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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Iverson interviews Jarrett

Very interesting BBC online interview with Keith Jarrett by Ethan Iverson available for the next few days. You can listen to it for the next five days, after which it will be available as a transcript on Ethan’s blog

It’s fascinating in particular to hear Jarrett talk about his early days and his work with the American Quartet. For someone so famously temperamental Jarrett sounds very relaxed and it’s definitely one of the best and most lucid interviews of his that I’ve heard. I’m sure he was aware that he was being interviewed by a high level musician rather than the usual jazz journalist type and he responds very well to a discussion about music as opposed to being questioned about things peripheral to the music itself.

For me, I enjoyed the first part of the conversation more than when it got into a discussion of Jarrett’s own solo concerts. After a while I just find Jarrett’s self-absorption to be wearing. He seems to have little or no interest in anything or anyone outside his own music and his now tiny musical circle, and as you can hear in the interview, he never lets a compliment go unaccepted! That’s why I found the earlier part of the interview so much more enjoyable, his discussion of his interaction with others and with the music of others just seems so much more interesting than than his fascination with his own doings. For example he describes in the interview how he discussed with DeJohnette and Gary Peacock the ‘privilege’ of being a sideman – yet as far as I can tell the last time he indulged himself in this ‘privilege’ - even on record – would be in 1975 when he played on Kenny Wheeler’s wonderful ‘Gnu High’, a recording he subsequently completely dismissed and was very scathing about in his biography. As far as I know that’s the last time, bar one recording with Paul Motian on drums instead of DeJohnette, he’s played with anybody outside his own European Quartet and his Standards Trio. As far as I can recall his European Quartet disbanded in 1979, so for the past thirty years he has only played with two other people – DeJohnette and Peacock - an extraordinary piece of self-isolation for a jazz musician.

Undoubtedly his discussion of his solo work also has musical interest, but I found it so wrapped up in his own self-regard that it made it a bit off-putting. Of course he is a genius, and I number several of his recordings as being personal ‘desert island discs’ and he’s certainly got no reason to believe anything other than the fact that he is one of the greatest living pianists and improvisers on the planet. And maybe (or perhaps certainly) he needs this isolation and self-absorption to do what he does, but still it would have been nice to learn that his musical view and interests went a bit further than the four walls of his studio and the three corners of his trio.

One final thing I noticed about the interview was the almost complete airbrushing out of existence of the European Quartet Jarrett had with Jan Garbarek. For some reason the only mention they get is when Ethan, in discussion about the interview with the BBC’s Jez Nelson, imagines how a piece played by the American Quartet would have sounded if the European Quartet had played it - he describes it as probably sounding like ‘Smooth Jazz’ (!). In the interview, as far as I can tell (I was listening on a dodgy online connection in rural France) Ethan never questions Jarrett about this band, nor does Jarrett mention it. Whether this is by accident or design – or maybe lack of space – is hard to tell. In the interview the American group is lauded to the heavens as being very influential and one of the greatest modern jazz groups, but the European Quartet was also highly influential – especially in Europe. That group had a way of playing rubato together, through changes, that has never been equalled in my opinion, and there are some incredible recordings like ‘Belonging’ which surely deserve a mention in any overview of Jarrett’s work? And in the retelling of the story of Jarrett’s own groups I can’t imagine any history that doesn’t include the American Quartet, the European Quartet and the Standards Trio. It’ll be interesting to see if Ethan mentions the group in his blog, and why they were not mentioned when he posts the transcript of the interview. Did Jarrett not want to discuss them? Did Ethan prefer not to ask about them? Or was there just not enough time?

One amusing sideline to the interview – Jez Nelson, several times in the interview, thanks Ethan for taking the trouble to go to see Jarrett and interview him for the BBC. I know of very few jazz musicians anywhere who wouldn’t give their eye teeth to have a chance to meet Jarrett, let alone have the opportunity to go to his house and talk music with him!


  1. 1) I have a video of Jarrett playing duo with Charlie Haden in 2007.

    2) Ethan is on record as saying he does not care, at all, for the European Quartet (and the clue is in the nature of his comment in the accompanying radio commentary: very derogatory).

  2. Thanks for the info - didn't know Haden and Jarrett played together as recently as that, I must see of that footage is available on Youtube.

    what you say about Ethan's dislike of the European Quartet makes sense in light of the interview......

  3. And, do remember that in the documentary film, "The Art of Improvisation", Jarrett himself seems most happy to talk, at length, about the European quartet. Illuminatingly too. Is it rue, though, that Garbarek and he may not be on good terms today? (Also, in truth, how often and how many other musicians might Jarrett actually play with - informally - that we know nothing about?).