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Style and the Improvised in Keith Jarrett's Solo


Article in Jazz Perspectives May 2008

DOI: 10.1080/17494060801949000


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Peter Elsdon
University of Hull


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Style and the Improvised in Keith Jarrett's Solo Concerts

Peter Elsdon

Online Publication Date: 01 January 2008

To cite this Article Elsdon, Peter(2008)'Style and the Improvised in Keith Jarrett's Solo Concerts',Jazz Perspectives,2:1,51 67
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Jazz Perspectives
Vol. 2, No. 1, May 2008, pp. 5167

Style and the Improvised in Keith

Jarretts Solo Concerts
Peter Elsdon

You cant keep things totally naked and totally free without there becoming some sort
of method. I think if you talk to free players theyll often try to justify their oeuvre over
the years, if its all free, with some sort of methodology, and Im not sure that thats
possible if its free. . . . But if you do it too often, [and] I can attest to this from solo
concerts, architectures build themselves up over time, and theyre harder and harder to
work around, and my challenge in solo concerts was . . . not to come up with good
music I had come up with before.
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Keith Jarrett, 2005 interview with Alyn Shipton1

In many of the contexts in which improvisation is practised, it can be saidto

borrow a phrase from Nicholas Cookto be relational.2 Jazz musicians often talk
of improvising on or over the form of a piece or the changes, and thus
conceive of the act of improvisation in relation to pre-determined structures.3 This
point holds true most especially for jazz which is dependent on song or blues forms,
and there have been many analytical studies of improvisation as practised in relation
to such forms.4 But there is a substantial amount of music in the jazz tradition in
which improvisation is not so strictly determined in relation to song structures and
chord sequences. Such music ranges from the work of musicians associated with the
free jazz movement (Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Cecil Taylor, for example),
to other slightly more contemporary examples (Anthony Braxton or John Zorn, for
instance). In such contexts, it is not that there is an absence of compositional
organisation, but rather that improvisation is conceived to be less determined by
traditional formal structures than in what might be called the conventional bebop
model. In this article, I explore one such non-conventional context, pianist Keith
Jarretts solo improvised concerts. While Jarrett himself has claimed that his

Keith Jarrett, interview by Alyn Shipton, BBC Radio 3, broadcast April 30, 2005, as part of a Jazz File
series of programmes on Keith Jarrett.
Nicholas Cook, Music Minus One, New Formations 27 (19951996): 2341.
Jeff Pressing has theorised this idea of an underlying structure for improvisations as a referent. See
Jeff Pressing, Cognitive Processes in Improvisation, in Cognitive Processes in the Perception of Art, eds.
W. Ray Crozier and Anthony J. Chapman (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1984), 345363. In describing how a
referent can take a range of different forms, from specific formal schemes to an abstract metaphorical
program, Pressing attempts to make this theory sufficiently malleable to adapt to a range of different
See, for instance, Gregory E. Smith, Homer, Gregory and Bill Evans? The Theory of Formulaic Composition
in the Context of Jazz Piano Improvisation (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1983), and Lawrence Gushee,
Lester Youngs Shoeshine Boy, in Report of the Twelfth Congress, Berkeley 1977 International
Musicological Society, eds. Bonnie Wade and Daniel Heartz (Kassel: Barenreiter, 1981), 151169.

ISSN 1749-4060 print/1749-4079 online # 2008 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/17494060801949000
52 Keith Jarretts Solo Concerts: Style and the Improvised
improvisations avoid any structural planning, I examine a sense in which they
employ certain stylistic models, or simply styles. This is not to suggest that there is
anything pre-planned in these performances, but rather that the architectures
which Jarrett talks of in the epigraph quotation above may come to function in a
similar way to compositional organisation. More specifically, Jarretts varied
employments of styles provide parameters within which improvisation can be
practised. These architectures consist not only of a number of different styles, but also
a large-scale progression through a sequence of particular styles, a device that also has
important expressive implications.
The epigraph comments by Jarrett also point to another aspect of improvisation in
this context, which is a tension that exists between the natural tendency for repetition
and the idea of improvisation as the province of the unique.5 Improvisation is
concerned with creation in the moment, and so improvisations are regarded as
singular products of their moment of creation. Jarrett articulates a desire to avoid the
architectures of which he talks, but he also acknowledges the power they can come to
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hold for the improviser. This suggests that improvisers may employ strategies which
attempt to counteract these tendencies towards repetition. This interpretation is
suggested by John Corbett, who views the idea of risk as an inherent condition in free
improvisation, suggesting that improvisers play in order to risk the unknown.6
While I will explore some of the architectural devices of Jarretts solo improvisations,
I will also examine an instance which might be understood as an attempt to work
against those structures, perhaps testifying to this aesthetic of risk.
Keith Jarrett began performing solo piano concerts in 1972. Many commentators
have seen this venture as representing the adoption of an epic perspective into jazz.7 This
reading can be seen, for instance, in the writings of Ted Gioia, who characterised Jarretts
solo piano concerts as titanic improvisations.8 Similarly, Frank Tirro thought these
performances were emblematic of a grandiose dimension in jazz.9 Jarrett was certainly
not the only musician pursuing such a course. As Gernot Blume has discussed, Anthony
Braxton had released a number of solo saxophone recordings by 1972, and pianist Cecil
Taylor had even begun performing solo concerts in the late 1960s.10 In addition, over the

