Improviser plays music, not merely the notes

January 04, 1998|By GLENN MCNATT

LEGEND HAS IT that when young Johann Sebastian Bach applied for the position of church organist at Leipzig, the examining committee gave him a theme to improvise on in order to demonstrate his mastery.

Bach took the theme, spontaneously harmonized it, then turned it upside down and played it backward, ending with a gigantic fugue that so impressed his listeners that he easily won the job.

"I had thought that this art was dead," the church's retiring old organist told Bach afterward, "but in you I see that it still lives."

Today, when virtually all classical music performers are primarily interpreters rather than creators of the works they play, pianist Keith Jarrett may well be the last great improviser in the tradition of J. S. Bach.

Since the mid-1970s, Jarrett has been giving solo piano concerts consisting entirely of music that he makes up on the spot.

His newest album, released last month on the ECM label and titled "La Scala," was recorded live at the famous opera house in Milan and confirms Jarrett's reputation as a lone and enigmatic figure for whom the normal rules of the music business simply do not apply.

Actually, there is a long and honorable tradition of improvised concertizing that goes back long before Bach. Before printed music was widely available, musicians in princely courts were expected to be able to perform any kind of piece at a moment's notice.

Church organists, in particular, were supposed to be able to improvise all the incidental music for the service, as well as embellish the familiar hymn tunes and elaborate their themes into mighty fugues that awed the faithful.

Handel and Scarlatti, Bach's great contemporaries, were famous for their extemporary powers. As a child, Mozart dazzled audiences with a seemingly inexhaustible flood of spontaneous melodies. Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt all won renown for their inspired improvisations.

Yet, in modern times, improvisation has been mainly the province of jazz musicians, who have brought a new instrumental virtuosity to popular music.

From Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, jazz's greatest innovators have all been superlative improvisers as well as original musical personalities.

By contrast, the classical music world has sunk into a joyless enslavement to the text. Current critical fashion forces even the most imaginative players and conductors to obsessively focus on "the notes" -- sometimes even at the expense of the music.

In the face of this dispiriting trend, Jarrett is refreshingly iconoclastic. He was a child prodigy who began studying the piano at age 3. His early training was in the classical repertoire; he didn't become seriously interested in jazz until his teens. And although he has played with such jazz greats as Miles Davis and led his own highly successful jazz-fusion bands, he continues to record classical music, especially the works of Bach, Handel and Shostakovich.

Jarrett's best-known album is the "Koln Concert," a two-record set issued in the mid-1970s from a live performance in Germany. It has sold over 3 million copies and remains the best-selling solo piano album of all time. It also established Jarrett as the undisputed modern master of the extemporaneous piano recital.

His music is a blend of classical, jazz, pop and folk, which may sound like something of a mishmash until one realizes that musical eclecticism was the method of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler, too.

The masters took what had come before and artfully combined it with their own genius and with material freely borrowed from the popular music of their day. Jarrett's music is as American as blues and bluegrass, yet it speaks to people all over the world in the universal language of feeling.

The "La Scala" album seems, to my ear, both quirkier and more pTC profound than the "Koln Concert" recorded nearly a quarter century ago. Some parts of it are beautifully wistful and lyrical, others so percussive and edgy one can almost hear their birth pains.

The concert ends with a lovely encore improvised on the theme of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that nearly is worth the price of the album all by itself.

Jarrett's career raises issues that ought to challenge all musicians, not just jazz performers: To what extent does the obsession with musical texts and their interpretation detract from or even destroy our ability to appreciate genuine spontaneity and improvisation?

Classical musicians devote endless hours to rehearsing every phrase and nuance of a piece, all in an attempt to sound spontaneous and effortless on stage. Jarrett, by contrast, begins each concert with a blank slate but makes no attempt to conceal the mental and physical effort required to make up the music as he goes along.

It's not that one approach is inherently better than the other, but the former certainly has resulted in a drift toward increasingly homogenized, predictable performances. Meanwhile, improvisation outside the jazz milieu is all but a dead art.

That it is not completely dead we have Jarrett to thank. Before you dismiss him, remember: His way ultimately may represent the only viable future not only for jazz, but for classical music as well.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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