From Geoff Dyer’s Criticism To Keith Jarrett’s Pianism

by Thomas Brett

In his recent collection of essays, Otherwise Known As The Human Condition, novelist and critic Geoff Dyer writes beautifully and incisively about photography in a way that I wish more writers would (or could) write about music.  Here is Dyer writing on Idris Khan’s work (pictured below) that digitally blends hundreds of photographs into a single composite image:

“Each art form has its own unique advantages and limitations.  Words and music unfold successively, through time.  Photography is about an instant.  By analogy it can ask the impossible: in this case, what if you could hear every note of Beethoven’s sonatas in an instant?  What would it look like?  And when we think of a piece of music that we know well, don’t we sometimes remember it not phrase by phrase, but in its amorphous entirety?

It is often said that photographers freeze time but Khan does the opposite.  This can be seem most clearly in his remixes of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies of the 1880s [...] Muybridge used fast shutter speeds to break action into moment-by-moment increments, rendering movement stationary.  Kahn takes these sequences of isolated moments and unfreezes time by combining them in a single image.  Muybridge’s strictly mechanical record of a man getting out of bed becomes a vision of the unconscious lifting clear of the body, a dream of waking…” (84).

Lucky for us, Dyer does briefly turn to music in a later section of the book, writing about artists as varied as John Coltrane (and his versions of “My Favorite Things”), Indian singer Ramamani, and 1980s rockers Def Leppard.  The most compelling essay here, however, is “Editions Of Contemporary Me”, Dyer’s personal account of encountering new music through the ECM record label.  (The essay’s title is a play on the record label’s name.)  ECM is the brainchild of Manfred Eicher, who started the label in Germany in 1969 as a vehicle for releasing new and interesting sounds that span and fall in between the stylistic boundary lines of jazz, classical, and world music.  Probably due to Eicher’s artistic vision and curatorial ear, there is a distinctive ECM aesthetic: think minimal designs, contemplative and vast open spaces, and sounds roaming free in reverberant halls.  Some have argued–somewhat disparagingly–that ECM was a pioneer of what has come to be called New Age music.

A longtime ECM artist is piano virtuoso Keith Jarrett, about whom Dyer cannot say enough good things.  As it happens, during the time I was reading Dyer on Jarrett I cleaned my closet and out came tumbling Jarrett’s Koln Concert CD, his 1975 recording of an improvised concert at the Cologne Opera House that is the best-selling piano record of all time.  The details surrounding the concert are well-known by now: a half-working piano delivered to the concert hall by mistake that sounded thin in the bass and upper registers, Jarrett’s fatigue and back pain (not to mention his irritation with the piano situation), and a late night, 11:30pm showtime.  Under these less than auspicious conditions, Jarrett pulled off a historic performance in front of 1700 entranced listeners, making do with he had, and more than that, structuring his performance around the limitations of his instrument.

Listening to Koln Concert two things stand out for me.  The first is how Jarrett can sustain the listener’s interest by creating long lyrical melodic lines that keep shifting–in their harmonies, their patterns of accentuation and dynamics, their register, and in their length.  These melodies are simple yet elastic and endlessly adaptable.  Listening to them you feel like you’re hearing a good story.  A second thing that stands out is Jarrett’s relentless and precise groove, especially that left hand of his that builds rhythmic ostinati on top of which he spins his right hand melodies.

But let me add one more thing.  The music gets even more interesting when both of these qualities–long melodies and relentless grooves–blur together to make a kind of melodic drumming on the keyboard.  In the YouTube clip below of Part II B, you can hear this especially beginning at the 6:45 mark through to the end of the clip.  Here, melodies and harmonies form a single and constantly morphing sound mass.  What’s neat about this is that you hear Jarrett seemingly moving through (or channelling?) all kinds of musical idioms–from early 20th century French Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel to Middle Eastern modes to American minimalism and beyond–with just the shift of a semitone here and there.  Here is the clip:

Overall, Koln Concert is a good illustration of Dyer’s assertion that the most alive jazz has always been that which tries to escape the idiom’s well-worn stylistic paths in search of new territories to assimilate.  I don’t know if Jarrett was thinking about any of this during his Koln concert, but you can nevertheless hear something very modern here, as if Jarrett/jazz is trying to get outside of himself/itself.  Jazz is omnivorous, able to digest just about any other music and make it its own.

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