You could start like this: The quiet tension of the minor ninth at the outset of the Kyoto concert is the sort of thing that seems calculated to draw the ear, and as it becomes clear by and by that it’s part of a Neapolitan sixth over a dominant pedal its interest grows. Despite its establishing its place in the tonal environment of F major, it continues to assert itself and will not apparently be dispensed with; each feeling of resolution towards F (only towards, as the terminal chord tends to be the dominant seventh) or beyond that via the first inversion and a secondary dominant to D minor, it returns, and for some minutes Keith Jarrett is keeping everything suspended, turning the found object over in his hand and investigating it. After seven minutes the rhythmic feel is modified, although the harmonic material is sustained.
But a narration of musical events is never as much fun as an audition of them, and frequently it’s excruciating, so this isn’t going to be about what happens notes-and-rhythm-wise when Jarrett sits at the piano in Japan in November 1976. There are many passages that could be related or described, wherein the description seeks to embody or reflect the rapture of experience. What is so affecting to me however is the effort of the moment, the making of improvised music that by definition passes, the complete commitment in the instant of performance or production, transferred continually across (so far) forty years via the audio recording. The evanescent made permanent. Not merely the notes, the sounds – but the act. And the objectified feeling. The intent, the sentiment. These works fire my imagination in a specific and quite individual way. They seem instructive. They are among the most challenging and demanding pieces with which I’m familiar, and obviously some of that is because I play the piano myself, but not all of it. They have come to occupy a particular place in my life that has to do with their very shape and the manner of their generation. As well as my first apprehension of them.
In the summer of 2003 Sall and I were awaiting the birth of our first child, and we looked after my parents’ house while they travelled, and on New Year’s Eve we stood in their street with the smallest split of champagne you’ve ever seen and watched the fireworks exploding over the city at midnight. Also that summer we went to the cinema – something that happens far more rarely after children enter the picture – and saw Mostly Martha, Sandra Nettelbeck’s glorious picture about an emotionally challenged chef who scores custody of her niece following the death of her sister. One of the lovely surprises about this film was that some of the music is drawn from ensemble and solo recordings of Keith Jarrett. (Manfred Eicher was the music producer for the picture.) ‘Country’, from My Song, plays during the opening credits, and elsewhere, and this delightful surprise was only compounded with solo music from recordings with which I was not at that time familiar. The Tokyo encore from The Sun Bear Concerts is I think the second of Jarrett’s pieces to be heard in the movie, at a point where Martha is talking to Lina following the death of Lina’s mother, Christin. (It’s curious to me that I had come to believe that there was more of the Sun Bear Concerts in Mostly Martha, but there is not. Only the Tokyo encore.)
The film is to this day quite overwhelming; its sensitive and pathetic handling of Martha and Lina’s grief has a depth in simplicity that is rather like the best music. I’ve seen Mostly Martha a great number of times now and on every occasion I am moved.
When first I saw it, by chance, a pretty ordinary gig I had been doing had wound up and I was owed the money for the last few evenings we’d played. The bandleader met with me in town and handed over the dough, and I went straight to JB Hi-fi where I knew they had it in stock and, having scrutinised the closing credits for Mostly Martha, put it down for The Sun Bear Concerts. It was a collection I’d known about for ages – I’d seen a friend’s signed LP copy a number of times – but never heard. (The recording from Bregenz was also featured in Mostly Martha so I picked that up too.) And then I went into one of those periods when all the music I’m hearing is by Keith Jarrett. They’ve happened off and on for about twenty-five years now.
The Sun Bear Concerts cover six CDs, and the set contains the music from five performances in Japan in 1976. But hey, everyone knows that. I listened to them throughout the summer of 2003, and perhaps in connection with the enormous changes that were happening for Sall and myself as the weeks went on, they have come to be redolent of that time of year. So usually at some stage after Christmas I’m drawn to them and I listen again.
Approaching The Sun Bear Concerts each summer, there’s a sense in which I feel I know what I’m in for. I’ve heard them already, I sort of know how they go, there are parts that I recognise especially, or for which perhaps I wait, things that I know are going to happen even if I’m not absolutely sure when they’re going to appear or how they’re going to be evoked. But familiarity grows with each listening, so the work is in a sense changing as I go along. I’m not listening to exactly the same thing over again, but something with which I’m more familiar than I used to be, something about which I know more than previously I did, and in my growing acquaintance with the work it is a different, a changing, thing.
We all know that art is the thing that continues to give; whereas there are thrills to be had everywhere from sporting contests or displays of fireworks or television comedies or whatever, the thing from which one can continue to draw meaning and consolation and wonder is the art-thing, the thing that will bear repeated employment and continue to reveal.
The concerts are a hell of a lot bigger than the Tokyo encore, too. That particular piece exemplifies (to my ear) one of Jarrett’s most significant achievements or personal talents: the unsentimental expression of profound feeling, the situation of extraordinary sorrow amidst unspeakable beauty, the use of tone colour to extend and exceed whatever message might be conveyed by the notes themselves. His playing on the way out of ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’ on Tribute has something of the same character. Or his performance of ‘The wind’ on The Paris Concert. The Tokyo encore is perhaps like the famous right-hand line (they don’t number the bars in the Schott transcription but it begins in the bottom system on p. 22) on side one of The Köln Concert – a passage that is remembered ahead of a great many others, one that comes to define the experience; a synecdoche, if you like.
