domingo, 26 de diciembre de 2010

Keith Jarrett’s Encore from Tokyo

DGD: Redes 110 (clonografía), 2009
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Keith Jarrett’s Encore from Tokyo
Daniel González Dueñas
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For Rafael Castanedo, who put God on loop,
and for Claudio Isaac, who collaborated so much

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The religious consensus by which God is a mountain of fire, thundering into the heart of the heavens, has always sounded to me a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Pure theatricals. No. God must be something closer to Keith Jarrett’s Encore from Tokyo. Not the Deus Irae, and not the Deus ex machina—not the frightful thunder, not the scorching gaze—but perfect serenity, the mathematical perfection of beauty, of simply being there, sitting in the Garden of Eden, without time, burdens, pain, in pure being. And not euphoria, rapture, being devastated by ecstasy. No. Only calm, the delicious smoothness of the moment, without the least ballast but also without the least distraction.
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Keith Jarrett was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1945. At the age of 3 he began studying piano and at seven he gave his first recital; ten years later he was able to give his first 2-hour solo concert made up exclusively of his own material. In 1972 he began his concert tours based on free improvisation, without any previous planning. Such important albums as Solo Concerts (1973), Köln Concert (1975) and the great Sun Bear Concerts (1976) grew out of these tours. For Jarrett’s followers, these concerts are monumental in the history of music; his detractors admit they are stirring but end up reducing them, as one of them states, to “long and slow exercises in self-indulgence”.
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The album Sun Bear Concerts has been called “the ultimate ego trip”, mostly by those who’ve never listened to it. When it was first released, it was huge black box with ten heavy vinyl long plays, and with the advent of digital technology it was reduced to a small box-set of 6 CDs. It spans over seven hours of continuous, applied and exact creativity; the shortest piece is 31-minutes long; the longest, 43.
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We must be grateful to Manfred Eicher, producer of ECM Records, for abiding by Jarrett’s request to release all of the material as a whole, and not just extracts; the album’s price-tag wouldn’t make it overly attractive in the market, but—as Jarrett told Eicher—“music works better as a coordinated whole”. Thanks to this, we have a complete record of that experience, including the essential encores (there are three in the album, from Sapporo, Nagoya and Tokyo, each between four and ten minutes long), which may not have been included in a synthesized version.
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The album’s technical virtuosity has led some critics to state that at times it seems Jarrett has four hands, especially in the sections where he simultaneously handles several musical themes. But technical expertise is not enough to explain the quality of this material; a critic has said metaphorically that Jarrett “is transcribing words into music”; another, that it is “images” that Jarrett translates into sounds.
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Nevertheless, it is neither words nor images, but something located half-way, and which still lacks a name. Someone has put forth the argument that Jarrett’s subconscious is composing all the time (no matter whether the artist is at the piano, strolling down the street without a care or even asleep), and that this way he “archives” in his memory a huge amount of music to interpret at the right time later on. Perhaps; but in my opinion, his method consists in sitting at the piano on stage, calling forth something similar to Zen silence and going on to translate his thoughts, feelings, moods: his intuitions, sure—but also his blood flow. Jarrett’s skill is such that it isn’t hard to imagine it is his fingers that take care of the technique, while Jarrett, almost unaware of them, simply lets himself flow. More than “created” music, what we listen to is the process of creation within the interiority of genius.
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How is he able to do this? How can he improvise, enter into a state of satori, on the one hand let himself flow, and on the other maintain the highest technical perfection, while knowing that thousands of people are watching and listening, and that the concert is also being recorded for History itself? As few other artists have, Jarrett manifests the great mystery of creativity. Other musicians find shelter in a long and solitary process of composition; they have all the time in the world at their disposal to analyze each note on paper, rehearse at the piano, write bit by bit the work they will interpret on stage reading the score. What Jarrett does is comparable to a writer getting up on stage and, without any preparation, taking hold of the microphone and improvising The Waste Land or Juan Rulfo’s El llano en llamas.
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The analogy would have to add that the writer not only enters another state of consciousness: he also remains in it by means of certain words and its rhythm. Jarrett connects himself but at the same time allows himself no distraction: while his deep mind sets sail, his consciousness remains in his fingers and in the crystalline and marvellous translation of what he is seeing: of what he is living.
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It would hardly be exaggerating to say that his whole body immerses itself in his subconscious, with the sole exception of his hands (and his feet on the pedals). He himself has stated, in one of his most ineffable and challenging statements: “Playing is what matters the least, it’s the left over scraps, the activity of being musical”—that is to say (as the Argentine critic Guillermo Bazzola has written), that “what we habitually know as music is no more than the reflection of an ideal entity, the telling of an experience, of something spiritually lived through”.
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Applying Jarrett’s dictum to any other artistic field would be greatly beneficial: the emphasis remains on the connection, not on the technique. Doesn’t this contradict the fact that Jarrett has gone so far as to cancel a concert if he considers the piano’s quality is lacking? Not at all: technique is what matters the least, but in itself it must be as polished as possible. Only this way, by comparison, can that something else, without a name—all that is left over—come truly into being.
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It’s true that at times his travels cross through dense, even nightmarish atmospheres; certain passages turn into a ritual tam-tam, like a dialogue with ancient gods. Nevertheless, Jarrett never loses his way, and even in those cases of frantic enjoyment, his fingers bring discoveries to this side.
