Descriptions like “one of a kind” can only seem inadequate for a figure such as Keith Jarrett.
Even as jazz legends go, he’s always been more unpredictable and challengingly eclectic than most.
After starting with piano lessons at age three, then studying classical music at home and moving on jazz at Berklee College of Music after high school, he emerged onto the scene with an astounding virtuosity and omnivorous musical vocabulary to match.
The flexibility enables him to pull any new idea out of the air according to the spirit of the moment.
He’s most famously known for totally spontaneous performances where he might spin dizzyingly elaborate ideas for up to 45 minutes at a stretch – funky grooves can give way to classical, folk, simple blues, the most obscure avant-garde improvisation or the most touching Americana.
Concerts are shaped by every little impulse, including occasional foot stomps or odd groans as he gets swept up in the moment.
If uncompromising exploration makes for some polarizing work sometimes, that’s one of jazz’s common time-honored traditions as well.
Early sideman gigs with Art Blakey and Charles Lloyd soon led to all manner of collaborations and solo experiments. His only brief flirtation with jazz-rock fusion came during a brief stint with Miles Davis at a time when the whole band was plugged in and loud.
Since that job, Jarrett has famously spoken against electric instruments and stuck to making all manner of sounds through analogue means.
While a lot of this catalogue consists of highly improvisational outings, mostly solo and trio (most famously 1975’s legendary Köln Concert, the best-selling piano album in jazz history), they’re surrounded by a staggering range of other outings from Bach to Armenian folk.
Occasionally he’s tried organ or clavinet and been known to pick up a saxophone.
Fortunately we’re here to help you sort through the trove. If the sheer quantity of music is intimidating, this too-brief dozen will at least (barely) scratch the surface.
Author Geno Thackara is a sometime arts journalist and full time music fiend. He can often be found checking out new bands and shows in and around Philadelphia, at least when there isn’t a pandemic going on, and the rest of the time is most likely busy with a keyboard or a book.
Facing You (1972)
At a tidy 47 minutes, Keith Jarrett’s first solo-piano recording is still packed with seeds of the epic concerts to come (and without any jarring atonality or the grunting that can often put listeners off).
It was recorded in a single day and entirely improvised.
The pieces reflect a small wealth of styles, tones and moods – it’s just easy not to notice at first because Facing You doesn’t come across the least bit dense or difficult.
The ten-minute opener alone makes a masterful course in spontaneity.
A cascade of unpredictable chords crashes straight out of the gate, tumbling over each other before eventually settling into a soulful boogie vamp continually decorated with fun and classy flourishes.
After that dazzling tour-de-force simmers to a close, the remainder stays in a more contemplative late-night mode as it drifts through jazz, classical and gospel.
There’s something dreamlike about the entire experience, smooth-flowing yet continually unpredictable.
Jarrett switched between two fairly regular working groups, known as his American and European quartets, through much of the early 1970s.
While it was a smart practical move for touring overseas, it also made for a marvellously fruitful creative situation as the two were very distinct in sound and chemistry.
The American players gathered during his earliest solo recordings and soon gelled as a wildly colorful unit, combining the snappy taste of classic bop players with the boundary-pushing restlessness of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.
Jarrett would sometimes play a second saxophone alongside the brashly off-the-wall Dewey Redman; at other times he and Paul Motian would toss in all manner of percussion from steel drums to bells and congas, while Charlie Haden might join in or use a wah-wah effect on the double bass.
While Expectations has plenty of this group’s anything-goes ambition, it was also meant as an odds-and-sods summary of Jarrett’s own interests.
The players are mixed and matched in different combinations on different tracks, with Sam Brown’s rock-fusion guitar or Airto Moreira’s Latin percussion adding to the rotation.
The sonic tones were intended to cover as much ground as the sprawling pieces, and the sheer ambition mostly makes up for any uneven results. The title is more than a little ironic – anyone coming in with expectations can only have them blown apart.
Keith Jarrett’s compositions still have a streak of Americana here, such as the soulful classic “‘Long as You Know You’re Living Yours” and happy stomp of “The Wind-Up.”
Nonetheless, the European quartet approaches it all with refinement and deliberation rather than chaos.
This group’s straightforwardness made it a more accessible complement to its American counterpart. Their recordings eschewed the jumble of numerous instruments and the bizarre compositional turns, keeping the focus on their own spontaneity and interplay.
Jan Garbarek’s melodic and tasteful saxophone style was the primary foil to the piano in this group.
While he could warmly trade solos rooted in folk or blues, he could just as easily add patient slow backing lines to offset Jarrett’s pretty balladry instead.
Belonging presents all these emotional shades in an unusually warm and bright wrapping. Although it can lean a bit loose and formless during the extended pieces, the rhythm section of Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen ensures that nothing drifts too much for too long.
By and large, it’s all a colorful ray of sunshine.
Arbour Zena (1976)
This ECM album is an outlier in more ways than one: it’s arranged for a string-heavy ensemble, which also means depending on strictly written more than improvisation.
Any spontaneous soloing is handled by Haden and Garbarek (a small crossover of members from the two quartets, fittingly enough) while Jarrett’s piano vamps unobtrusively to back them up.
The focus here is mainly on the compositions, which are built gradually and patiently with a feeling of serenity at the center.
The Stuttgart Orchestra weaves a floating cloud of strings as Garbarek’s saxophone provides the brightest dash of spirit. The leader later declared Arbour Zena one of his most inspired works, even though (or perhaps because) it’s so unlike anything else he’s done.
