Keith Jarrett’s Radiance

Keith Jarrett is a remarkable example of the phenomenon of the performer/composer. Although he is generally considered a jazz pianist — one of the finest — I first became acquainted with his work through his recordings of the twentieth century repertoire, as soloist in works by composers such as Colin McPhee and Lou Harrison. I guess that just goes to show that Jarrett has small patience with categories.

In listening to Radiance, a live recording of a complete concert in Osaka in 2002 and portions of a performance in Tokyo a few days later, one term that kept coming to mind is “master.” Mastery is a tricky concept: it’s easy to listen to a recording by Vladimir Horowitz or Glenn Gould working within the confines of a “composed” work with its own history of interpretation and certain fairly well defined standards that apply and recognize them as great. Their control and understanding of the expressive elements of performance is no less than admirable, and usually much more than that. It’s rather a different kind of experience to listen to Terry Riley, Harold Budd, or Keith Jarrett and realize that they are composing on the fly. (There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that Jarrett once sat down before the piano at a concert and just stared at it for several minutes. Finally, someone in the audience yelled out “D-flat!” Jarrett nodded, said “Thank you,” and proceeded to play for the next hour and a half.) Budd’s work is almost all improv; the concert recordings of Terry Riley, such as the Lisbon Concert, are also largely improvised (although they may start with his composed works), and are phenomenal in their range and depth. Radiance gives a good sense of some of the salient characteristics of these kinds of performances as well as showcasing a what must have been a remarkable experience in person.

First, there is an overarching unity in this recording. Although Jarrett has taken to breaking his performance into segments rather than doing a nonstop improvisation that might last for an hour or more, it’s quite obvious that all these parts go together and should be read as movements of a larger work. There is that kind of flow, as though the breaks (with audience applause) were just a pause for breath or a transition, rather than an ending and beginning.

And there is a huge stylistic range. Given Jarrett’s background and acclaim as a jazz musician, it’s no surprise that there are a number of sections strongly in the that idiom. What’s not so predictable is something like “Part 6,” which could fit into the nineteenth-century romantic canon without a ripple. In fact, the opening bars of the Osaka concert could come as easily from Bartók as Brubeck, a phenomenon that exists throughout the disc and lends a nice edginess to the music.

It’s all seamless and very seductive. I knew Jarrett was a terrific performer with a well-deserved reputation as a soloist, but after hearing Radiance, I’m convinced he’s one of the greats.

(ECM Records, 2005)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.