See, for instance, Paul Berliners discussion of the importance of the spontaneity versus repetition in
improvisation in his book Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1994), 268273.
John Corbett, Ephemera Underscored: Writing Around Free Improvisation, in Jazz Among the
Discourses, ed. Krin Gabbard (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 225.
Jarrett has consistently stated that the first of these performances took place in Heidelburg, Germany, in
1972. For more on the background to the solo concerts, see Gernot Blume, Blurred Affinities: Tracing
the Influence of North Indian Classical Music in Keith Jarretts Solo Piano Improvisations, Popular
Music 22 (2003): 117142, and Peter Elsdon, Keith Jarretts Solo Concerts and the Aesthetics of Free
Improvisation, 19601973 (Ph.D. diss., University of Southampton, 2001).
Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 378.
Frank Tirro, Jazz: A History, 2d ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 420.
Gernot Blume, Musical Practices and Identity Construction in the Work of Keith Jarrett (Ph.D. diss.,
University of Michigan, 1998), 420. See also Ronald M. Radano, New Musical Figurations: Anthony
Braxtons Cultural Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 131137, for a discussion of the
background to Braxtons performances.
Jazz Perspectives 53

space of a year between 1971 and 1972, the German ECM label recorded albums of solo
piano music by Jarrett, Paul Bley, and Chick Corea.11 The result of Jarretts session,
Facing You, has often been described as a kind of blueprint for the solo concerts. If the
scale of Jarretts concertsin which he would improvise an entire performance of solo
piano musicseemed to tend towards the epic, the German ECM labels releases of
recordings of these performances signalled a correspondingly weighty undertaking. The
first release, Solo Concerts (1973), was spaced across three LPs, while the ten LPs of the
Sun Bear Concerts (1976) provoked charges of egotism in some quarters.12
In terms of his artistic aesthetics, Jarretts solo concerts were intimately linked to
many contemporary avant-garde performance ideals. The new thing associated
with musicians like John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman during the
1960s, was a philosophy as much as a musical style. The religious ideals which
Coltrane and many other musicians espoused drew their roots not only from a
rekindling of the sense of black identity which was an integral part of 1960s black
politics, but also from the ideals of the counterculture.13 This upsurge in religious
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rhetoric had essential ties to music making. The result of the connection musicians
made between spiritual ideals and music resulted in a conceptualisation of
performance as a spiritual quest. One of the most famous models of this concept
is found articulated through John Coltranes seminal 1964 recording, A Love
Supreme.14 The way in which Jarrett articulated his aesthetic stance in the liner notes
to the first recorded solo concert releases from 1973 establishes a direct connection to
this ideology: I dont believe that I can create, but that I can be a channel for the
Creative. I do believe in the Creator, and so in reality this is His album through me to
you, with as little in between as possible on this media-conscious earth.15
While couched in terms typical of those used by many jazz musicians of the time,
this creative philosophy has in Jarretts case found a very particular dramatic
manifestation in the solo concerts. At these events, Jarrett often lectured audiences on
the risks involved in this creative endeavour, the result of which contributed much to