While not as famous as 1970s solo performances like the Köln Concert or Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne, this deceptively simple title (drawn from two different nights in Germany) adds another rich piece of the puzzle from a period that’s often overlooked.
The Bregenz section alone feels much more epic than its 50 minutes, gliding from catchy vamp to daydream to subtly dramatic chamber piece before closing with the warmest of gospel.
It can often make a favorite hidden gem for listeners not too bothered by the stray vocalizing.
Eastern minimalism and drone were creeping into Jarrett’s playing at this point, which gives the concert from Munich a newer and often darker angle from those of the previous decade.
There are memorable moments rooted in classical or jazzy romanticism, but this performance is just as much about the patient exploring as they take long stretches to emerge from the dissonance.
The main set ends with a noisy passage of knocking on the piano and plucking strings, and all the difficulty only makes the pretty encores feel well-earned in the end.
Rather than sitting down at the keys to improvise with no plan, Jarrett spent a couple months in 1985 picking up all manner of different instruments with no plan.
The idea was to challenge himself to make something every day without any particular consideration of recording or releasing.
There’s very little piano to be found on this double set; instead he messes around with flute, Indian tabla, saxophone, glockenspiel and a small range of percussion. It’s a startlingly basic and primal abstraction based around rhythm more than melody.
On this strange interlude, wandering with no particular point is the point.
Whatever mixed opinions listeners have of the results (and they certainly are mixed), it certainly succeeded in shaking the artist out of his routine and trying something different purely for its own sake.
At the Blue Note (1995)
Deservedly among the legendary jazz groups of recent decades, the Standards Trio was so called because they mostly based their repertoire on jazz classics – an idea intended partly to be different from what most others were doing when they started in the early 1980s, and partly to be liberating for the group itself.
“It’s not about the material, it’s about the playing” Jarrett later explained in an interview with journalist David Rubien.
Dispensing with the question of what to play allowed him, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette endless space to decide how to play it instead.
The three had developed this chemistry for more than a decade by the time they recorded an entire weekend’s worth of sets at the (equally legendary) Blue Note club in New York City.
Fixtures such as “Straight, No Chaser” and “Skylark” get a new spin in a few dashing minutes, while others like “On Green Dolphin Street” romp for twenty or more.
DeJohnette makes the lively moments swing hard and fast; Peacock thoughtfully provides the right light touch to complement the piano when it’s time to slow down.
The players slide closely in step through surprising key changes and segues, always making it all sound effortless no matter how fast they’re cooking.
Inside Out (2000)
Among the standards, this trio might occasionally leave the written material behind and wing it completely.
Their more successful flights would result in a kind of free jazz for people who don’t like free jazz – not drifting into formless abstraction, but creating jaunty grooves and accessible melodies on the spot.
A triptych of extensive explorations makes up the bulk of this recording, giving us space to hear the trio searching and bouncing ideas around as each motif takes shape.
They bend the rule at the very end here by including one actual composition after all, though this take on “When I Fall in Love” is too beautiful and eloquent for any complaints.
If this list largely skips over the 1990s, it’s partly because Jarrett spent two years completely inactive due to chronic fatigue syndrome and took some time longer to work up to playing again.
His approach was different by the time of the Japan shows that comprise this set. The continuous forty-minute sets were no more. Series of smaller pieces became the norm from this point on, and those on Radiance tend to stay dreamy and uncertain.
Several of these improvisations meander for only a couple minutes while some dig in for more than ten. Jarrett builds a spontaneous sequence with each piece meant to serve as a springboard for the next.
This program is a challenging one largely in abstract mode; there aren’t any very catchy moments in familiar styles, only a continual string of impressionistic meditations that have to be taken on their own terms.
My Foolish Heart: Live at Montreux (2007)
The Standards Trio is in exceptional form on this festival date, released to mark their 25th anniversary as a group.
The playful spontaneity is there in spades as always, with an especially celebratory vibe to all the stomping and swinging.
This one has a heavy streak of old-school stride, perhaps to honor the historical roots of the Montreux Jazz Festival’s setting.
There’s a double dose of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ mid-set, surrounded by early-20th-century pop tunes such as “What’s New?” and “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” that are rarely aired even as old standards go.
Last Dance (with Charlie Haden) (2014)
The two old bandmates reunited for a duo session that first produced 2010’s Jasmine, beautifully demonstrating how attentive listening and interaction had remained prime qualities since their American Quartet days.
It’s followup, however, is their prime pick.
Silence often feels like a third presence here. Jarrett lets the quiet spaces say as much as the notes; Haden’s bass sometimes walks but more often strolls one slow step at a time.
Since the format is simple, the playing follows suit. Their dialogue is uncluttered, their back-and-forth exchanges chosen with care and the already-leisurely material (largely love songs) drawn out with an exceptional depth of emotion.
The Budapest Concert (2020)
This recording suffered from bittersweet timing, being released right alongside the news that a pair of strokes had left Jarrett unable to play, perhaps permanently.
Even without that context, it makes a powerful impact in its own right.
The program kicks off with a long and often atonal improvisation to challenge the ears from the start, then continues launching into further bold flights.
The pieces’ general moods are often common ones – contemplative balladry, fast-careening boogie, chamber-classical elegance, a soothing dash of blues and folk to bring everything down to earth.
Still, no matter how familiar the touchstones are, the eloquence and maturity in the playing keeps them fresh and different with every performance.
That’s it: 10 essential Keith Jarrett albums for every record collection!
Thanks for joining us for this all-to-brief glimpse at one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
We also put together a round up of available Keith Jarrett transcriptions and sheet music here.