The December issue of Down Beat magazine has the reader poll, and it inducts Keith Jarrett into the Hall of Fame. The first link gives only a snippet of the profile, by Ted Planken, which is about 20 times as good as most of what you’ll find in Down Beat. Later in the article the pianist recounts his decision, as a prodigiously talented youth, to turn down a chance to study with Nadia Boulanger, the great educator whose students included (to trim an astonishing list down to three) Elliott Carter, Quincy Jones and Astor Piazzolla.
“I couldn’t have explained why I said no,” Jarrett says, before giving it a try: “If you make a map of something, and that map isn’t changeable, you’re stuck with the map. For driving, that’s good, but for music, I’m not sure.”
Not that he operated on instinct alone. There’s an intriguing thread in the article about Jarrett working hard to “subtract… the mechanism of the piano from the whole affair.” Early in his career he studied quartets that didn’t use a piano — Ornette Coleman’s, Gerry Mulligan’s and… Thelonious Monk’s, which is an odd choice for a pianoless quartet because Monk was a pianist and his approach defined everything each of his bands did. “I’d call his bands pianoless — he wasn’t always comping, and when he was, it was more like orchestral comping, plus his solos were not pianistic,” Jarrett says by way of explanation. (Of course Jarrett also acknowledges his more obvious debt to his Montreal-born elder, Paul Bley.)
I love all this for so many reasons. For one, there’s the blend of direction and contradiction that so often elevates the greats above what the rest of us are trying to do. Jarrett has been one of the piano’s great defenders against assorted indignities — synthesizers, audiences — for so long that it’s odd, but apt, to hear that he got here by regarding his instrument as, in some ways, part of the problem. (He says Miles Davis once told him, “Keith! You play the wrong instrument.”) There’s the reverence for his elders, which led him to do what they did and find his own voice. There’s his investigation of Monk’s towering piano personality as a road map to escaping the role of the piano. There’s the attraction-repulsion relationship with theory and formal training — he didn’t cash in his Nadia Boulanger ticket, yet he went on to record Bach, Mozart and Pärt. The best among us have contradictions at the heart of what they do; ceci explique cela.