This interview was recorded on cassette in Jarrett’s New Jersey home on April 16, 1990, and later broadcast on WKCR-FM to help promote his upcoming Town Hall concert with his “Standards Trio” (Jarrett on piano, Gary Peacock on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums). I was 22 years old and quite nervous. Jarrett was understandably wary at first, but loosened up once the questioning improved. Before the interview he showed me his practice room full of pianos and harpsichords.
Evan Spring: Today, Monday, five days before your concert at Town Hall with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, do you know which pieces you’ll be playing?
Keith Jarrett: No [laughter].
ES: Will it be all standards?
KJ: I don’t know. We usually know nothing about how we’re going to handle it. More than likely it’ll be mostly standards.
ES: Will anything similar to what’s on the new Changeless album of the same group maybe come up, or is it hard to know?
KJ: Don’t know. There’s never been anything like those pieces. I mean each one, each time something comes up it’s not like the other times.
ES: Will you probably play some standards the three of you have never played before that night?
KJ: If we can think of something we like that we haven’t yet played, which is getting harder ’cause we – I don’t know, we must have 300 or something like that, 300 standards maybe.
ES: You recorded Standards, Volumes 1 and 2 over seven years ago – have you worked with the Standards Trio consistently since then?
KJ: Consistently, but not much. I mean, we don’t work much, we don’t do long tours. The last time we played, until last week, was six months ago.
ES: So how else have you been dividing your time then?
KJ: Oh, well, harpsichord projects, composition, solo things, lots of things like that.
ES: I know this is a very general question, but why do you want to approach the concert and your albums without having rehearsed or arranged any of these standards?
KJ: There’s no – I mean politicians always have their speeches prepared, which leads us never to know what they really think. I mean, if someone is asked to speak suddenly, and it’s a life-or-death situation, and they have to speak on a subject and they have to really explain whatever it is they feel, they have to be able to explain it as deeply as possible, because it’s their only chance. That’s much like what improvisation is. To me it’s more profound not to know what’s going to happen and to be prepared than it is to get everything prepared. Anybody can do that. And most people seem to do it [laughter].
ES: In general have you shifted more towards the trio, are you moving back now towards performing more solo?
ES: I know Dark Intervals was your first solo album since 1982, so this doesn’t suggest that you’re shifting more back towards solo work.
KJ: No, not at all. It just was, I thought, an appropriate time to record music and I wasn’t sure what would happen, and that’s what happened, what’s on that album.
ES: You once said you moved away from as many solo performances because you didn’t want to possess the music anymore, or something to that effect.
KJ: Well, that’s a mixture of two comments about two different things. But go ahead.
ES: Well, do you care to say what those two things are?
KJ: Well, if I’m commenting on the solo things, that’s a long story, that’s enough for a whole interview, it’s very hard to do a brief answer to that. But the possessing of music was about the trio, because people would ask why we’re not doing our own music, and I would say, “Well, what’s less of ‘our own music’ about what you’re hearing.” And they’d say, “Well, it isn’t your songs.” And I would say, “Well it’s a lot harder to be non-posessive when you’re using your own songs than it is when you’re already starting from material that exists.” And if you think of how many new bands, any new bands that are coming around, they’re always being asked to be – everyone assumes they’ll be doing their own material, and if their own material is bad, they’re not accepted. If their own material is good, they become, let’s say, well-known. But that’s not all there is to music. And not everyone ought to be writing tunes.
ES: Was it that same impulse, maybe, that made you turn to classical music, that is making you turn to the American popular songs, to be less in possession of the music?
KJ: Yeah, I would say so. But I didn’t turn to either of them, they were just ongoing things. The audience would perceive the classical involvement as being new, but it’s not new to me. It’s just new on record.
ES: Why do you no longer perform in a quartet with a horn player?
KJ: Uh, because the quartets with horn players that I had both broke up and I didn’t feel obliged to keep finding horn players, you know.
ES: So no other reason?
KJ: No. I mean I think there’s a life expectancy for everything, which means that unless it’s completely synthetic, it’s got to die sometime. And that’s a healthy thing, I mean it’s part of health. You couldn’t be healthy if you weren’t alive, and you can’t be alive without dying, so.
ES: In playing standards, were you laying yourself more open to comparisons with other pianists, does this not concern you?
KJ: No, that doesn’t concern me because – see, I think one of the differences in my work is that, while I can be compared to various people in one of the things I do, nobody else is doing all the things that I do with as much commitment on all those levels. So it doesn’t really effect me much to hear that – I mean, whatever the comment would be, it doesn’t have much of an effect because I don’t have my marbles in jazz, I have my marbles in music.
ES: But do you listen to other pianists’ interpretations of these songs much?
KJ: I don’t like piano, I don’t think piano’s a very interesting instrument at all [laughter]. Pianists in jazz haven’t influenced me as much as other instrumentalists, especially horns. And I don’t know, I don’t think music influences music. If somebody says, my music has been influenced by somebody else’s music, it sounds to me as though what they’re really saying is that a mountain can move a mountain. But it isn’t like that, something has to be greater than the mountain to move it. So while I like hearing good players, and although I’ve only heard very few of what I would consider really good musicians, in any one time in history, the important thing is to keep the consciousness of what you’re doing. And that’s about it, I mean everything else is secondary to that.
