Music Interviews
3:47 pm
Mon November 14, 2011

Keith Jarrett: Alone In Rio And Ready To Fail

On April 9 of this year, the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett sat alone on the stage of an old opera house in Rio de Janeiro, his only company a piano — an American Steinway he described as "not perfect at all."

For nearly two hours, Jarrett played — as he often does — without any idea of what was coming next. It was sheer improvisation.

He says the result, now available on the album Rio, was some of the best music he's ever produced in a career spanning almost 50 years.

Moment To Moment

All Things Considered host Guy Raz recently spoke with Jarrett about that night and this recording. Jarrett says he has no particular preparation routine for a completely unscripted performance like this.

"It's never the same," he says. "I have no idea, moment to moment, how to prepare for these things, either. What actually happens is so much in the moment, so much of a nanosecond. And I know a lot of people probably are skeptical about whether they really are always improvised. I myself feel skeptical, even though I know they were."

Jarrett says it's comparable to an "out-of-body experience." But he does try to get a feel for his setting before the show itself.

"I get to the place, I try to absorb the culture that I'm in, listen to the language, think about where I am, and that's about the only preparation that might be important," Jarrett says. "It was obvious when I listened to the CD that I was connecting to the culture. It wasn't Holland, or Germany, or the States, or Japan — it was south of the equator. So that made me free of something, I think."

It's a liberating experience, he acknowledges, to play solo.

"But you have to be ready to fall on your face — flat on your face — and have failed miserably," he says. "Like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance: She falls over; it's her worst nightmare come true. But what can you do worse than that if you're dancing? The same with this."

Energy Forces

Three years ago, Jarrett went through a divorce from his wife of 30 years. He speaks of the experience as an influence on his music at the time.

"Whenever a change happens in a person's life — especially a large change, and especially an unpredictable one, like your spouse leaving or something — if you're an artist, you can use that," Jarrett says. "That's an energy force. It doesn't feel good, but if you're an improviser, you wonder, 'What will I play now?' So for a while, the curiosity of your new situation creates the music."

Now, he is engaged again — and in Rio de Janeiro, the relationship was still new.

"But in Rio, it's as you say, much more positive, and much more hopeful, and much more joyful," Jarrett says. "And I remember being at ease, and I can only say that was because of a new relationship, partly. Something about the way my life has gone has allowed me to weave through that stuff, and use the next experience in my life as fuel for the music. And this particular fuel was full of hope."

Perhaps it's a part of the reason that Jarrett claims to have made some of his best work after 50 years.

"I felt strangely at ease on stage, which is rare anyway," he says. "No matter what people think, no matter how many hundreds of times I've done it, it doesn't get easier. It gets harder, because my whole goal is not to repeat myself, and in some way bring something else into the world that wasn't there before in quite that way."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ: And I'm Guy Raz. On April 9th of this year, the jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett, sat alone on a stage in an old opera house in Rio de Janeiro. His only company: a piano, an American Steinway. And for nearly two hours, Jarrett played, as he often does, without any idea of what was coming next. It was sheer improvisation and the result was some of the best music Jarrett says he's ever produced in a storied career spanning almost 50 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

RAZ: I recently spoke with Keith Jarrett about that night and this recording. It's now available as the album, "Rio."

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

RAZ: It's incredible to hear any of your solo performances and this one, in particular, and know that it's more than two hours of improvised music - not a single note on paper, not an outline, but sounds and emotions that seem to be guiding your fingers. What process do you go through to prepare to do that?

KEITH JARRETT: It's never the same. The process I go through differs depending on when dinner is, depending on what I had for dinner, depending on whether I think I want a moment of privacy before I go on. I have no idea, moment to moment, how to prepare for these things, either.

What actually happened is so much in the moment, so much of a nanosecond, and I know a lot of people probably are skeptical about whether they really are always improvised. I just – I, myself, feel skeptical, even though I know they were totally improvised.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

RAZ: It almost sounds like you're describing an out-of-body experience.

JARRETT: Yeah. I could say it's an out-of-body experience. I mean, for example, what I'm doing in each place I play - and Rio was a good example, better than most - I get to the place, I try to absorb the culture that I'm in, listen to the language, think about where I am and that's about the only preparation that might be important. It was obvious when I listened to the CD that I was connecting with the culture. It wasn't Holland or Germany or the states or Japan. It was south of the equator, so that made me free of something, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

RAZ: You often perform with your longtime collaborators, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette.

JARRETT: Yeah.

RAZ: But when you perform solo like you did for this album, "Rio," just you up on the stage, does it in some ways free you up to do things that you couldn't do otherwise?

JARRETT: Oh, absolutely. But you have to be able to be ready to fall on your face - flat on your face and have failed miserably, like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. You know, she falls over. It's her worst nightmare come true, but what can you do that's worse than that if you're dancing? So it's the same with this, but I have a connection with the instrument due to how long I've played it. It's like almost a talisman.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

RAZ: I'm speaking with jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett. His new solo recording is called "Rio."

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

RAZ: This, to me, is an incredibly hopeful and joyful record and you can really hear it coming through your fingers and it's amazing that it's improvised because there's an intuitive logic to the recording. It moves seamlessly.

JARRETT: Yeah.

RAZ: And it sounds to me like there is a story you're telling.

JARRETT: Well, if there's any story that I'm telling, I would have to, in some way, invent it because I never think of it like that, but, you know, I went through a divorce three years ago. Whenever a change happens in a person's life, especially large change and especially an unpredictable one like your spouse leaving or something, if you're an artist, you can use that. That's an energy force. It doesn't feel good, but if you're an improviser, you wonder, what will I play now?

So, for a while, the curiosity of your new situation creates the music, but in "Rio," it's, as you say, much more positive and much more hopeful and much more joyful. And I remember being at ease and I can only say that that was because of a new relationship, partly. Something about the way my life has gone has allowed me to weave through that stuff and use the next experience in my life as fuel for the music. And this particular fuel was full of hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

RAZ: This relationship was in its early days and things have progressed, I understand.

JARRETT: Yes, yes. I now am engaged and...

RAZ: Congratulations.

JARRETT: Yeah. I don't remember anything like this in my life that's comparable.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

RAZ: Hearing you talk about this record, it's clear that you are in a pretty extraordinary place in your life. I mean, to feel like, you know, you're producing your best work at this point, after a career of five decades, it must be incredibly gratifying.

JARRETT: Yes, it is. It is. I felt strangely at ease on stage, which is rare, anyway. No matter what people think, no matter how many hundreds of times I've done it, it doesn't get easier. It gets harder because my whole goal is not to repeat myself and in some way bring something else into the world that wasn't there before in quite that way.

I was fortunate enough, or maybe it was in the stars, for me to be in that room at that moment with that piano, although the piano was not perfect at all. It was an American instrument, the only American instrument on any solo album by me. And it was an old opera house and everything was sort of funky, but Rio was beautiful, so there was beauty, funkiness. Those elements were hanging around and the music wouldn't have come out the same anywhere else.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

RAZ: Well, Keith Jarrett, thank you so much for joining us.

JARRETT: Thank you.

RAZ: That's jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett. He joined us from his home in Oxford, New Jersey. His new album of solo improvisational piano jazz is called "Rio."

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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