Keith Jarrett, Facing You, ECM 1017, 1971, compact disc. Chick Corea, Piano Improvisations, vol. 1,
ECM 1014, 1971, compact disc; Piano Improvisations, vol. 2, ECM 1020, 1971, compact disc. Paul Bley,
Open, to Love, ECM 1023, 1972, compact disc.
Keith Jarrett, Solo Concerts, ECM 1035/37, 1973, compact disc. See also Bob Blumenthal, Keith
Jarretts Ego Trip: Ten LPs, Rolling Stone, March 8, 1979, 546. Of course, in modern multi-set CD re-
releases, such proportions may not seem so extraordinary, but at the time, a ten-LP record box set was
almost unheard of.
The subject of free jazz and its relation to politics and wider cultural forces is considerable. See, for
instance, Charles Hersch, Let Freedom Ring!: Free Jazz and African-American Politics, Cultural
Critique 32 (Winter 199596), 97123, and Eric Porter, What Is This Thing Called Jazz? (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2002).
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, Impulse! IMP 11552, 1964, LP. The two writers to have best
expressed this sometimes obtuse philosophy are Ben Sidran and Ronald Radano. See Ben Sidran, Black
Talk (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), and Radano, New Musical Figurations. See also David G. Such,
Avant-Garde Jazz Musicians: Performing Out There (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993),
Porter, What Is This Thing, and David Borgo, Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age
(New York: Continuum, 2005).
Keith Jarrett, from the liner notes to Keith Jarrett, Solo Concerts, ECM 1035/37, 1973, LP; reissued as
ECM 827747, 2000, compact disc.
54 Keith Jarretts Solo Concerts: Style and the Improvised
the dramatic spectacle of these performances.16 The extended scale of the solo
performances is directly related to this creative aesthetic, especially through the
manner in which the process of improvisation is itself foregrounded in the
performances. In Jarretts case, the idea of extended form is a consequence of
predicating the entire musical ethos of such performances on the unhindered
obeyance of the improvisatory process. That is to say, the solo concerts extend the
kinds of ideals of self-actualisation and spiritual quest present in free jazz, while
making such extended performances a virtue through which the very process of
creation takes centre stage. It is from this particular perspective that I want to
consider Jarretts solo piano improvisations, a context in which the whole cultural
import of improvisation comes to take centre stage.

Styles in the Solo Concerts

Not so long ago pianists used to fit comfortably into bags. You either played funk or
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you played free, right-handed trumpet style or locked-hand block chords. Keith
Jarrett does all these things.
Bob Palmer, Rolling Stone, 197217

As the above assessment of Keith Jarretts 1972 solo piano album, Facing You,
suggests, when Jarrett emerged as a major voice on the jazz scene towards the end of
the 1960s, his individuality was perceived to stem from the manner in which his voice
incorporated many diverse facets of the jazz vocabulary. This notion of Jarrett as the
musician who speaks in different musical dialects has emerged as one of the most
important themes in writings on the pianist. A prime example can be seen in the
work of the musicologist Gernot Blume, who describes Jarrett as a musician who
traverses a wide musical terrain in pursuit of a variety of styles, traditions and forms
of expression.18 Nowhere is this theme more prominent in both critical and
scholarly writings on Jarrett than in relation to the solo concerts. David Akes recent
discussion of Jarrett serves as a good illustration. In his 2002 book, Jazz Cultures, Ake
talks of the distinct categories which can be heard in the solo concerts, including a
seamless blend of quasi-Romantic rhapsodies, diatonic folk-like passages, free
counterpoint, angular atonality, extended techniques (plucking or strumming the
piano strings, striking the frame, etc.), and protracted ostinatos.19 This kind of
description of Jarretts performances extends throughout reviews of the solo concerts.
For example, in 1982, the critic John Fordham noted that Jarretts favourite devices

On this aspect of Jarretts performances, see David Akes chapter on Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett in his
book, Jazz Cultures (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), and Jairo Moreno on Jarretts
pianism in his article Body n Soul: Keith Jarretts Pianism, Musical Quarterly 83 (Spring 1999),
7592. See also Peter Elsdon, Keith Jarretts Solo Concerts, and Listening in the Gaze: The Body in
Keith Jarretts Solo Piano Improvisations, in Music and Gesture, eds. Anthony Gritten and Elaine King
(Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 192207.
Bob Palmer, Keith Jarrett, Facing You, Rolling Stone, December 21, 1972, 48.
Blume, Musical Practices, 8.
Ake, Jazz Cultures, 102.
Jazz Perspectives 55

are rolling gospelly figures over which the right hand swerves and wreathes, harp-like
slow pieces, baroque semi-classical interludes andon this occasionsuch a trance-
like flight into soul music that you felt he was about to ascend into the tastefully
stripped pine roof of the hall.20 Similarly, in 1977, the critic Richard Williams
claimed that Jarrett was the most consonant of players and his unbroken episodic
ramblings consist in the main of extemporised ballad melodies which flirt with
preciousness, hard-hammered sequences derived from black church music
(rhythmically vivacious but harmonically tedious).
While the sheer diversity of the reference points cited here is inevitably of interest,
what is of particular note is the way in which the language used imbues the styles
mentioned with a structural significance. There are pieces and interludes, terms
that have a structural significance. These writers clearly hear styles as instantiated in
identifiable passages of music, which form constituent parts of the improvisations.
Jarretts improvisations appear to inhabit a musical world which can be mapped out
in terms of specific stylistic reference points. Gernot Blumes view of this aspect of
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Jarretts music is worth quoting here, since it identifies the sense in which Jarretts
improvisations seem to listeners to invoke convention:
Jarrett recreates a set of repeatable procedures and formulaic practices that reinstate
the effects of idiomatic delineations. He has to create a style out of his melange of
styles to communicate to his audiences within an identifiable conceptual
framework. Such a framework of conventions instils in the listener a feeling of
familiarity with Jarretts music, an element of recognition and understanding of his
structural devices and artistic prerogatives. 21