ES: What about respecting the style in which the song was originally conceived and played? Do you try to respect the composer and his time at all?
KJ: Well, I think I respect the composer and his time by not thinking much about it, because when he was writing it, I doubt very much whether he was thinking of his time. He was probably being inspired by something.
ES: But in playing classical music, you would more try to respect the style in which it was originally played?
KJ: Oh yeah. I was thinking more of the standards when you asked the question.
ES: That’s what the question was about. So why the difference, then?
KJ: Well, because when music ends up on paper, in its complete form, it becomes a document of the time. But when music is conceived as something that will be played in various manners, you know, as standard tune writers would have known, and sung by different kinds of singers, and in a way they’re putting out a little bit of information in order for someone to elaborate on it. But we’re not insensitive to it, I mean, we don’t play something out of context completely, I would say.
ES: So in standards it’s not just chords and melody, they’re just not notes on paper for you to do with whatever you want, or are they?
KJ: No, actually they’re vehicles, and the better the tune, the better the vehicle for getting inside. Whatever happens when we start to play it, it ends up maybe being something we can go inside. And if certain tunes at different times with the trio have become the tunes for a certain amount of time, like ballads that pop up out of nowhere that we even may not have even liked, at some point in our careers, and we play it and something happens with that piece, and for a while we can’t avoid playing that because it’s something that we want to remember. And then that’ll fade away and other pieces will come to the forefront.
ES: With this trio, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, do you ever perform standards by John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman?
KJ: Well, we don’t just play American standard tunes, I mean we do play jazz tunes occasionally, but not particularly by those two composers. We aren’t against that idea, you know.
ES: But by more modern composers?
KJ: Like what, the Beatles? [laughter] Usually it works out that we’re staying in the past with the music, with the subject matter of the music.
ES: Have you written any music for the trio since the album Changes? For Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette?
KJ: That wasn’t written either, I mean there was only one written piece on there, if I’m not mistaken. I purposely have not done writing for the trio. It would just start to make it more like, “Well gee, we’ve got to make our music, man.” It’s got to be like, “How do I want this piece to sound?” And I think that doesn’t amount to much, really. What it amounts to when players are playing music together, is how conscious they are, that’s all.
ES: You’ve said, for instance, in the notes to your album Changeless, the new album on ECM, “These pieces – not written, rehearsed, thought out, sketched, or arranged – ‘came up’ in the middle of four distinctly different concerts. Process is swifter and more accurate than thought.” So with regard to that album, the new album Changeless, how is it about that process rather than thought?
KJ: Well, because there isn’t even any subject matter, and because we also aren’t even manipulating what little subject matter starts to come up by itself. It’s like we’re taking a journey to the center of something, and the closer we get to that center, the less we have to do. I mean, let’s say we want to keep warm, that’s a good analogy, you know, people will say, “Are they hot tonight?” And if they’re not hot, that means they’re not playing well. Well if you want to keep warm, and you’re on a sphere and the sphere is called music, then you have to do an awful lot to stay warm, but if you get near the center of the sphere, if it’s alive, the center is usually going to be very warm, there’s a heart there usually. As you get closer to the center, you won’t need to have to do very much. So I was talking about the process of something coming alive and letting it stay alive by not tampering with it. Human beings are great at tampering, I mean that’s almost all we ever do.
ES: You mentioned something about having the music not be as conscious, without it having will or purpose or being a result of conscious methods. Is that an oversimplification?
KJ: Well, I would not use exactly those words.
ES: Do you feel as though you are not as much performing as channeling music during the pieces that came up on Changeless?
KJ: I don’t think we ever feel like we’re performing, really. But in those pieces particularly, we lost a certain associative consciousness that you almost always have in almost any situation where other people are involved, in this case it was the audience and the trio. I think we all kind of more or less disappeared, and the only thing that was happening was the music. So in that sense, we weren’t controlling it, but it takes an awful lot of knowledge to lose yourself in that way.
ES: So when you play standards, is that then more thought and less process?
KJ: No, it’s a different – well okay, yes, I would say, yeah. I would say that the difference, it’s possibly the same involvement in process, but there’s a different balance between thinking and the process thing, with standard tunes. I mean, with standards, we’re starting on the surface and going gradually deeper and deeper into the thing. On Changeless, we were starting in the middle and staying there.
ES: How does the use of repetition function in the album Changelsss?
KJ: Well, I don’t know. That’s up to the listener to find out how it functions [laughter].
ES: Do you admire any of the work of the so-called minimalist composers, like Philip Glass and Steve Reich?
ES: No? Okay, I thought I maybe had a connection there, just because they talk about process being music also.