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All of the material in Sun Bear Concerts was, then, improvised on the go before five Japanese audiences in the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo, and Sapporo. Those who, after having listened to the concerts, find out that they were all improvisations, are surprised by the high quality of the album, and by the fact that each concert has a distinctive character. Indeed, improvisation in Jarrett is never a mechanical exchange of standard phrases, or a mere filling of gaps between two momentary inspirations. The musician is famous for not repressing cries of pleasure, sobs or even howls, which have been preserved in his live recordings. Yet this habit is mostly absent from the Japanese concerts.
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Jarrett began the tour on the 5th of November 1976, in Kyoto, a city that is as reserved as Tokyo (its acoustic opposite) is vociferous; in this concert there is a clear gospel element in the artist’s improvisations. The concerts from Osaka (8 November) and Nagoya (12 November) are more lyrical and melancholic, while Sapporo’s (18 November) is more dissonant and dense. But it was in Tokyo that the miracle took place, on the 14th of November 1976—and not in the concert itself, but in an unplanned piece (that is, doubly unplanned, given that the concert itself was already improvised) which the artist created to thank the audience for their fervent clapping. This means that the Encore was on the brink of not existing, had the audience’s reception been different (it is well known that Jarrett has interrupted concerts if the crowd speaks or makes noise).
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Without doubt, it was a most special alchemy, an unrepeatable mixture. The ground for invocation came about by a combination of factors—the specific nature of the long concert that had just ended, the audience’s receptivity, the spiritual state of the artist…(and here, in all seriousness, one would have to make a long list including not only what Jarrett ate that day, but also the alignment of the planets, the stains on the Sun, the air’s electrical charge, what was borne by cosmic rays…). The fact is that, after the ovation, Jarrett came back on stage, sat in front of the piano and, as silence fell, he began an encore. But this time, instead of playing, he opened the gates of heaven for exactly eight minutes.
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Perhaps one could think that the technical complexity of the concert he’d just given had exhausted his mental resources more than ever before—that is to say, that in it all his thoughts had been translated. The Tokyo concert had lasted 75 minutes with only one break. When the crowd’s ovation almost brought down the theatre, the artist who came back on stage to give his audience the gift of a surplus, had already thought it all out: he had nothing left, therefore, except feeling, pure intuition. What he offered then was a small piece stripped completely of rationality. This doesn’t mean that the Encore isn’t complex, but that, miraculously, it has the complexity of what is truly simple. This one time, Jarrett translated something that goes beyond thought—and doesn’t need it: a receptivity (and herein lies the miracle) that doesn’t depend on any translation.
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Very few human creations can be called “perfect”, and when such a word is used it is metaphorically, as when Borges speaks of La invención de Morel by Bioy Casares, or when Théophile Gautier marvels at Velázquez’s Meninas. Human perfection is something complex and tangled, which must go through all imperfections so that, out of their sum, it may bring forth grace. Astoundingly, for once in his life (and for many other lives), Keith Jarrett achieved it: he was not devastated by satori, but instead laid back on it as if on a hammock for eight minutes of pure grace.
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The great musicologist, editor and film maker Rafael Castanedo encountered Sun Bear Concerts around 1980, thanks to the then very young film maker Claudio Isaac, who worshipped the concerts and wanted to show them to Castanedo notwithstanding the latter's aversion to jazz and its derivatives. The way of entry into the record and the pianist was precisely the Encore’s most evident kinship with the music Castanedo revered (Schubert, Grieg); Isaac presented it as a unique, hypnotic and masterful work. And although Castanedo used to say that he considered the Encore from Tokyo a mere “little tune”—that is to say a light piece, a beautiful “melody” without any further complexity—he still taped it in order to listen to it frequently, and what is more in a most special way: recorded again and again until it took up both sides of a cassette.
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And it was that way that Castanedo introduced me to the concert, via a copy of his tape. For me, therefore, more than a “repeated piece”, the Encore was a continuum, a flow, a loop, an acoustic Moebius. (I don’t know of any piece of music that can withstand such treatment, and certainly none of the Japanese concerts can, nor the other two encores, nor anything in Jarrett’s work. Certain lines, certain songs carry at times a need for repetition, but they are transient dazzles, and end up tiring the listener.)
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In this manner I’ve listened to the Encore for years, and it has never been exhausted in my imagination. On the contrary: every time is the first and each one provides more discoveries, more amazement, more delight. Placed in one of those devices that can be programmed to play again and again without having to manually turn the tape (or, even better, transported onto a CD and played on endless repeat, in a beautiful sensation of eternity and infinity), the Encore becomes something more simultaneous than successive, a state of consciousness, an androphany and at the same time a theophany.
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Maybe Jarrett would share this certainty: his concerts have visited every range (and each one is a different opening of genius), but only the Encore is the dialogue of human genius with divine genius...“like a coordinated whole”.
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The Encore from Tokyo, more than music, is a letting-through of grace. God must be that: a little tune, not a symphonic storm; a light piece, not the bellow of the planets crashing against one another; a melody based on nothing more complex than the immense pleasure of connecting with the universe and hearing it flow. God is an encore resulting from an ovation, from a collective moment of plenitude.
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Of course, it isn’t a lone case, and what it does is to prove (if anyone needed proof) that music is the most profound way for the human being to feel the divine. Castanedo experienced it with Mozart’s Requiem; for me, another undoubtable connecting-point is the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5, interpreted at the very centre of Paradise by Pablo Casals. What singles out Jarrett’s small piece? Perhaps that nothing seems to single it out: Jarrett is not standing before the burning bush, overwhelmed by an infinite solemnity, but merely plays around nakedly in the grass, in total grace.
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For a few privileged moments, John Keats was the small bird pecking at his window. For eight minutes, Keith Jarrett was eternity: the smoothness of God.
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[El texto original, en español, puede consultarse haciendo click aquí.]
[Original Spanish text can be read by clicking here.]
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