Keith Jarrett is not a composer in the traditional sense. His piano music is improvised on the spot - completely 100% spontaneous. When he sits down at the instrument, he has no idea what he's going to play. He lets the concert hall, the audience, and the instrument dictate which direction he will move in his performance. Because he is an improviser, Jarrett doesn't notate any of his music. For some, this would disqualify him as an actual composer. However, there is no mistaking that Jarrett's music is original and just because it is created on the spot doesn't mean it isn't a composition. It's a composition in the moment.
Jarrett was born on May 8th, 1945 in Allentown, PA. He began piano lessons before age 3 and made his first television appearance at age 5, appearing on a TV talent program hosted by swing bandleader Paul Whiteman. He gave his first piano recital at the age of seven, playing works by Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and ending with two of his own compositions. He eventually studied at the Curtis Institute of Music, taking piano lessons with a series of teachers including Eleanor Sokoloff.
After graduating high school, Jarrett moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music in 1964, having turned down an offer to study with the famous Nadia Boulanger in Paris. While attending college, Jarrett played cocktail piano at local clubs. About a year into his studies, he left Berklee. The reasons for his departure are varied. One source says that he was caught plucking the strings inside an expensive piano and told to leave the room. Another source says it was his frustration with the teaching style. Whatever the reason, he left during his first year, but stayed in the area and continued to gig around Boston. In late 1964 he married and moved to New York City, where he took the subway regularly to the Village Vanguard on Monday nights, eventually sitting in with veteran and aspiring players.
His first touring gig was with Art Blakey's New Jazz Messengers, where he remained until 1966, when he joined Charles Lloyd's famous quartet. His first solo recording was Restoration Ruin in 1968 on the Vortex label. The album is mainly considered a curiosity in his catalog because it wasn't a jazz album, but a folk-rock recording. It stands as a brave undertaking from a young musician and paints an interesting view of his early thoughts in lieu of what he would accomplish later. A stint with Miles Davis occurred between 1970 and 1971, resulting in several albums.
It wasn't until 1971 that Jarrett was to record his first solo album for Manfred Eicher's young ECM label. The first was Facing You and this initial collaboration has resulted in ECM producing over 100 Jarrett recordings over a span of more than 45 years.
In 1973, Jarrett also began playing totally improvised solo concerts, and it is the popularity of these voluminous concert recordings that made him one of the best-selling jazz artists in history. Albums released from these concerts were Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne (1973), to which Time magazine gave its 'Jazz Album of the Year' award; The Köln Concert (1975), which became the best-selling piano recording in history;and Sun Bear Concerts (1976) – a 10-LP (and later 6-CD) box set.
Jarrett has commented that his best performances have been when he has had only the slightest notion of what he was going to play at the next moment. He also said that most people don't know "what he does," which relates to what Miles Davis said to him expressing bewilderment – as to how Jarrett could "play from nothing." In the liner notes of the Bremen/Lausanne album, Jarrett states something to the effect that he is a conduit for the 'Creator,' something his mother had apparently discussed with him. This has caused occasional moments of confusion, where reportedly at a concert he was so indecisive as to what to play that he just sat at the piano in silence until someone in the audience yelled out "C-sharp major!", prompting Jarrett to thank the audience and begin playing.
In the late 1990s, Jarrett was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and was unable to leave his home for long periods of time. It was during this period that he recorded The Melody at Night, with You, a solo piano effort consisting of jazz standards presented with very little of the reinterpretation he usually employs. The album had originally been a Christmas gift to his second wife, Rose Anne.
One of Jarrett's trademarks is his frequent, loud vocalizations, similar to those of Glenn Gould, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Ralph Sutton, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Paul Asaro, and Cecil Taylor. Jarrett is also physically active while playing. These behaviors occur in his jazz and improvised solo performances, but are for the most part absent whenever he plays classical repertory. Jarrett has noted his vocalizations are based on involvement, not content, and are more of an interaction than a reaction.
Jarrett is extremely intolerant of audience noise, especially during solo improvised performances. He feels that extraneous noise affects his musical inspiration and distracts from the purity of the sound. As a result, cough drops are routinely supplied to Jarrett's audiences in cold weather, and he has been known to stop playing and lead the crowd in a group cough. He has also complained onstage about audience members taking photographs, and has performed in the dark to prevent this.
Jarrett's numerous honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Prix du President de la Republique and Grand Prix du Disque awards from the Academie Charles Cros (France), seven Deutscher Schallplattenpreis awards (Germany) and two of the world's most prestigious music awards: the Polar Music Prize (Sweden) and the Leonie Sonning Prize (Denmark). In 2008, he was inducted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame, and in 2010, his recording The Köln Concert was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a select list of recordings of lasting quality and historical significance that are at least 25 years old.
Jarrett suffered two major strokes in February and May 2018. After the second he was paralyzed and spent nearly two years in a rehabilitation facility. Although he regained a limited ability to walk with a cane and can play piano with his right hand, he remains partly paralyzed on his left side and is not expected to perform again. “I don’t know what my future is supposed to be" Jarrett told The New York Times in October 2020. "I don’t feel right now like I’m a pianist."
Testament, Paris - Part VII (2008) - This piano transcription comes from Jarrett's November 26th, 2008 solo performance in Paris. The concert was recorded live and released as Testament (ECM 2130). Thanks to Uwe Karcher (check out his YouTube channel) for the note-for-note transcription.
Radiance - Part XVI (2002) - This piano transcription comes from Jarrett's October 30th, 2002 solo performance in Tokyo. The concert was recorded live and released as Radiance (ECM 1960/61). Thanks to Uwe Karcher (check out his YouTube channel) for the note-for-note transcription.
Staircase - Part 3 (1976) - This piano transcription comes from Jarrett's May 1976 studio recording named "Staircase" (ECM 1090/91). Jarrett and his producer Manfred Eicher had arrived at Studio Davout in Paris to record a soundtrack to Michèle Rosier's film Paint My Heart Red. Finishing early with several hours of studio time left and impressed by the quality of the studio's piano, they spontaneously decided to record this album.
Locating the Music
Because Jarrett isn't a composer in the traditional sense and his music is always improvised on the spot, we have to rely on others to produce note-for-note transcriptions of Jarrett's various performances. Fortunately, there are quite a few sources for quality transcriptions. My personal favorite is the YouTube channel of Uwe Karcher. Uwe has a number of fabulous Jarrett transcriptions he has done, so contact him for further information. Another good source of Jarrett transcriptions cam be found at Keithjarrett.org.
List of Solo Piano Recordings
Facing You (1971)
Solo Concerts - Bremen/Lausanne (1973)
The Köln Concert (1975)
Sun Bear Concerts (1976)
Concerts: Bregenz (1981)
Dark Intervals (1988)
Paris Concert (1990)
The Vienna Concert (1991)
La Scala (1997)
The Melody at Night, With You (1999)
The Carnegie Hall Concert (2006)
A Multitude of Angels (2016)