KJ: Well let me explain what it is that I say no to, then. While the music itself that they make has a place, the place isn’t in theory. And they have devised a theory that eliminates certain ways of music-making from the process, which makes it a lot easier for them. In other words, it’s like having a position paper on music, and you just keep submitting your position paper and then you don’t have to really make music, all you have to do is do what you said you were going to do in the position paper. You know, primitive tribes in several continents make better minimalist music than those guys. Plus, they [the primitive tribes] aren’t thinking about it and writing down why they’re doing it and to me that gives it an explosive element. If you thought that Phil Glass was going to suddenly jump out of this whole context and do a completely outside-the-laws-he’s-conceived-of musical thing, it would change how you listen to the minimalist part. You would never know how long he was going to be there. To me, music is often a series of surprises, you know, it should be a shock sometimes. I understand why you might connect it to Changeless, in a way, but actually it’s like seeing the other side of a coin. You know, it may be part of the same thing, but it also might have a completely different function.
ES: You once said, “conveying the clarity of energy is music at its highest; emotions are already so colored.” And my question is, is this clarity of energy ever too much for one person to handle?
KJ: It’s too much for anybody to handle if they’re not ready for it. And one reason I think that very few people ever come up with for believing in God, let’s say, is the fact that no one’s ever asked to handle more than they can. No one, in fact, unless something about your system is completely broken down, your system will refuse to handle it. And for that to have been an accident would be a pretty spectacular accident. That you can’t deal with truth until you’re ready for truth.
ES: Is there more energy, then during a solo concert? More energy, more clarity of energy?
KJ: Well, not necessarily, but I would say the potential is greater for there to be pure, clear energy on stage. The potential is greater. Because just for the sheer fact that you’re multiplying the human-being involvement by three. And for that energy to be that pure with three people at exactly the same time, I guess it would almost be impossible. With the trio it gets as close to it as I’ve ever seen.
ES: People have speculated that you feel especially vulnerable, maybe, during these solo concerts, or with the trio or whatever. You once said, death hovers during these concerts. Is there ever a possibility one night you just wouldn’t be able to play?
KJ: Sure, why not? [laughter] I mean people can choke on mashed potatoes and die, you know. It’s not so unusual.
ES: Now how does an audience affect your music, do you feel that every audience is different?
KJ: Well before you do that, the comment, death hovers at a solo concert, and for example, the title “Dark Intervals” – people think of death, especially in the United States, there is no tradition of suffering. We want to be smiling, you know, someone will come and they’ll see you sitting somewhere, and you might not be smiling, but you might be having an incredible experience, but they’ll say, “What’s wrong?” And you can’t convince them you’re fine until you smile. Well, death hovering anywhere in a way enhances the potentials of that experience. If, you know, mountain climbers, they could fall off the mountain, and then they keep wanting to go back there, you know. And the best you can get as an answer is, you know, “Why do you do this,” and it’s “Because the mountain’s there.” But essentially what they notice, I think, is how enhanced all their senses are by the possibility of making a wrong move, you know. And at a solo concert, since there’s no subject, pianists who’ve never done it would be as scared as those mountain climbers. And oftentimes, people think because I did, let’s say 400 of those, that I’m not scared anymore. But if I wasn’t scared in that particular positive way, I wouldn’t have any reason to do it. Like a mountain climber climbing up a ladder to paint the side of his house, you know [laughter]. So I just wanted to say that.
ES: Why do you think death is such a taboo subject?
KJ: Well, I think we rejected European culture when we formed this country, and then we wanted some kind of philosophical ground to stand on of our own. But we rejected what seemed to be negative, because we wanted to be free and happy. Something happened in there, you know, something happened, in – I’m not sure what years I would say, but in the early creation of this country, that makes it almost embarrassing to be suffering publicly. And I think it’s probably the single most destructive thing in the United States, the lack of that. Robert Bly, a poet I worked with two weeks ago, wrote a book called A Little Book on the Human Shadow, and he’s talking about the so-called dark side of human nature always being repressed. And he’s basically talking about the culture we have now in the United States. [The] dark side is only dark ’cause we repress it [laughter]. So death hovering, in a way, means we don’t want to repress anything. If I’m doing a solo concert and if it becomes a successful musical experience, it’s because I also let death in, you know, I don’t say no to anybody coming into the music. So that’s that. The trio almost can do that too. It’s pretty phenomenal to have three people do it.
ES: You’ve referred once to tribal peoples now, and also a couple of times in the notes to your album Changeless. Have you ever studied or observed tribal peoples? Where do you get –
KJ: We’re all tribal peoples, you know. I mean like we would be tribal peoples if we weren’t living in this particular modern year. I don’t think it’s something I have to go study, I think it’s just something I have to stay in touch with. And I don’t mean that we all would – the word “tribal” doesn’t even count in this answer, except that with tribes, there was a communal agreement on values, and yet there also was a desire for someone who was wise. And now what we’ve got is a sort of communal agreement on the value of money and no one who’s wise, because we would never vote for a wise person. They wouldn’t be smiling for one thing [laughter].
ES: I’ve seen just a couple of times in the press, there are people that think they see a contradiction about you – that on the one hand you say your music springs from more egoless sources, and that at the same time, your temperament is a sign of a strong artistic ego. So what are these people missing?
