I first saw Keith Jarrett perform with a quartet at the Jazz Workshop in Boston in the early 1970s. At that time, having been introduced a few years back to jazz through Bitches Brew, I was interested in seeing performers who had played with Miles, and Keith filled that bill. I remember, in particular, his playing a small wooden xylophone. Years later, living in Kyoto, Japan, I borrowed several of the ECM solo records from Jonah, a theater student and fellow English teacher. I remember being rather ambivalent about these. Something about the compositions often strikes me as technically astonishing but emotionally cold. Later on, the two-disk Spirits (1986), on which Jarrett plays all instruments, became a favorite recording. Most recently, I saw a youthful Keith performing in the documentary "Miles Electric."
After an incredible career, which included "Koln," his best-selling live solo concert recording, Jarrett contracted chronic fatigue syndrome (which he battled from 1996 to 1998), and his performing schedule has been trimmed for some years. The San Francisco concert is one of only two solo shows he will perform this year, his first here in a decade and his first at the War Memorial Opera House in 25 years. An older, thinner, graying but still spry Jarrett takes the stage at around 8:10 PM. There are to be no late admissions to the concert, but there’s nary a free seat to be seen. Jarrett, wearing an elaborately embroidered gold and green vest along with a burgundy shirt that appears, at the distance at least, to be silk, takes the stage; he stands with his hands pressed together in a South Asian spiritual salute, a gesture he repeats numerous times throughout the concert.
Jarrett’s music is complex and impossible to describe. Texturally, the sound is layered. Jarrett can be all over the keyboard within a small space of time. At one point he is playing the notes on either side of the keyboard with both arms outstretched. At other times he is jumping up from his stool. At times he stands up. Often, he moans softly. Sometimes in a more guttural fashion. The first number, the evening’s longest, clocks in at around 20 minutes. Four more shorter numbers, one a ballad, and it’s time for the break. And the piano tuner. Tonight’s concert is being recorded.
Commencing again at around 9:15, Jarrett stands in front of the microphone and announces "I could complain about the government in general... [General applause and laughter breaks out]... but I see I don’t need to say anything." A black shirt now substitutes for the maroon. Sitting down at the keyboard, he skillfully applies himself to carving out a lovely, ethereal ballad with high voicings as he presses his hands into the keyboard. It’s as if he’s setting off on a journey as he leads us up and over the amazing walls of sound he constructs with his fingers. Sometimes, it seems as though he is exorcising musical spirits. Other times as if he were possessed. Some tunes incorporate a bit of boogie woogie stride, others employ classical elements.
After a half hour, Jarrett leaves the stage to return for what is to be five curtain calls (where Jarrett reveals himself) and four actual encores. In keeping with his reputation for irascibility, he comes out and, stepping up to the microphone, storms melodramatically. "I’m seeing lightbulbs going off. You know I’ve spent my whole life trying to make the world a better place for artists to perform in. I think it’s really insensitive. To the extent that someone is serious about things, which is becoming rarer and rarer, I think some respect is due. You souvenir hunters can leave right now!" Jarrett concludes the evening with a stellar improvisation of "As Time Goes By."