Maybe there is a loving god after all -- the fusion between a musical instrument and a pair of hands, especially that diamond of his left hand. Perhaps, in that terra of the imaginaire, killing the others does not pertain for they are us. Close your eyes. Let the music impregnate your soul. Maybe, just maybe...

We rejoice. We savor. We join his world, wholly conquered.

Time goes by though, even in its suspended state. Keith leaves the piano, faces the audience, joins hands, and salutes. He bows deeply once, twice, and leaves the stage. No, no, it can't be over. Encore, encore, encore, the unrelenting clapping begs. Encore, encore, encore...

He reappears. A few camera flashes burst in the moment. He says nothing, sits back at the piano, and begins another improvisation. It ends soon. He bows. He walks away.

Encore, encore, encore...

There he is again. More flashes. He plays a long, rumbling melody. It starts like a thunder, like water running down the creek of our imagination, and goes and goes and goes. The water runs through our veins like Puccini's blood in the three riddles of Turandot Act II.

- What is born each night and dies each dawn?

- Hope (Esperanza).

- What flickers red and works like a flame, yet is not fire?

- Blood (Sangre).

- What is like ice but burns?

- Turandot!

Don't let it end, Keith, don't let it end ever, we secretly beg as we reach for each other's hand in communion.

Of course, it ends.

But he comes back -- a bee drawn to the honeyed applause. He walks to the microphone, taps it gently again, lashes out against the insensitivity of the camera flashers who cheapen the world he has spent his life to make a better place for the next generation of musicians, walks to the breathtaking instrument, and plays... Yes, the bootlegger and his accomplice have long departed, eager as they were to turn a profit (they did not even applaud the first encore).

We and the audience, in contrast, touch the meaning of Nirvana. All the while...

...Bows, thanks, applause. He is gone.

For good?

Not yet.

The fourth and last encore is a genial improvisation on Herman Hupfeld's song, "As Time Goes By" (Casablanca). It lingers for a long while. We know he's playing his goodbyes. We take in as much as we can.

It was a great day in San Francisco, sunny and chilly. One of those days when one feels life is worth going through.

We walked back to the parking lot among the crowd, holding hands when we could. Let it be known that on that very night we were there, and it was magic.

Thank you, Keith.


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External Resources

Keith Jarrett: A Sketch of His Life and Work, by Lynn David Newton

Keith Jarrett on Wikipedia

The Köln Concert on Wikipedia

Steinway & Sons grand piano


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About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/ga206.html
Published March 27, 2006