Improvising in Rio

by DoMinorEffect

For 40 years now pianist Keith Jarrett is getting on the most prestigious stages of the world without knowing what would he play for the next couple of hours. He is alone on stage, just the piano and him, and he plays what comes up from the tip of his fingers. He improvises. This can last for forty minutes straight or just three. Last April Jarrett had a concert at Rio de Janeiro, which became the double album “Rio“, one of his most beautiful recordings in his piano solo albums series.

Jarrett, 67, started playing the piano when he was three years old. At the age of eight he already played full classic recital and ended it with a few original pieces of his own. In 1975 he preformed in Germany in a piano solo concert which become an album that he is most recognized with – The Köln Concert. Since then he preformed hundreds of times the same way – full concert of improvisation.

In a documentary film on his career, “The Art of Improvisation“, Jarrett says that his solo concert recordings are a collaborated work of him and Manfred Eicher, his producer at ECM records. The two of them work together since the 70’s and Eicher managed to record more than hundred piano solo concerts of Keith all these years. From this collection only a few have been published. In Rio the magic they’ve been looking for was found and the improvisation became a full independent musical piece.

Jarrett’s improvisation on stage is the essence of music – being in the current time and place. That’s where music lives, in the present time and only there. Recordings and musical notes are just the by-products.

Jarrett is not improvising on a specific theme over and over again. His playing leans forward, where it can fly or fall. Listening to his piano solo concert recordings is like mapping the possibilities of music creation. When he is getting close to a melody he can touch it and then walk away. He doesn’t tend to stick around it.

For example, at the piece attached, one of the softest in the album, there is a definite pick at 3:22. At this point, instead of repeating the melodic phrase, a thing that every musician would do gladly, he chooses to touch it and fade away from it. This is typical for him – a constant search for music possibilities, finding them and moving on.

There are 15 tracks in Rio, none of them exceeds nine minutes. Jarrett, that had concert albums where he played for 20 minutes and once even for 40 minutes (like in “The Vienna Concert“), had more than a decade ago CFS – Chronic fatigue syndrome – which forced him to stop playing for a while. After recovering, he started playing for short periods each time. According to Rio, it seems he fully recovered from the syndrome – he is at his best at the last half an hour of the concert, at the encores, where an hour of improvisation is behind him.

Jarrett’s totality made his improvisation being not just a raw material but a hi-end product. He devoted himself to the piano, mentally and physically. His body movements near the piano are one of his identifying marks. He tends to stand up, sing or hum during playing the piano. He played till his body didn’t let him continue and returned to the piano the moment he could. This totality accompanies his music to the stages, where he fully give himself and improvises in a way he can not repeat himself – the audience is already familiar with his recordings, and he himself can not let himself down by playing improvisation that has already been played before. That might be the secret of  how he goes for 40 years now mapping the endless possibilities of piano music.