Do, Ray, ME

Article excerpt


RICHARD COOK on how Keith Jarrett's illness has intensified his appeal to his followers

Much of the attention centred around Keith Jarrett of late has had more to do with the state of his health than with his piano playing. His physical strength severely diminished by ME (chronic fatigue syndrome), Jarrett has returned to the concert platform only in the past year or so, performing with the bassist Gary Peacock and the drummer Jack DeJohnette in his so-called "Standards Trio". In the interim, he released a particularly quiescent solo record, The Melody at Night, With You (ECM), a set of familiar American songs turned into a series of impassive little nocturnes. It has become his most successful record for many years, and has done much to revive the Jarrett cult that seemed an inescapable part of 1970s and 1980s jazz.

He is a player who has never lacked adulation, from critics and the public alike. From the days of The Koln Concert, the 1975 solo recital that became the most successful piano recording since Erroll Garner' s Concert by the Sea, Jarrett' s following has been large and loyal; but many of his fans had drifted away over the past decade, perhaps intimidated by the vast documentation that Manfred Eicher's s ECM label has accorded the pianist. The multidisc sets, from both a live and a studio perspective, have eavesdropped on a considerable talent, but they have tended to show as much exasperating ingenuity as genuine creative necessity. This is a musician who has a tendency to marvel at his own greatness.

The less devoted might find it merely wan. Jazz has had its share of death-row poetry, just like any other area of music: Serge Chaloff, playing from a wheelchair because of his spinal paralysis, delivering a rapt yet gimlet-eyed interpretation of "Thanks for the Memory"; Bix Beiderbecke, already lost to alcohol, saying goodbye with his eerily poignant "I'll Be a Friend With Pleasure". Jarrett, fortunately, is not in that twilight zone, and there is no smell of death in what he is doing. Even so, his recent frailty has intensified his appeal to his followers, a kind of worshippers-come-nigh charisma that has gilded any shortcomings in his own performing. At his London concerts in August, there was an uncomfortable sense of paying homage to an interlocutor with the divine. …