Many people around the world will be profoundly saddened by the announcement, made today in an interview with the New York Times, that a pair of strokes in the early months of 2018 are likely to have ended Keith Jarrett’s career as a public performer. The journalist Nate Chinen elicited the information that, after the second of those attacks, Jarrett spent the period from July 2018 to May this year in a nursing facility.
The pianist is back home now but the use of his left arm and hand have been lost, perhaps permanently. Just learning to pick up a cup again is a challenge. There have been memory issues, too: while trying to play long-familiar bebop tunes with his right hand, he finds he has forgotten them. It seems likely that his solo concert at Carnegie Hall in February 2017, during which he spoke out against a newly elected US president, will turn out to have been his last.
This is not the first time Jarrett’s career has been interrupted by a serious health problem: a long bout of chronic fatigue syndrome put him out of action for much of the second half of the 1990s. Its effects were apparent in The Melody at Night, with You, a home-recorded solo recital of restrained and quietly luminous versions of familiar tunes that constitutes one of the most cherished items in his extensive discography. He told me about the illness and his return to activity in a Guardian interview preceding a London concert 20 years ago. From what he says now, his recent problems are unlikely to reach such a welcome resolution.
The famous Köln Concert of 1975 doesn’t have the place in my heart that it occupies in those of many others, and I’ve sometimes grown exasperated with his solo recordings (two listens to the 10 LPs of the Sun Bear Concerts, recorded in Tokyo in 1976 and released a couple of years later, felt like more than enough). His self-belief has sometimes felt overpowering. But I loved Facing You, the first of his solo albums, on its appearance in 1972, and the Standards Trio (as the group with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette became known) could perform miracles.
Coinciding with this week’s announcement is the release of a recording of the first date from his last European tour in the summer of 2016. The two-CD Budapest Concert presents 90 minutes of free improvisation (divided into 12 units) ranging from high-tension explorations of contemporary-classical techniques, pounding grooves, elegant extemporised balladry, refined but exuberant gospel-inflected outbursts, an astonishing two-part invention (Part VI) and, in the form of encores, romantic variations on two standards, “It’s A Lonesome Old Town” and “Answer Me, My Love”.
The repertoire strongly resembles that of Munich 2016, the set released last year, taken from the tour’s last concert. His devotees will want to explore the contrasts between the two, recorded a fortnight apart; for me, it’s a wholly satisfying summary of all the finest aspects of his playing.
Once can only wish Jarrett, who is now 75, the best of luck with his health, in the hope that his powers return — for his own sake, rather than for the benefit of an audience to whom he has already given the fruit of a lifetime’s work, and then some.
* Keith Jarrett’s Budapest Concert is released on the ECM label. The photograph, from the sleeve, is by Daniela Yohannes.