Understanding Jarretts improvisations seems to necessitate understanding the

conventions and styles which Blume refers to, essentially identifying a series of
reference points from which to map out the territory within which Jarrett operates.22
In many ways, this is a surprisingly traditional approach. In fact, it is little
different from Leonard Ratners theory of musical topics in the Viennese Classical
tradition.23 Harold Powers has described this concept of musical topics in the
following manner:
Each topic either implies or characterizes a recognizable feature of music from a
particular social context. The topics are terminological tags naming kinds and

John Fordham, Keith Jarrett, The Guardian, November 4, 1982, 12.
Blume, Musical Practices, 11415. It is perhaps in this sense that Jarrett differs most significantly from
other free improvisers, particularly those whose work is concerned with constructing an entirely new and
original language specifically for their instrument. As the critic John Corbett points out, such an
approach is concerned with bringing forth a new language, more vibrant than the last. Corbett,
Ephemera Underscored, 224.
Leonard Ratner, Classic Music: Expression, Form and Style (New York: Schirmer, 1980). In a 1988
article, Andy Laverne identifies specific Jarrett styles in reference to the track In Front from the 1972
album Facing You. Laverne mentions a Jarrett gospel style, for instance. Andy Laverne, Inside Keith
Jarretts In Front, Keyboard Magazine, March 1988, 1123.
Ratner argued in Classic Music that his theory was based on ideas found in the writings of theorists
during the Classical period. Raymond Monelle has recently surveyed this claim in a critical light.
Raymond Monelle, The Sense of Music: Semiotic Essays (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000).
56 Keith Jarretts Solo Concerts: Style and the Improvised
manners of music familiar to a particular society of musical consumers. They are
the verbal equivalents for items in a musical vocabulary.24

From this perspective, those descriptions of Jarretts playing make absolute sense;
they identify commonly understood elements in Jarretts musical language and label
them in stylistic terms much as the topics which Ratner found in the music of Mozart
and Haydn. Just as the manners of music that Ratner identified formed constituent
parts of a compositional language, so Jarretts styles are constituent parts of the
language which he brings to these improvisations. Topical theory also points out that
these topics, or styles, can prove to be the very things through which music means
or, rather, the nuts and bolts of an expressive language.25 Jarretts improvisations
have meaning because so much of his music is heard as a reference to other musics.
Two qualifications are necessary at this point before proceeding any further. First,
the styles I want to consider reflect my work on a specific period of Jarretts
recordings, namely those made in 1973 and released on the LP Solo Concerts. It is
unrealistic to imagine that Jarretts playing would not have developed over a number
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of years, but I do not examine these developments in this limited article. Second, it is
not my intention to attempt an exhaustive classification of Jarretts improvisations
into a series of different styles. Part of the reason I adopt the term style rather than
topic has to do with how such classes can be identified in a piece of music. Much of
the application of topical theory to music of the eighteenth century has been able to
specify very clear-cut divisions between the presentation of different topics. However,
in Jarretts music this is simply not the case, as will become clear in the following
discussion where I identify and explore three particular styles.

Ballad Style
The term ballad has a very distinct meaning in jazz aside from its connotations in
terms of other musical traditions. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz describes a ballad
as a slow sentimental lovesong . . . [T]hey are performed at a relaxed tempo, in a soft
intimate style, and lack the rhythmic drive and intensity of four-beat jazz. The word
is often used, loosely, of any slow piece, regardless of its form, style, or subject
matter.26 As this definition suggests, jazz musicians generally take a rather different
approach to a ballad than to an up-tempo piece. By definition, ballads lack the
propulsive swing feel of a faster tune. At the same time, melodicism also plays a
particularly important role. Many jazz musicians additionally place an emphasis on
empathising with the sentiment of the lyrics of the original song when playing a