KJ: These people are missing the definition of “ego.” There is more than one kind of ego. I mean, there is the personal ego. If I were to say – and I haven’t put it that way for many years, I don’t think – but if I were to say that something was egoless, in let’s say some music that was made, Changeless I could apply to that – I wouldn’t mean it wasn’t coming from a strong central source and that everyone knew that. I would be saying that it was not a personally strong – it wasn’t “This is mine” kind of ego. This is what personal ego does, it says “I want this to be like this.” Or, I mean this is probably what they think they perceive. Mr. Jarrett wants this to be like this and he won’t be satisfied with anything but this. So how can he say it’s egoless? And I think their mistake is they cannot possibly comprehend that they can be wrong. So they’re saying a much more egotistical thing than I would be saying even if I’m wrong, because they’re not able to perceive someone else as doing something they couldn’t perceive themselves as doing. You know what I mean? We vote for president – and I’m talking about average voters – we’re not going to vote for someone who would almost convince them that they knew more than they did about things like life [laughter], you know. No, that would be scary. Critics, after a certain amount of time – a critic is only trying to make everything he’s criticizing stay on the exact same level as everything else he’s criticizing, you know, so they can set them all next to each other and understand them. But at that point I don’t care what they say anymore.
ES: Another common mistake, it seems, is that people think, when you say your music – say, the album Changeless – comes from more egoless sources, that it’s somehow effortless, that it doesn’t take any effort, but that’s not true.
KJ: Yeah, I would say this is all part of especially North American rejection – see what we do is we took much German philosophy and rejected the parts that were black, the parts that were not happy, not Steven Spielberg endings, you know? And when you do that, if you’re taking something valuable and you’re leaving part of what was in it out, it’s worse than if you took a bunch of crap, you know, because you’re ending up with a very dangerous flaw in your personality, as a whole country we’re ending up with a dangerous flaw. Now your question was about just now?
KJ: Yeah, okay. Effortless – if you think about what that might mean, now, the question back to this kind of use of that word would be, well, do you mean we’re not making an effort, or do you mean the music doesn’t demand an effort, or do you mean that we don’t have to play as hard. I mean there are words that can just kind of get rid of the whole thing, and you can say maybe it’s effortless. And I would have to answer no, actually, there’s much more effort involved in egoless activity than there is in ego activity.
ES: Will the audience play any part in what selections you decide on the moment, on the spur of the moment, to play on your concert Saturday night?
KJ: With the trio, not very often, that doesn’t really happen. We just go into our little universe. And perhaps during the first set, if we notice an openness toward a certain kind of playing, that might happen more often than usual, in the rest of the concert.
ES: But you do sense that every audience is distinctive and different?
KJ: Oh, definitely [laughter]. I wish I didn’t sometimes.
ES: And is there a certain point at which an audience should refrain from interrupting? Should they clap after each solo, do you think, in one of your trio performances?
KJ: If they try to do what’s not natural to them it’ll be wrong. You know, and it’s that same thing. You can’t manipulatively correct behavior. Your own behavior can change by virtue of you learning something, but you can’t be told “Stop that” and understand why at the same time. You might listen and say, “Yeah, I won’t do that,” but if the whole audience had talked to each other before the concert and decided they wouldn’t applaud, we would know it right away, the difference between that lack of applause and just the normal lack of applause that no one had talked about, you know. You can hear a nervous cough and the difference between that and a cough from a cold, you know, it’s a very sensitive position on stage.
ES: Some people find it distracting when you sing along with your playing. Should they try to listen in a different way?
KJ: [laughter] Well maybe they shouldn’t buy the albums, I don’t know. Really, if it bothers them, they shouldn’t try so hard, I mean, they’ve got their lives to live. They don’t have to spend their whole life wondering why I can’t stop singing [laughter].
ES: Okay, I gather your favorite piano is the Steinway. And which Steinways will you choose for what situations, what for a solo concert, which one for a standards concert, like this Saturday?
KJ: Actually, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. And it’s interesting because I was in Germany playing – possibly recording Still Live. That could have even been during that session, which was a live concert. And my producer asked me how the piano was, and I said, “Oh, you know, it’s very German.” And he’s German, and we were in Germany, and it was sort of a joke, except that I realized that night for sure that German Steinways can’t play the blues. So that led me to realize that when I’m with the trio, I would more than likely want an American piano. Makes sense, I mean.
ES: Do you have one of each here in your studio?
KJ: Yeah. With solo concerts, there’s a little more fluidity. I mean a particular instrument, if it has a way of speaking, it’s hard to know which. I would say German pianos are more consistent and trustworthy. So if it was sight unseen, I would have to say use the German one.
ES: I heard that the Steinway company – and this is probably just the American Steinway company – recently ceased being a family-run organization. And now they produce pianos on a much bigger scale. Has this affected the quality of Steinways?
KJ: Well, it wasn’t just that one change, they’ve gone through several changes of administration. I think they didn’t lose their grip on the thing. But American Steinways have been notoriously inconsistent, and that hasn’t changed. They can be the worst thing in the world, and then they could also be almost the best.
ES: Would you ever bring your own piano to a performance?
KJ: Not if I wanted it to stay in good condition [laughter].
ES: How much of your own piano maintenance do you do?
