Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Jarrett, Keith

Pianist and composer Keith Jarrett's work has taken him in a variety of directions, never settling into one genre. As an improviser, his technique combines jazz with classical, blues and world music. Jarrett is best known for his expansive solo concerts and recordings of jazz standards with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

                        Keith Jarrett, by Richard Laird

Keith Jarrett was born on May 8, 1945 in Allentown, Pennsylvania to Daniel and Irma Jarrett, both strict Christian Scientists. Coincidentally, he was born on "Victory in Europe Day," the day the Allies declared victory over Nazi Germany, ending the Second World War in Europe. The oldest of five boys, Jarrett’s mother Irma raised the family after the dissolution of her marriage.

Jarrett began playing the piano at age 3, and undertook classical music studies throughout his youth. He had perfect pitch, and performed as a child in programs at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. He performed his first full-length recital for paying customers at age six, which he closed with two compositions of his own.

Jarrett’s prodigious talents led to thoughts of a career in classical music. While still in his teens, Jarrett was offered an opportunity to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, turning it down at the last minute to pursue a career playing jazz. As a teen he attended a number of clinics with Stan Kenton, and for a time played marimba and xylophone with Fred Waring.

Following his graduation from high school, Jarrett moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he attended the Berklee College of Music and played cocktail piano. Jarrett left after one year, and moved to New York in 1964, where he participated in Monday jam sessions at the Village Vanguard. It was at one of these jam sessions that Jarrett met Art Blakey, who hired him to join his group. Although this engagement didn’t last long, it got Jarrett his first major exposure in the jazz scene.

From 1966 to 1969, Jarrett was the pianist with the Charles Lloyd Quartet. Jarrett met the tenor saxophonist while playing a gig in Boston, where the two had agreed that they should play together at some point. The Charles Lloyd Quartet became one of the most popular groups of the late-Sixties jazz scene, with best-selling records and worldwide tours. The group achieved popularity among a young audience who were more in touch with the psychedelic rock scene of the time than jazz. Jarrett left Lloyd in 1969, after a disagreement over money. According to Jarrett, he discovered Lloyd paid his sidemen only a fraction of what the bandleader kept for himself.

In 1968, Jarrett released Life Between The Exit Signs, his first album as a leader. Recorded on May 4, 1967 in New York City, this album featured Jarrett on piano, Charlie Haden on bass, and Paul Motian on drums. On “Love No. 2,” Jarrett utilizes the free structured feel made popular by Ornette Coleman. Even at the age of 21, Jarrett's playing includes the qualities that make his playing so distinct. Jarrett’s use of strident, powerful lines and acute treatments of chords are already present.

After Jarrett left The Charles Lloyd Quartet, trumpeter Miles Davis asked him to join his group, after hearing the pianist at a New York City club. During his tenure with Miles, Jarrett played electric organ and electric piano, alternating with Chick Corea. After Corea left in the group in 1970, Jarrett often played the two simultaneously. Jarrett's work with Davis is documented on 5 albums from the period. A great example of Jarrett’s electric playing is on the LP The Complete Cellar Door Sessions. On “Improvisation #1,” Jarrett exhibits his confidence as a solo player. Jarrett begins the piece with subtle lyricism before stretching the sound of the electric piano to include deep, guttural sounds. Jarrett takes advantage of the electric timbre of the instrument by incorporating feedback and vibrato to add new sounds to his improvisations.

In 1971, Jarrett left Miles Davis in order to pursue the work he started with Haden and Motian. Jarrett expanded the trio by including Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone. Jarrett dubbed this group his "American Quartet," distinct from to the "European Quartet" he formed in 1974 with Norwegian tenor saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Jon Christensen.

Jarrett often supplemented his American group by adding an extra percussionist, such as Danny Johnson, Guilherme Franco, or Airto Moreira, and occasionally by guitarist Sam Brown. The members would also play a variety of instruments, with Jarrett often being heard on soprano saxophone and percussion as well as piano, Redman on musette, a Chinese double-reed instrument, and Motian and Haden on a variety of percussion instruments. Haden also produces an assortment of uncommon plucked and percussive sounds with his acoustic bass.

