Keith Jarrett: How I Create

Pianist Keith Jarrett is one of the jazz world’s most prolific and ambitious artists. Lately he has been devoting himself to three pursuits: solo improvisational concerts, gigs with his jazz trio, and classical performances, including an ongoing series of Mozart concertos with Dennis Russell Davies and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Jarrett’s newest recording, La Scala (ECM), was made at his February 1995 solo concert at Milan’s famous opera house. Writer Keith Goetzman spoke with him about his creative process.

Once Miles Davis asked me, “How do you play from nothing?” And I said, “You know, you just do it.” And that actually is the answer. I wish there were a way to make “I don’t know” a positive thing, which it isn’t in our society. We feel that we need to “know” certain things, and we substitute that quest for the actual experience of things in all its complexity. When I play pure improvisation, any kind of intellectual handles are inappropriate because they get in the way of letting the river move where it’s supposed to move.

To do an improvised concert–this includes the La Scala concert and every other time I walk on the stage and play from zero–I need to find a way to start the journey without creating the subject matter in my mind. In other words, I cannot have a melody or a motif in my head, because those things will protrude into the fabric. They will be too prominent and make the music seem like a solid object rather than a flowing process. I have to not play what’s in my ears, if there’s something in my ears. I have to find a way for my hands to start the concert without me.

Something in my awareness tells me what I should do moment to moment before the concert. Every situation is different–the dressing room situation, the social situation, what I eat. These are all big, big things, not insignificant details. If I have, say, an eight o’clock concert, and the audience is not in the hall at eight, I’m capable of losing my timing. I’m aiming this arrow at the event, and I’m divorcing myself from anything that’s the wrong thing. If someone says, “It’ll be 10 more minutes,” it can be really horrible. My whole psychology can change.

If you are a rock climber, once you’re halfway up the face of the cliff, you have to keep moving, you have to keep going somewhere. And that’s what I do. I find a way to get off the earth, and as I work my way up–as the music is being played–I am very aware. I have prepared my awareness. I can respond swiftly to the whole broad range of what my ears tell me can happen.

Creativity is misunderstood, because the result is often given more weight than the process. The event in real life–the music in La Scala, for example–is the only thing that is everything. That’s partly because so many people are involved in the event, in the process of living and breathing at the same moment. But on a recording–as important as it is to have great improvised events on record–it’s never everything that it was.

For a concert to be good, I have to be in an ecstatic state of consciousness–sensitivity taken to the greatest possible extreme so I’m aware of every tiny, tiny microdetail. This is actually the only way someone can do this and get away with it. If you’re going to get burned by the flame, you don’t just wander around outside it, you have to jump in it. So the risk is that–people think I’m overly serious when I say things like this, but it’s the truth–if I put myself in that vulnerable a position, of surrendering to these sensitivities, and then the music sounds horrible to me, I could be wounded by the concert.

It’s taking a chance. If you’re improvising all the subject matter is coming through you. You’re not interpreting something. When the information is coming in and what you’re playing is good, there’s no way to describe it other than to call it ecstasy.

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