KJ: None. I used to do it, but I mean, now I’m involved in so many projects, I have to tune my harpsichord every five minutes, so I sort of forgot all about the piano [laughter].
ES: But you’ve also spoken about how it’s not so good to be heavily reliant on piano technicians.
KJ: Have I? Well, that’s a good thing to say.
ES: It was in an earlier interview.
KJ: Oh, well, I know what I meant. What I meant was that pianists are at the disposal of the technician if the pianists don’t understand the piano. I mean, I wouldn’t have to be always working on the piano, but I’d have to know what the technician needed to do or what he was doing wrong, or all those things, in order to set it straight, fast. And I’ve seen situations where pianos have been kept in miserable shape just because the owner of the piano was never told by a pianist what it needed. And then the pianists would play in this place and complain, but they didn’t know what to say. You know, they’d say, “Oh, I hate this piano.” And I asked – this was a club in Boston – I asked the club owner, who wasn’t a real sympathetic guy. Anyway, but I knew him, and I asked him, “Did anyone ever suggest that this piano needed to be voiced?” He said, “What’s that?” Well, I told him what it was, and I said, it needs that, it needs to be tuned and voiced. And he said, “Well listen, I’ll have it done this evening.” I mean, he didn’t want to spend the money, but at least knowing what to do. It’s like, he’s not gonna just have this guy come in and tune it and still have a piano player tell him how terrible it is.
ES: What are some of the worst experiences you’ve had with piano technicians?
KJ: Well, the worst ones have been when they use one of those machines to set the temperament instead of their own ears. There was a guy in Philadelphia who, instead of tuning intervals, he was setting his machine to each pitch and tuning one note at a time, chromatically up the piano, which means they could have all been in perfect tune, but only if you played one at a time, so as soon as you play two together, the thing sounded horrible, you know. And I had to kick him out. And that was of course an “ego trip,” you know [laughter]. See, but I do want to make a comment on that. If there were enough musicians in jazz who knew what they needed to make the music its best for the audience and for themselves, then what I do would not seem unusual at all. But what it turns out is that they know so little, in general, about what they need that when we arrive, we seem like prima donnas, you know. And it’s pretty hard to say to those people, well, you know, I hate to say this, but we’re hearing these differences, you know [laughter]. We’re hearing them. I mean, you don’t have to hear them. But you have to believe that we’re actually noticing these things. We take our speakers to a speaker repairman and say, “Do you hear the buzz?” And he says, “That’s perfectly normal, that’s not a buzz.” You can’t do anything to the guy, I mean, but that’s our situation.
ES: Are your concerts amplified, and are you as demanding of the mics and speakers and all that as you are with the piano?
KJ: Well, we have two sound men, one in Europe and one in the States. They take care of whatever the basics are before we get there, and they talk to the people at the hall ahead of time. We have a very long rider to our contracts to avoid last-minute craziness. And no one seems to notice that no one’s going crazy at the last minute. They only notice that we have all these demands. But then, you know, some other group comes in, and they think, “Oh, it’s really easy to produce them, they don’t need anything.” And then at the last minute they need everything, you know [laughter].
ES: Now you’re performing this Saturday at Town Hall. How do you like the acoustics there at Town Hall, are they better than at Avery Fisher?
KJ: I haven’t played there for so many years, I don’t have the faintest idea [laughter]. They’re probably better than Avery Fisher for the trio.
ES: I’ve been on the third tier of Avery Fisher and it’s definitely distant-sounding from up there.
KJ: The thing that I like about Avery Fisher is the feeling of the hall from the stage. Even though it’s a big hall, I always feel close to the audience. Not sonically, but there’s something about the design of the room that feels warm. And that’s rare in a modern hall. Maybe you know what I mean if you’ve been there. It’s kind of a nice vista. Town Hall I don’t know anymore.
ES: There was a time when the piano was much more a centerpiece of the home, before TV and radio. Now wouldn’t it be nice if that were still true, even if not everyone knew how best to treat their piano?
KJ: I guess. A lot of things would be better if they were like they were at another time in history.
ES: So you mentioned that you don’t listen to many pianists. This is a typical interviewer kind of question, but if you could start over again, would you have taken up the piano?
KJ: Probably not, probably I would have taken up a string instrument, a bowed or plucked string instrument. I mean my relationship with the harpsichord is much more intimate than with the piano. Although, I mean, that’s just me saying that, I mean I’m saying it from backstage. What people perceive when I’m playing the piano is that I’m like fusing with it somehow, and that’s probably true, but that’s because I want the music to come out, that’s not because I have this great love affair with the instrument.
ES: Are you planning any harpsichord recordings?
KJ: Yeah, there’s at least three projects coming up.
ES: How soon might we expect to see them?
KJ: Well, the Goldberg Variations just came out, so that’s the first one, and next month I’m doing the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and I did the first book on piano, but the second book’s going to be on harpsichord. And then I’m doing a recording with Michala Petri, who’s a recorder player, if you know what those are.
KJ: And then I think sometime early next year I’m doing something with some more Bach. So we’ve got projects.