In 1970 Jarrett recorded a solo piano album for German producer Manfred Eicher's ECM label entitled Facing You, while he was on tour with the Miles Davis group. Facing You marked Jarrett's first foray on record as a solo pianist, and the start of his long association with ECM and Eicher. Jarrett has since recorded numerous solo albums for the label, including Staircase, The Moth and the Flame, and The Melody At Night, With You.

In 1972, Jarrett released Expectations, his only album for Columbia Records. On the title track, Jarrett builds a dreamy atmosphere by combining his use of wistful chords and a pleasing string arrangement. The track indicates the ambition of Jarrett as a composer. Haden’s romantic lyricism coupled with Jarrett’s command of the piano makes this song a standout on the album.

In 1973, Jarrett recorded a double album of live solo concerts for ECM in Bremen, Germany and Lausanne, Switzerland. He followed this with The Köln Concert, which became one of the best-selling jazz records of all time, and cemented Jarrett's reputation as an uncompromising improviser. He has since released many hours of live improvisations, including a 1985 album recorded at Milan's La Scala opera house, the first non-classical concert ever held in that hall.

Keith Jarrett Standards Trio

In 1983, Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette recorded an album of jazz standards, simply entitled Standards, Volume 1. The album enjoyed critical and commercial success, as did the group's ensuing tour. This "Standards Trio" has continued to record and perform live together for twenty-five years.

Jarrett has maintained a parallel career as a classical musician. Jarrett returned to classical piano performance in the early 1980s, when he performed the solo parts of concerti with orchestras. His repertory has included modern works by Samuel Barber, Bela Bartok, and Igor Stravinsky, and commissioned works by Lou Harrison. Jarrett has also given piano recitals of works from the classical repertory, favoring Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, and Shostakovich.

However, in 1985, after he performed a classical concert at Lincoln Center in New York to rave reviews, Jarrett resolved not to perform any more live concerts of classical music, although he has continued to record the music of Mozart and others. He has recorded albums on which he plays pipe organ, clavichord, saxophone and a variety of folk instruments, but has not played electric or electronic instruments since around 1972.

In the late 1990s, Jarrett was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and retired briefly from performing. By 2000, he had resumed regular performances with the Standards Trio, and in 2002 he gave two solo concerts in Japan, which were recorded and released on CD in 2005 and as a DVD in 2008.

Jarrett has been a follower of the teachings of the early twentieth-century mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, and recorded an album of Gurdjieff's sacred compositions for ECM in 1980.

Keith Jarrett has been the recipient of several honors. He has been awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship and 8 Grammy nominations in both the jazz and classical categories.

Jarrett lives in New Jersey with his wife, Rose Anne Colavito, and has two sons from a previous marriage.

Select Discography

As Keith Jarrett

Life Between The Exit Signs (1968)

The Mourning of a Star (1971)

Expectations (1972)

Fort Yawuh (1973)

Backhand (1974)

Mysteries (1975)

Staircase (1976)

Eyes of the Heart (1976)

The Moth and the Flame (1981)

Spirits (1986)

Paris Concert (1988)

Vienna Concert (1991)

La Scala (1995)

The Melody At Night, With You (1999)

With Art Blakey and the New Jazz Messengers

Buttercorn Lady (1966)

With Charles Lloyd

Dream Weaver (1966)

Charles Lloyd in Europe (1966)

Forest Flower (1967)

Love-In (1967)

Journey Within (1967)

Europa Jazz (1967)

Soundtrack (1968)

With Miles Davis

Miles Davis at the Fillmore (1970)

Live-Evil (1970)

Miles Davis in Sweden 1971 (1971)

Get Up With It (1974)

Directions (1980)

With Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette

Standards, Vol. 1 (1983)

Standards Live (1985)

Bye Bye Blackbird (1991)

At the Blue Note (1994)

Tokyo '96 (1996)

Always Let Me Go (2001)

My Foolish Heart - Live at Montreux (2001)

Setting Standards: The New York Sessions (2008)

Contributor: Eric Wendell

Related Links

Revisiting Keith Jarrett's American Quartet by Ted Gioia

Keith Jarrett Standards Trio Celebrates Its 25th Anniversary by Ted Gioia