Harold Powers, Reading Mozarts Music: Text and Topic, Syntax and Sense, Current Musicology 57
(Spring 1995), 544.
For an example of a recent extension of topical theory into broader areas of expression in music, see
Robert Hattens book on Beethoven. Robert Hatten, Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness,
Correlation, and Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).
Robert Witmer, Ballad, in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, ed. Barry Kernfeld (London:
Macmillan Press, 1988; reprint, New York: St. Martin, 1995), 5556.
Jazz Perspectives 57
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Example 1 Ballad from Keith Jarrett, Bremen, Part 1, Solo Concerts (1973)
58 Keith Jarretts Solo Concerts: Style and the Improvised
The musical extract in Example 1 comes from the opening of the 1973 Bremen
concert, as released on Jarretts Solo Concerts album.27 One of the most immediately
distinctive features of a Jarrett ballad is seen in the piano figuration, in which the
melodic line in the right-hand part is supported by broken-chord and arpeggiated
figures in the left. The left-hand figures never settle into one particular figurative
pattern, but instead shift between a number of different types of formations.
A Jarrett ballad also has a distinct rhythmic approach, drawing in part on the kind
of rhythmic licence granted to musicians playing a ballad in a group context, or
perhaps the sort of approach a pianist would take in improvising a solo introduction.
Ballad passages are full of rubato playing, whereby the length of the beat expands and
contracts to create a subtle sense of ebb and flow.28 Rubato is not employed to give
particular poignancy to phrase endings or cadential points, but rather permeates the
entire passage. This sense of flexible time also applies to the harmonic motion in this
case. In performances of a jazz standard with a rhythm section, the chord changes
generally move at a regular rate, usually in measures or half-measures. In a Jarrett
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solo ballad though, the rate of change varies subtly; there is a continual expansion
and contraction of the period between each change in Example 1, resulting in a fluid
harmonic rhythm.29
A ballad also inhabits a very particular kind of world, one that is distinguished by
largely familiar and conventional types of short-term harmonic progressions. There
are many ii-V or ii-V-I patterns, harmonic building blocks which are a formative part
of the jazz language. On a larger scale, Jarretts ballad passages avoid establishing a
tonal centre, always breaking off to move in a new direction as soon as any cadential
inference might be drawn. In Example 1, for instance, the opening A minor chord
(with a phrygian inflectiona distinctive Jarrett trait) functions as the starting point
for a series of harmonic excursions, which foray ever further away from the point of
departure. Thus, the first segment moves through a ii-V-I progression to B-flat at
bar 6, and then back onto A minor at bars 8-9. The following passage moves further
afield, through C major, and then a sequence of descending progressions lead
through flat keys (E-flat and D-flat) onto C, and then quite suddenly onto A-flat.
While this opening A minor chord serves an important function as a launching point
for these harmonic excursions, it never acts as a tonic key in a functional sense.

All the transcriptions presented herein are the authors own. The bar numbers presented in the
examples are for ease of reference.
Gernot Blume labels a number of passages from the first part of the 1975 Koln Concert recording as
Rubato 1 and Rubato 2, thus using one particular musical characteristic as an indexical label. For
my purposes, the label ballad is more useful since it indicates more about the passage in question than
simply the rhythmic approach.
A recent study by Richard Ashley provides some fascinating insights into rubato as practised
particularly within the playing of ballads in the jazz traditions. See Richard Ashley, Do[nt] Change a
Hair for Me: The Art of Jazz Rubato, Music Perception 19 (Spring 2002): 311332. The delay-
accelerate strategy that Ashley identifies is one I hear as characteristic of Jarretts playing in the ballads
of a solo concert. However, without the backing of a rhythm section (all of Ashleys examples come from
performances utilising a rhythm section), it is rather difficult to quantify the degree and practise of rubato
in this case.
Jazz Perspectives 59

It is evident from Jarretts solo concert recordings that ballad passages seem to play
a particular role at the opening of improvisations, and this also has expressive
implications. Given what I have called the foregrounding of improvisation at the
heart of the spectacle of the solo concerts, ballad passages seem to represent the
opening of an improvisation in a very specific way. These harmonic excursions I have
referred to, and the particular way in which a ballad circles around certain diatonic
areas while abstaining from establishing a tonic, are all musical features which
performatively enact the process of improvisation. As listeners, we are drawn to hear
such musical features as indicative of the creative process; the gradual unfolding of a
ballad represents, for example, an improviser gradually constructing a musical world
in which to work. The key term here is representation. I am not trying to suggest in
any literal phenomenological sense that we can gain access to the process of
improvisation through the music, but rather that we hear a certain representation of
that process in the music.
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Folk Ballad Style

