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The last Keith Jarrett solo concert in London at the Royal Festival Hall in 2008 became two thirds of the triple album Paris/London: Testament, and memories of that extraordinary night run high still.

Manfred Eicher, founder in 1969 of ECM, Jarrett’s long time label and where the story of his global success began in solo piano terms with the studio album Facing You, speaking in the foyer of the Hall beforehand smiled at the mention of Testament, and recalled it was recorded in Paris as well. “We’re recording tonight,” he said, having made the trip over to be in the hall in person. Jarrett is still finding new audiences, and the National Concert Hall concert in Dublin on Thursday was his first in Ireland in 30 years. Imagine hearing Keith Jarrett for the very first time. 

Like the Testament night that distant December Jarrett started with a wild improvisation, a clearing for what would follow. He could have played in that vein all night as he does on albums such as Radiance, but this was not an improv set in its entirety.

Most of the songs particularly in the second set after the official interval were lovely ballads or ballad-inclined leavened with the gospel-tinged blues: the left hand on one such number showed the groove set-up Jarrett did on such classics as ‘Long As You’re Living Yours’ players such as Brad Mehldau have done much to learn from.

Jarrett only name checked one song, ‘Summertime’, and launched into an anecdote about the night he first played the Gershwin number, a perennial favourite with jazz audiences the world over since Porgy and Bess. It was a night in San Francisco he said when he played the tune for the first time in front of an audience. Jarrett explained that that particular crowd was an unruly one, and he had to take requests and bit by bit the troublemakers melted away. Later Robin Williams came backstage to see him afterwards and congratulated him on getting shot of the troublemakers. Jarrett impersonated the Good Morning Vietnam man’s voice, and then laughed at his own impersonation.

The second half showed a hitherto little known aspect of Jarrett’s public persona: he told jokes and people in the audience laughed. It was a relief, as there is always massive tension at Jarrett gigs, partly why it’s fair to say even if the concerts are demanding they’re so good.

During the first set he left the stage quite early on as he had to take a “two minutes” break. He mentioned “medicines” that he had been taking, and he was gone for about five minutes. That gave the audience a chance to chat to friends or strangers sitting next to them after the enforced stifling silence demanded at his concerts.

Later after the official interval when the man from Allentown came back for the second half referred back to the unscheduled break and the medicines earlier mentioned that people had given him advice on what remedies he should take. He had a cold as it turned out. He said his response to the advice was: “all of them!”

Someone inevitably took pictures despite a very polite announcement by John Cumming of the concert producers Serious at the very beginning. The snapping began shortly after he took the stage for the second set, and the good humour on Jarrett’s part could have dissipated, but didn’t, although Jarrett did say archly that photography is a great art but taking photos on “equipment like that” meaning presumably camera phones “doesn’t make great art.”

People did continue to take pictures bafflingly, even after this, and later on. The Festival Hall was packed, and even the choir stalls sold so Jarrett had people to the left side of him above his head curving round to the sides. The piano position was different to the time he did the Testament concert (the Steinway last night was side on, a lot straighter), and his body language was a bit different as sometimes he sits at the piano almost side saddle at an angle. Sometimes in his posture last night the shape was like an anglepoise lamp. At the beginning of Pixar films there is a short animated sequence and the anglepoise lamp hops about. Jarrett doesn’t hop about, but he does stand up a lot, and the first thing he did last night, was to look inside the piano and reach out to the strings. He vocalised quite a bit as well throughout, humming and sort of singing.

There were four encores at the end, including ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, but most of the great moments came earlier especially on the tune that sounded like the melody of an old 1970s ballad ‘Sometimes When We Touch’ in the theme. Whatever it is called this one was the most beautiful. There was another tune that could have turned into ‘Here’s To Life’. Jarrett isn’t averse to popular songs from more recent times, and on Jasmine, the duo studio album with Charlie Haden, there’s a very good version of Joe Sample and Will Jennings’ ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’. Another of last night’s songs had a fine flamenco section (think the spirit of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain). As raconteur in the second half his anecdote about Nürnberg was the most interesting. Maybe it was the March 1973 concert he was referring to, the same year as Solo Concerts Bremen Lausanne made less than 16 months after Facing You. Jarrett said in the university auditorium on that occasion the audience were up close to him. That night, he went on, he said that he was ill (as he was last night) not helped by bad food “Chinese food made by Italians”, as he put it, that he and “my producer here tonight” meaning Manfred Eicher had eaten ahead of the concert all those years ago, but they liked the music made that night. The inference was clear: even though he didn’t feel well it wouldn’t stop the music being good. The most famous instance of this was the later masterpiece The Köln Concert when he had not only eaten bad food beforehand, but had a bad back and was tired after travelling. Last night’s concert wasn’t a classic, but there were many beautiful moments, one or two of these quite moving. The record when it comes out eventually will tell a different story as live records often do with all the extra detail. But no one can forget hearing Keith Jarrett play.

Stephen Graham

UPDATED with setlist added at 6.15