But the works – the concerts – are massive. So much stuff goes on and there’s a tangible sense in which it’s a struggle to produce the music; to make spontaneously these long and involved and fearless ruminations. It’s work. And they’re transmitted from those nights in the mid-1970s to wherever we are right now, where we can pause and (re-)experience; if for the first time, perhaps as those who heard them in concert, if subsequently then with a growing acquaintance and a differing variety of expectation. In the first sense you might say the music hasn’t changed, although never were it the same for any two listeners, either; in the second it continues to change or be changed as we go on living with it.
There’s something about the loneliness (or should I say, the solitude?) of the situation, as well as the historical distance between then and now, that continues to stun and intrigue me. A night, in a hall, in Japan, just Keith Jarrett at the piano, and a room full of people waiting to see what goes on. No-one has any idea before it starts, and then it’s started and it’s in motion and it will continue until it stops. Jarrett, on his own, bringing the music out of the piano and out of his mind and his ears and his hands. The process, as we applaud improvised music for being – it’s process, not product, right? – but then inevitably the product, the recorded artefact, the thing I listen to each summer, that I can revisit and experience again. And live with. That’s what happened then. It happens now.
Robert Armstrong’s book The Affecting Presence was much lauded by Stephen Feld and Charles Keil in the introduction to their Music Grooves, which I encountered as an early PhD student in the late 1990s. Armstrong’s idea, as rounded up by Keil and Feld, is of the work of art maintaining an influence in the life of the one who apprehends it; if the picture is hung on the wall (or whatever) its presence has an ongoing, organic impact on the experience of its owner or admirer. To quote Stephen Feld:
[Robert Armstrong] was so committed to art objects, but at the same time he was committed to living with them and saying these are not objects, they are presences. He would say, we’re not looking at them, we’re witnessing living, breathing stuff, so let’s live and breathe with it and let’s dig its livingness and breathingness.
I like this idea because it permits, or even expects, the art work to change over time, as the viewer’s perspective changes through experience both of it and of everything else.
Obviously for an improviser such as myself the example set by Keith Jarrett is a staggering precedent, and the challenges it poses are not quickly discharged. (Oh, damn it, let’s be honest. They are never discharged.) The idea of giving a completely improvised concert is in itself awesome – in the older sense of the word, you know – and that it has been done is somehow a deterrent to trying it again. That The Köln Concert got made, ever, says: don’t try this at home, or anywhere else. Yet each evening, the artist alone with her/his talent might simply pose the question and seek to have it answered. Jarrett had such-and-such-a-thing in the bag, that night, and he took it out and showed it around. He never did it again; each concert is an event, a single thing, its own solution to the problem. Should we not enquire? What do we take from The Sun Bear Concerts to assist us in our interrogation?
Probably the thing I’ve taken longest to realise, or to come to terms with, is the rate of change in the music. Large pieces like the halves of these concerts are very difficult to assimilate as individual things, and each one travels from place to place at a rate specific to itself. They seem so big and so various and always so open to possibility, it is as though the possibility itself, the question, were the thing to which one was listening. One never knows when the moment of change will occur, and as with the opening pages of Sibelius’s second symphony, several ideas might be tested and apparently discarded in fairly rapid succession. Improvisation is a matter of determination, of location; for much of the time material is actually being sought.
The balance Jarrett seems to effect between patience and alertness is constantly stunning. To be present for whatever reveals itself and to be capable of making the most of its possibilities, spontaneously, is an astonishing skill. And because these things don’t seem to be predictable – it’s as though you can hear them happening of their own accord, even though it takes someone to play them, some variety of physical motion or imaginative decision-making to bring them into being, there is a sense of the process being observed and choices made in light of options. When pulse emerges from rhythmic amorphousness, that was able to happen just then. When chromaticism complicates modalism it works because of the time we’ve spent getting used to the modalism. These changes are the things I find myself listening to more than ever. Not necessarily the ideas themselves but the manner in which they are manipulated or they give way to other ideas. The imaginative leaps that bring one thing from another.
But all of this is thrown into a particular kind of relief by the Sun Bear Concerts‘ having been preserved, enshrined, made public. Word is that everything Jarrett performs these days is recorded, and there’s an archive something like Prince’s was said to be where years of trio and solo concerts are stored. Dime will give you access to a vast number of performances recorded by sneaky punters who went to hear them armed with a device. There is the told story, and the untold one – or at least, the one not being permitted officially to be retold. So the physical product, your six-CD set, grants the work a continuing presence and transforms what was made for the immediate moment into something that can continue to speak.
And life changes. Last summer* was the fourteenth in which I engaged with The Sun Bear Concerts. In April 2003 Oliver was born, and since then have come Frederick and Lucinda. Challenges from year to year absorb the attention and draw the energy. From week to week, from day to day, one is occupied with the stuff of being alive and of assisting with the lives of others. Oliver began senior school this year, and of course one took a moment to wonder where the last seven years of primary education had gone. It’s not a question I’ll ever be able to answer.
In a sense, music can be a constant; you return to Brahms’s fourth symphony or the Quatour pour le fin du temps or Filles de Kilimanjaro and they’re in a manner as you left them. This can be consoling. At the same time, and perhaps it’s because I listen to The Sun Bear Concerts at a roughly regular interval of twelve months, each listening is a plumb in the river at intervals as it deepens. That’s something of how it feels. To me.
*I began writing this piece in summer. Things move slowly sometimes. So it goes.