While I located the Jarrett ballad style in terms of certain precedents in the jazz
tradition, the style that I term a folk ballad indicates the extent to which the
musical language of the solo concerts extends its generic reference points rather
wider. With a folk ballad passage there is a certain convergence between Jarretts
language and the genre of folk-rock prevalent during the 1960s, as exemplified
particularly by the music of Bob Dylan. As Gernot Blume has discussed, the nature of
this influence is nowhere clearer than on Jarretts 1968 album Restoration Ruin, which
was an attempt (although a rather unsuccessful one) to present his multi-
instrumental talents in a context much closer to that of singer/songwriter than jazz
musician.30 As Blume points out, in this process, Jarrett has notably absorbed
influences from specific music styles into his own voice.
Folk ballad episodes are characterised by a particular kind of piano figuration,
consisting generally of arpeggio-like, broken-chord patterns in the left hand, usually
employing roots, fifths, and sometimes tenths as well. This kind of left-hand pattern
is very much redolent of piano figuration from the classical repertoire, but equally it
can be heard as analogous to a guitarists arpeggiated chordal strumming. Unlike a
ballad, this type of figuration is coupled to a steady pulse, resulting in a feel of straight
eighth notes. Folk ballad passages take a very different harmonic approach from
Jarretts ballad passages, employing diatonic triads free from the extensions and
alterations typical of ballad style. Example 2 shows the opening of a folk ballad
episode from the Lausanne concert, with the establishment of left-hand figuration
coupled to a sequential harmonic motion: B-flat major C major D minor C
major. This particular harmonic pattern is one which occurs again and again in the
solo concerts, with the distinctive trait being a sequential move from a major chord
to the minor chord a third above, or vice versa. Also typical for a folk ballad passage

Keith Jarrett, Restoration Ruin, Vortex 2008, 1968, LP. See Blume, Musical Practices, 26.
60 Keith Jarretts Solo Concerts: Style and the Improvised
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Example 2 Folk ballad from Keith Jarrett, Lausanne, Solo Concerts (1973)

is that while B-flat is established as the home chord, the modality is actually F
major, something which becomes clearer later in the passage.
Much like a ballad passage there is always a strong emphasis on melody in a folk
ballad episode, but the sense of phrasing is quite different. The regularity of the
underlying harmonic motion (in contrast to that in a ballad passage) is matched by a
melodic approach which stresses working out a simple melodic idea. In this instance,
bars 2 and 3 of the excerpt are played as two separate but neatly matched phrases,
with the following two bars comprising an answering phrase doubled in length.
While later on in the passage Jarrett spins the music off into harmonic and figurative
patterns more expansive than this opening, the strong impression of order given by
the establishment of this passage contrasts sharply to the ballad style.
In the context of the solo concert from which it comes, this particular folk ballad
passage follows on from a ballad passage which has lasted some four minutes. By
placing the folk ballad after this exploratory opening ballad passage, an expressive
significance becomes clear. I have suggested that the ballad episodes that so typically
open a Jarrett improvisation express a gradual unfolding, which in many ways
mirrors our sense as listeners of the improvisatory process; the growth in confidence
and increasing assurance with which musical risks are taken. In his study of the late
music of Beethoven, Robert Hatten suggests that topics in the classical tradition can
articulate dramatic oppositions, and he focuses in particular on the idea of
expressive genre. As he describes them, these genres are based on . . . [and] move
Jazz Perspectives 61

through, broad expressive states oppositionally defined as topics in the classical

style.31 In other words, expressive effect arises from the juxtaposition of topics, and
the progression from one to another. The progression from ballad to folk ballad style
is what might be called an expressive genre in Hattens terminology. It marks out a
change in musical state, from what might loosely be described as unstable to stable.
This progression is one which is particularly characteristic of Jarretts solo concerts
and seems to constitute a long-term strategy, whether borne of habit or careful

Blues Vamp Style

Jarrett is well known for employing one particular type of stylistic passage in his solo
concert performances: long vamp-driven sequences. Vamp passages have none of the
more conventional harmonic or rhythmic progressions typically found in a Jarrett
ballad. This vamp-based aspect of Jarretts conception is one which surfaces in a
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whole variety of musical contexts beyond the solo concerts, and his use of this texture
extends from his time with Charles Lloyd towards the end of the 1960s, through
groups now known as the American and European bands, to his longstanding
trio with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock.32 Blues vamps are one particular subset
of the wider category of ostinato passages as they occur in the solo concerts. These
passages are vamp-driven, while containing strong blues stylisations through
dominant-seventh harmonies and other typical blues inflections (flattened third
and fifth degrees, for instance). The other sub-types of ostinato passage tend towards
either diatonic or other kinds of modal configurations, both types of which are also
evidenced on these 1973 recordings.33
I use the term vamp instead of ostinato for a particular reason. While there is
generally some form of repeated figure used in these passages, Jarrett varies such
figures extensively, and they can take a number of different forms while still retaining
a recognisable identity. The vamps that Jarrett employs in these passages exemplify a
particular aspect of his playing, namely the ability to generate a strong rhythmic
momentum by creating a texture of sometimes three or more distinct voices. In the
instance shown in Example 3, the vamp consists of an F-C7 progression, moving
every half bar, and this progression is retained throughout this passage.34 The lower
right-hand part generally works within the pentatonic grouping C-D-E-G-A, while