ES: You said in an article you wrote for Clavier about three years ago, “I feel the piano to be far in advance of any of the more recent keyboard instruments in that it still demands you use your whole body and all your muscles, whereas everything since has been denying that need.” By everything else you mean electric pianos and synthesizers?
KJ: Yeah. Everything I know of. I mean it’s as though there was a peak and everything since that peak is downhill as far as how much of your system is utilized to actually make the music.
ES: You once said that your feelings against electric instruments are based on physiological facts more than just gut feelings, and those are the physiological facts?
KJ: I’m not sure what context I said that in, but that my feelings about what instruments were based on – ?
ES: About electric instruments, synthesizers.
KJ: Oh, well no, actually, that is a whole different story. I don’t believe people notice how their system is affected physiologically by electronic instruments and electronic sounds. How much elaboration do you want on this, this is an interesting question, you want me to just go?
ES: Yeah, please.
KJ: What our ears do when we hear a TV speaker playing the soundtrack from Star Wars or something, is our ears are acting in a way like a sampling device. We hear the sound of the strings in the symphony orchestra, but they don’t sound like strings on the TV speaker, and they probably don’t even sound much like strings on the actual recording. But our ears, once we hear it, we know what it’s supposed to be, and we go for that. Our ears actually change that. Well, that’s not necessarily a good thing. I mean, it’s a talent we have, but what we’re doing is, we could end up not knowing what a violin sounds like, if we heard only TV speakers long enough. We would think we’re hearing violins. Well in a way that’s pulling wool over our own eyes, or ears. So with electronic music, I think two things are happening. One is, when we hear a synthesizer, or synthesized anything, our ears have to do that even more than we realize. More than they ever had to do before. They have to bend over backwards to convince themselves that these are violins, kind of, sort of, you know. But the worst thing of all is that we don’t notice what happens when our system takes in electronic sound. We aren’t hearing it in the air unless we’re in a room where it’s played through an amplifier. But then we are still hearing it squeezed through a wire and released in a particularly scientific way at the end of the speaker. I get in trouble when I talk about this, because since we’re in America, the biggest thing is, everyone has their own opinion [laughter]. Okay, so what I’m saying almost sounds like no one can have another opinion. And I would answer that actually that’s true. I’m not talking about opinion, I’m talking about a physiological thing. I think if the people that question that opinion check themselves out thoroughly enough, everyone would suffer the same exact amount. Because in the end, this is scientific too. I’m talking about the science of a sound in the air coming from a – at least – resonant body, let’s say, even if it’s synthetic materials, but let’s say a resonant body, versus the sound eventually in the air coming from a non-resonant, non-vibrating producer of information, you know. Now there’s got to be some different physiological effect on the body. People didn’t believe when they were going to watch computer screens all day long that their headaches came from watching their computer screens until science finally proved it and said to them, that’s where they’re coming from. People didn’t believe that flourescent lights were doing the same thing to them till years and years later. You know, they said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I just – I’m sitting under those lights but it can’t be the lights.” [laughter] So I think there’s probably millions of people who start changing cellularly, even metabolically changing by having heard electronic music over a period of time and feeling like, in a certain way, shitty. And not blaming it on the sound. The sound is physical.
ES: So inevitably, then, an electric piano has to ruin you for the real thing, there’s no recovery?
KJ: We can talk about each thing separately. You said electric piano, I can say, okay, electric piano has no overtones. What you’re doing is, you’re doing to your ears what flourescent lights do to your eyes. Flourescent lights allow some cells in your cornea, I think, to just go into the corner and lay down and go to sleep, they don’t have anything to do, they have nothing to respond to. When there’s no overtones, natural overtones, in a sound, you are being deprived. Every time you hear that sound you are also being deprived of some reality of sound. If that instrument were to play that sound in the air with appropriate – [tape cuts off].
ES: Moving on, a question about your technique, which is quite eccentric, standing up and gesticulating in front of the keyboard and so on –
KJ: Well when I’m seventy I intend to sit down a little more [laughter].
ES: Okay. But would you recommend this kind of looseness to other pianists?
KJ: No. It’s not a looseness anyway, it’s the sheer input of – I mean, we’re talking about improvising now, we should make that clear, because I don’t stand up like that to play Mozart. It’s the input of information, musical and otherwise – energy, not information really, but energy that has to be translated into music. It’s just pushing me around, it’s like a very strong wind, you know, pulling me off the floor and stuff. So if people observed recording sessions, at least they’d know it wasn’t a show, because we don’t usually have cameras rolling there, and there I am, doing whatever I do. I mean I’m as surprised if I see a video as anybody [laughter].
ES: I read you had taken up the trumpet. Do you still play the trumpet?
KJ: A little, yeah.
ES: Do you play any other instruments?
KJ: Well, drums, everybody probably knows by now. And the saxophone. No, nothing recent. Although I must say harpsichord is not a keyboard instrument. If you’re a keyboard player – oh, I hate that word anyway. If you’re a pianist, it by no means follows that you can play harpsichord. So I would say my newest instrument is harpsichord. And I don’t mean that as a half-joke, I mean it is so unrelated to the piano in many respects that you’re not even using the same muscle groups.
