The Do-Minor Effect

Stories and thoughts about music with an invisible academic touch

Category: Piano

Improvising in Rio

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.

Some pianists are just fed up with their chairs

Conductor Benjamin Zander spoke once in a TED speech in favour of moving the body during piano playing. He praised the movement of the body, claiming that a “one buttock play” is a way of unchaining the music out of the body.

Moving across the piano chair is not as simple as it sounds. The first years of playing music train the young pianist to adapt introvert behavior, as being expressed in his sitting, moving, breathing, and voice making. In classes, the child learns not to sing with the melody. Moving with it is not encouraged. When the child plays at home he is required to sit still at his chair and practice long hours. The body learns how to hold the utterance that music rise in it.

Furthermore, the child learns to play the piano while the body is still small and cannot seize the whole width and height of the piano. He or she can not reach the pedals so they place their feet on a footstool. The chair is a safe place for the young pianist and sitting still is a secure thing to do near the huge instrument. But even when the young pianists grow up they are under pressure of keeping the body still. If they move to much in the concert hall, the audience will accuse them of mannerism and artificial behavior for trying to cover for some musical weaknesses. Zander’s advice only sounds simple.

But some pianists do get some courage and move across the chair. Ethan Iverson, The Bad Plus’ pianist, seems uncomfortable sitting while playing. He bumps on the chair with minor risings and sometimes ends musical sentences with a full standing. His behavior is sincere. He is not trying to get attention by this moving. It seems it is completely driven by the music.

 Eric Lewis

Unlike Iverson, Eric Lewis (AKA ELEW), jazz pianist and a TED star, perfected the standing while playing into a full gimmick. Lewis, whose style is best described by his own label name, NinJazz, is not rising from his chair lifted by the music. He moves the chair out the piano zone, stretches his legs far from each other till he stands at the height of sitting. It is not clear what this position contribute to his music besides a weird show-off. He once referred to this issue in an interview and said that standing like this is painful, but he does it after years of playing for hours with the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. “I was watching the years of my youth melt away while I was sitting at the piano”, he says. So he decided to play while standing.

It should be put straight: it is not comfortable to play standing. Playing seated let the palms the ability to move freely, while playing standing fix them firmly in a stiff position. Having said that, there are still pianists who play while moving a lot and even standing. This raises the question: are we watching an authentic behavior or a manipulation?

One of the pianists that is in the heart of this debate is Keith Jarrett. His physical behavior near the piano rose some vicious criticism blaming him of mannerism. One of his critics wrote once that his rising from the chair is a sign for the audience that a moment with an artistic depth is just happening, so they should be amazed.

Is it really possible to stand up absentmindedly or with an inner force which is not an intended manner? Peter Elsdon, musicologist from Hull University, published an article about the body movement of Keith Jarrett while playing (can be found partly here and fully at the book “Music and Gesture”). As I understand it, Elsdon claims that the music plays Jarrett’s body and not vice versa.

Jarrett has a ritual of sitting quiet by the piano before playing. This can last even a few minutes. After that, he starts improvising. When he plays, his body moves awkwardly, sometimes in a way that seems unrelated to the music being played. Improvising requires the feeling of being free-minded and that feeling is being obtained with the body movement. For Elsdon, the body is an indication for improvising: it resemebles the struggle, the tension and liberation required for such music playing. Elsdon’s insights support Zander’s “one buttock play” advice: moving the body encourage freedom and creativity. As for the audience, if you find it distracting, you can always close your eyes.