Hatten, Musical Meaning, 67.
The American band consisted of bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Paul Motian, and saxophonist
Dewey Redman, with occasional percussionists. The European band consisted of bassist Palle
Danielsson, drummer Jon Christenson, and saxophonist Jan Garbarek.
The type of ostinato passage built entirely on diatonic harmony (and one single scale), occurs at the
end of the second part of the Bremen concert and both parts of the Lausanne performance. These
particular passages seem like a massive reinforcement of one single tonality.
There are instances of blues vamps or ostinato passages in the solo concerts where Jarrett will effect a
break passage in the middle of a vamp, occasionally modulating quickly through a cycle of fifths, but
almost always returning to the original vamp and key.
62 Keith Jarretts Solo Concerts: Style and the Improvised
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Example 3 Blues vamp from Keith Jarrett, Lausanne, Solo Concerts (1973)

the left hand quickly develops a distinct rhythm which counterpoints the motion in
the right hand. In passages such as this one, the rhythmic feel Jarrett employs is much
closer to a straight feel than a triplet-based swing approach.
The criticism most commonly levelled at the vamp-based aspects of Jarretts
playing hinges on a kind of stasis texture in which little seems to change. In a 1977
review, for example, Richard Williams remarked that Jarretts improvisations
included lengthy spells during which inspiration deserts him and he merely toys
with a simple vamp until a new idea arrives.35 These kinds of criticisms centre on
absence, and primarily on an absence of harmonic development and rhythmic
variety. As much as anything, Williamss comments betray a rather antiquated and
narrow aesthetic notion of music. What is explicit in Williamss case is the idea that

Williams, Keith Jarrett. Williams is only one of a number of critics who make such comments.
There is another section of critical opinion that would hear such passages as joyous affirmations of
groove, rather than in the negative terms that Williams expresses. I use Williamss remarks not as
indicative of all critical opinion, but as a demonstration of one reading of Jarretts music which I counter.
Jazz Perspectives 63

musical stasis equates in some way to a stasis in the creative process. The logical
conclusion of such an argument might seem to be that the rate of development of
new ideas in an improvisation can be taken as a sure indicator of the level of
inspiration at which the performer is operating. This view is hardly an acceptable way
of evaluating improvisation. As I will suggest, blues vamp passages in the solo
concerts can be understood as expressive in a much richer sense than Williamss
comments might suggest.
The essential quality to these passages in the solo concerts is groove. I use the
term groove here as indicative not only of a certain kind of musical phenomenon
(repeated patterns rhythmically articulated in such a way as to create a strong forward
momentum) but of a physical, bodily experience.36 This physical attachment is easily
seen by watching musicians playing almost any groove-based music, and by
observing the wide variety of ways in which groove is expressed physically in the
experience of music, whether through dancing or tapping of feet. Steven Feld talks of
how getting into the groove also describes a feelingful participation, a positive
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physical and emotional attachment. . . . A groove is a comfortable place to be.37 In

her 1996 book, Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction, Ingrid Monson
talks of the emotional and interpersonal aspects of the way jazz musicians talk about
groove. She draws specific attention to the idea that playing in the groove is almost
like letting the music play itself.38 In his performances, Jarretts body tends to
reinforce this idea of groove as physically-grounded, through motions which may
articulate pulse (the tapping of feet, sometimes against the sustain pedal of the
instrument) or may instead seem to represent the experience of the performer
(standing up from the piano stool). In the latter case, these physical gestures can be
viewed as outward maninfestations of interior states. I have discussed these aspects of
Jarretts playing at length elsewhere, suggesting that they are crucial to the expressive
effect of his music.39 Understood in this sense, a vamp passage in Jarretts music may
be static harmonically, and apparently show little of the onward momentum and
exploration of a ballad, but the groove enacts a physical engagement between
improviser and music. Indeed, it specifically expresses a quality of exhilaration.

Conformity and Transgression: Hearing the Improvised

So far I have explored some patterns in Jarretts solo improvisations which may be
akin to the architectures mentioned in the epigraph quotation at the outset of this
article. One particular architecture is of concern herethat is, the progression of