ES: My next question is about the term “New Age,” and what you think of it, and what do you think when some people, who may or may not know what they’re talking about, apply it to some of your music.
KJ: Well, first of all, maybe “New Age” is a disease of smiling, too. You know, it’s like that same disease taken into music. We have to just – [impersonating someone with “disease of smiling”] we’ve worked today now, and we just want to kind of smile hazily at everything and not notice anything around us. I would say New Age is very dangerous though, because what it does is, it talks itself up as somehow environmentally important, and related somehow to getting back to nature. Nature is ferocious. And there we are, again, we’re in the United States, and we can’t deal with these Tibetan gods that are, you know, grinning at us in a particular strange way, we wonder how that could be a god, you know, we couldn’t live with that. So if we’re going to get back to nature, we can’t even consider New Age music, you know. It’s only New Age in the sense that it does represent the new age, unfortunately [laughter].
ES: Do you ever listen to any popular music?
KJ: Well, like what?
KJ: Yeah, sometimes. If I’m lucky enough to hear something that is good, which is very rare.
ES: So maybe just by accident, on the radio.
KJ: Sometimes I might take a chance and get somebody’s album or something.
ES: Are there any up-and-coming pianists or any other instrumentalists that have caught your attention, someone in the next generation?
KJ: Up-and-coming, god. Pianists?
ES: Well, you mentioned you don’t follow pianists that much. Anyone.
KJ: No up-and-coming people, no, not that I’ve heard. Yeah, I would say not in this culture. Not in Western culture.
ES: Okay, but in non-Western culture?
KJ: Yeah, I can’t pronounce – I can’t think of his name exactly, but there’s a Pakistani Sufi singer who is incredible, who is more or less new to the market, the music market. And I don’t think he intended to be in the market, but it’s one of the best things that I’ve heard a recording of in recent times. I like a lot of new – there are probably a lot of good, young original instrument orchestras now, too, and I like very much listening to some of those. But nothing special, other than that.
ES: Do you think too many jazz players nowadays are still assessed by the press too much by whether they can play bebop?
KJ: I don’t know, I don’t read the press much [laughter].
ES: So what has been the effect of living in western New Jersey in a fairly isolated environment?
KJ: I’d have to have someone else judge that, I mean I don’t know how many albums I’ve made since I was living here. I’ve been here 17 years, so I would have to judge that it must be pretty good [laughter]. It’s the isolation that’s good, because you see, as time has gone by in those 17 years, I’ve found that what I’m being isolated from is more and more garbage [laughter]. And so the New Age doesn’t exist right here, for example. If there’s any New Age it’s got to come from an awareness of the past, for one thing.
ES: Would you really hate living in New York?
KJ: I could live in New York, I mean I used to live in New York. I could have an apartment in New York – actually I don’t think I would hate it if I had to, but I would never do it on purpose. If there was some furtherance of another purpose of mine in living in New York, I would do it, but I can’t imagine walking out onto everyone else’s street rather than onto everyone else’s planet, you know.
ES: Do you ever miss the collective process of making music that was only possible in New York?
KJ: It’s no more possible in New York. Well yeah, some people don’t like to leave the island [laughter]. No, I never miss that if that’s what that was [laughter].
ES: How much of a concert repertoire as a classical pianist have you now acquired over the years?
KJ: A very small one because I don’t like all that much. I like enough to look forward to recording some of it and performing some of it before I stop, but I can just about eliminate the whole Romantic period and much of the modern period.
ES: Okay, what are your immediate plans as we conclude the interview?
KJ: Immediate, like what do I want for dinner? I don’t have plans; I rarely have plans. I end up involved in projects that I think of at a particular moment, and luckily my producer is incredibly flexible. And we end up confirming to each other that we’re going to do something, but it never has to do with what I think people consider plans, you know. Like I don’t have a map of the near future. I’m looking forward to hearing a piece I finished just now, a viola and orchestra piece. And maybe when I hear that I’ll have a plan [laughter]. I don’t know.
ES: Do you have any broad, general comments about jazz in the 1980s, about the so-called neo-classical trend in jazz?
KJ: You mean – see, I’m not even sure what that means. I mean, I don’t know what’s happening in jazz, I know what’s happening in the music that I’m involved in. What do you mean, like bebop, nuevo bebop?
ES: Sure, or nuevo free neo-hard bop…
KJ: Well, I think bebop’s great, but I think the jazz age is not one with much potency now. I don’t think we are in the jazz age. We are now in an age of – if you think about the saxophone, saxophone is sort of central. And the trumpet and the trombone, actually. And drums, with cymbals. All the metal that’s used in these instruments is part of the industrial age. So if there were another move to make, other than New Age music – which is only a way of expressing the thinnest possible sentiments towards the need for ecological awareness in music, you know – I don’t believe there would be as much use of metal instruments. And when you take them away, jazz almost disappears. Even electric guitar, I mean that’s metal strings, you know. I think people’s ears –
ES: Doesn’t a piano have metal strings?
