Before he was famous
Fifty years ago Keith Jarrett wandered into the Fleet Street office of the Melody Maker, unannounced. He’d stayed on in London after playing with Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight and now he was looking for someone to interview him. I’d seen that performance from close quarters, and I was familiar with his work as the pianist in the Charles Lloyd Quartet — a band famous for taking jazz to the hippie audience — between 1966-68. So I told him that although it was a Monday morning and we were all busy chasing up news stories, I was happy to talk. I sat him down and took out my notebook and pen.
That interview came to mind the other day while I was writing about the revelation that health problems may have ended his performing career. So I searched for the cutting and found that — although it wasn’t what you’d call an in-depth piece — his words captured the thoughts of a man who was clearly ambitious but at that stage had no idea of what would begin happening to him a couple of years later. And what he said about his attitude to live performance is interesting in the light of his subsequent reputation for demanding the highest standards of audience etiquette.
That morning in London, his immediate priority was to let it be known that he was looking for work. He had his own European trio, and so far they’d played in Scandinavia, Belgium and Ireland. In the UK, however, no luck so far. “I’ve always found it difficult to get work in this country,” he told me. “Ronnie Scott’s expressed some interest, but they told me they’re booked up until March and I’ll probably be going home to the States for the winter.”
His European trio, he said, featured the bassist Gus Nemeth, formerly with Bernard Peiffer, and the drummer Bob Ventrelo. In America his trio was completed by Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. “Charlie’s working with Ornette Coleman and Paul’s gone with Arlo Guthrie, so I couldn’t bring them over.”
The lukewarm response from Ronnie’s reflected the fact that none of Jarrett’s three albums for the Vortex label, an Atlantic subsidiary, had been released in Britain. “They tell me that my albums don’t sell,” he said, “but how do they expect them to sell if people can’t buy them?”
Life Between the Exit Signs and Somewhere Before were trio sessions with Haden and Motian, while Restoration Ruin struck out in a different direction, featuring him singing and playing a variety of instruments, including guitar, harmonica and tambourine, sometimes with a string quartet. He was also now playing soprano saxophone and flute with his groups.
“I don’t think I’m getting away from jazz,” he said, “but I’m not as narrow. I don’t think about it, but if I believed I was playing jazz all the time, half my repertoire wouldn’t exist. There are a lot of variables in the group. Sometimes we play free for a whole set, and then sometimes we’ll play nothing but tunes. When I sing, it’s not like ordinary singing. It’s more like chanting, I guess.
“I haven’t been successful in getting people to let me record on soprano or flute. They say the audience thinks of me as a pianist, and they don’t want to hear me playing a horn. In fact I feel more like a drummer, although I don’t play drums with the group. I can really lose myself on drums, and my playing on other instruments relates either to my singing or my drumming — for instance, I try to make the piano sing, although it’s really a percussion instrument. I get a great feeling when I use it as percussion, but it’s too easy.
“I’m trying to make the soprano sound like a voice. That’s a big challenge, to push yourself through that little reed. I have no formal training on soprano, and that’s why I enjoy it so much. I’m not glued to making voicings by putting notes together like I am on the piano.”
Returning to the theme of getting work, he observed that although Europe was better than the scene at home, he could see it deteriorating. “Most of the places, even the Golden Circle in Stockholm, are turning into discotheques. The people sit there, half-listening to you and waiting for the records to come on. People still come up to me and ask me to play ‘Sombrero Sam’ and some of the other things I did with Charles (Lloyd), but I tell them that’s part of another era. The music we play is much more elusive than Charles’s, but people come in expecting to hear me play the old things. Audiences haven’t heard me properly until now because I’ve always been trying to escape from the groups I’ve been in. That made me play well, just to escape, and it’s much harder now I’m on my own.
“Wherever we go, the audiences have a need. If they’re talking, they may have to be shocked out of it, or caressed out of it, if they’re listening and expecting to be given something else, That’s what I’m struggling with, and it should make the music good.
“If everything is perfect, if the piano is in tune, if everyone is sitting quiet and expectant and all the audience are Keith Jarrett fans, then I don’t feel the need to play. It’s the worst possible situation. If the audience know that they like the group, it doesn’t matter what you play. It’s like someone giving a lecture when the audience knows what he’s going to say. That’s why I don’t play piano when I’m by myself. I couldn’t tell myself anything I don’t already know. So when I’m alone I play soprano or guitar, and I can still surprise myself on those instruments.”
As I started to close my notebook, he said that if he’d followed everybody’s suggestions, he would probably have achieved commercial success already. “But I’d be in a situation that would be too perfect, and when you’ve got nothing to bother about, you don’t say anything.” And off he went into the London streets, 25 years old and looking for work, with million-selling albums and packed concert halls still the faintest of lights behind a far horizon.