KJ: Yeah, right. Sure, we can include the piano, we could actually include the harpsichord, too, if you want to get in the metal-string thing further. But I was just trying to think off the top of my head, so it’s the softness versus the edginess that to me somehow equates, with industrial for edge, and soft for ecological. And somewhere in between is where very important jazz could still be made all the time, you know, it wouldn’t depend on these things.
ES: Between industrial and ecological?
KJ: Yeah, between soft and hard there’s music, I mean, or between silence and 110 DBs, there might be. But I have a feeling that the age of the jazz player who is no more than a jazz player – and I don’t mean crossover craziness, nor do I mean people who can play anything you put in front of them – but an awareness that is broader than the category of jazz. Those players are, I think, not going to be playing jazz. The players that are going to be playing jazz, and probably are right now, are players who, more or less, are snapping backwards. Because they don’t have a broad enough vision to incorporate it into something fresh for now. So we’re hearing, probably hearing, more beboppish playing because there’s nothing new to say in that language. And no one has come out and literally put a new color in the language that you could start serving, you know. But I think we are going to be threatened with a greater lack than jazz. Right now what I see is, there are people doing one thing, and they end up doing one thing very well, and they end up being accepted at doing that, and then they end up realizing they won’t recognize themselves if they do anything else, and the audience won’t recognize it either. They end up being victims of their own talents, let’s say. A natural talent. But at that point, if they intend to become an artist of some stature, they have to break out of that trap, and if they’re musicians, the trap can be a certain kind of music. There’s another trap waiting for them right outside that trap, which is the trap of the new music to do [laughter]. You know? And in the Renaissance, when people are called “Renaissance men” sometimes, because they have this wide – in those days, there was a tradition among the wealthy, at least, to have an education that was so broad. I mean, you could play music, you might dabble in poetry, you know. At least in the arts, there was a very liberal sprinkling of all kinds of things. Well, there has to be a new kind of Renaissance musician now. And that musician would have to be able to allow nature to be ferocious, that would take him completely out of New Age. But not necessarily revert to bebop in order to get ferocious. Or if he did play bebop, it would have to be one of the things he did, and yet it would have to be so valid when he did it that no one could say he wasn’t a jazz musician. Otherwise we’re just going to end up continuing to separate things and then anyone who – almost all the guys I see who do several things in several fields of music, they don’t understand that they can’t mix those things like a potpourri. They have to concentrate like a laser on each one, turn one off completely and do the other thing. There is no way to use a Waring blender on the situation.
ES: So, you think –
KJ: Oh, don’t forget what you were going to ask, but it just occurs to me one very brief way of explaining this. It isn’t the music someone makes, it is whether they can see. It’s whether the music is emerging through their participation or whether they’re doing “what they can do.” Because we can always change our abilities, you know. And we very rarely are willing to. We very rarely are willing to take something completely apart and leave it there and do something else that’s a complete risk. So I’m trying to get at something that seems almost like a contagion, where people are now real proud to be able to play – I see summaries of artists and they say things like, “as much at home playing Chopin as playing jazz.” And I start to realize, one day they’re going to say, “Mr. Jarrett is the father of this whole New Age thing, and he’s also the father of these crossover artists,” and it’s exactly wrong [laughter]. I mean, because I don’t think you can just do all these things and then use it as a marketing strategy. You have to have it inside you to make it of any use to anyone. So when someone hears the trio, they get more than they think they’re going to get, usually. Because on the surface it’s one thing, and when we’re actually making the music, it’s quite a few orders of magnitude different, and stronger than anyone could have imagined standard tunes to be, for example. Even if we don’t improvise.
ES: Well before we finish, picking up on what you said about moving towards softer, more ecological sounds, could you just maybe go into more detail about where you think we should be heading.
KJ: Well, I’m not saying we should be getting softer. I’m saying from the vantage point of watching history and the present, that is where things seem to be going. New Age is an example of that. That’s where people’s heads seem to be at. They aren’t listening to old Blue Note albums quite as much as they’re listening to New Age music. I’m not saying it should get softer. I think that the ferociousness of creativity is the only way to elevate nature. I mean, to reveal the ferociousness of creativity is the only way an artist can also elevate nature to a stature that takes it out of nature only having to smile, you know, like postcard nature. So I would say that it’s consciousness that has to change, music is going to do what it does, whatever it does. But if there are musicians whose consciousness is able to be broader but not less intense on all the things they do, it would just signify I guess to other artists that it was a possibility. Like someone climbing Everest, suddenly the other people that climb realize it’s possible.
ES: Historically, then, witness all the attention given Earth Day this year, restored interest in nature, even if that’s superficial, does it bode well for music?
KJ: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t know what it means for, like, the whole world of music. I think everything is still the same. I mean, I think all the cards have been on the table all along, you know. Earth Day is so mixed up with having finally had to realize it, you know, it’s not a consciousness event as much as so many people would like it to be. It’s the fact that if we didn’t realize it by now, we wouldn’t even be human beings, you know, we’d be some other species. We’ve avoided it, you know. So it doesn’t make me think the world is that much different. It makes me think that music is just as important, and not more and not less important. And there will probably never be more than a handful of musicians in the public eye who can really lay something on them.
ES: Okay, well thanks very much for talking to me today.
KJ: Okay, you’re welcome.