On the notion of what a groove is in theoretical terms and what it means to evaluate groove, see
Lawrence M. Zbikowski, Modelling the Groove: Conceptual Structure and Popular Music, Journal of
the Royal Musical Association 129 (December 2004), 272297.
Steven Feld, Aesthetics as Iconicity, or Lift-Up-Over Sounding, in Music Grooves, eds. Charles
Keil and Steven Feld (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 111.
Ingrid Monson, Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1996), 68.
Elsdon, Listening.
64 Keith Jarretts Solo Concerts: Style and the Improvised
styles which forms an expressive genre in the sense I indicated earlier. This particular
progression occurs in many of the solo concert recordings, although not always in
quite the same form as in the Lausanne concert which I will discuss here. In the first
part of the Lausanne concert, this progression moves from a ballad passage at the
outset, through a folk ballad episode (which I discussed briefly above in Example 2),
and then into a blues vamp passage (my Example 3 above). This is naturally a
reductive kind of description, and certainly the musical trajectory is not quite as
linear as this might imply. When expressive considerations are taken into account,
this progression through styles represents a move from harmonic/rhythmic
uncertainty towards the stability and affirmation of the groove.
The moment in this improvisation which particularly interests me lies just after the
end of that progression; the move from the blues vamp into a more open rhapsodic-
type section. While a groove may be expressive of a kind of physically-grounded
exhilaration, it also has clear musical boundaries. Harmonic and rhythmic stability
creates expectations; it creates a very clear sense of what the normative is. Any
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musical element which does not fall within these normative boundaries will be highly
marked, and heard as somehow outside. For the improviser, this can mean that a
groove such as this blues vamp may be hard to break out of, specifically because of
the expectations that it creates. Does the improviser simply stop and abandon the
groove, or does he attempt to gradually subvert or transform a part of the texture in
order to effect a transition of sorts? For the listener, the presence of these boundaries
may actually heighten the expectation of change after a time; they may come to
speculate on the potential difficulty of effecting a move away from this area.
As shown in Example 4, at 99 390 (some two-plus minutes into the vamp passage),
the left hand starts playing ascending scales in octaves, with the use of a little sustain
pedal blurring the texture. While the vamp is based on F and C chords, this ascending
line employs an F Lydian mode. The result is that the sharpened fourth degree (B-
natural) in this line clashes with the B-flats which sometimes appear in the vamp.
This ascending line also disrupts the vamp in rhythmic terms. The bass line has a
kind of stuttering effect, created by the distance between each step changing between
a dotted eighth note and a quarter note. The dotted eighth division is the more used
of the two, while the right hand retains a quarter-note division of the 4/4 bar. This
device creates a kind of temporal dissonance, as if the two hands are playing at
different speeds. The disruption of the groove seems to cause the whole vamp passage
to disintegrate. This effect becomes particularly obvious as the right-hand patterns
begin to fragment into isolated chords and single notes. After some time, these
patterns settle into a dotted eighth-note division (towards the end of Example 4),
which aligns to the tempo being articulated in the left hand. It is as if this rhythmic
conflict is settled in favour of the dotted eighth-note pulse. Even from this point
onwards, the direction seems unsure. A little later, the right-hand lines become
blurred with the use of the sustain pedal as the notes meld into a wash of sound.
There is an obvious musical tension in this passage between the rhythmic and
harmonic function of the left-hand lines and the vamp figures in the right hand. In
terms of the normative musical strategies of Jarretts vamp style, this left-hand line
Jazz Perspectives 65
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Example 4 Disruption of blues vamp from Keith Jarrett, Lausanne, Solo Concerts

stands out as decidedly other. It challenges the harmonic and rhythmic primacy of
the vamp by confrontation, rupturing the figuration of the ostinato. The musical
implications of this intrusion seem considerable; the left-hand lines derail the whole
66 Keith Jarretts Solo Concerts: Style and the Improvised
momentum of the groove, resulting in the disintegration of the musical fabric. The
drama of this particular passage stems from more than just the musical effect of this
clash between the two parts. Those left-hand lines represent a physical intrusion into
the music. In contrast to the rest of the blues vamp where the left hand remains in
essentially the same position over the keyboard, it now moves in a completely
different way, ascending and descending in irregular cycles. Those continuing octave
ascents threaten to encroach on the very territory still guarded by the right hand. The
key point is this: at this moment, the improviser is heard to intrude into the musical
discourse, forcing the improvisation in a new direction by disrupting the rhythmic
momentum of the vamp.
This example represents what I am going to call a moment of transgression. The
transgression is a breaking of the normative expectations of the vamp. This device is
heard as a clear and intentional disruption to the flow of the music. It is a kind of
dramatic rhetorical gesture in which the scaffolding that holds the music together is
dismantled, or rather swept deliberately aside. This gesture might be understood to
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represent what the critic John Corbett calls a quest for reterritory, or, rather, a
deliberate courting of the unknown by rejecting the familiar.40 The result is that at
this moment the presence of the improviser comes to the foreground. In other words,
the musical intrusion of the left hand into the vamp functions as a sign of the
intrusion of the improviser into the music. This is significant in a number of respects.
First, in the solo concerts, Jarrett encourages the audience to make a considerable
investment in the performance, emphasising their role as participants and not just
observers. Jarrett has often emphasized that this investment relates to the risks he
takes when performing in this context.41 Second, there is the ideology out of which
the solo concerts come. As I explained earlier, this ideology leans towards a
romanticised conception of performance as motivated by an external higher source of
inspiration. Taken in this way, the presence of the improviser in the music at this
point accentuates the aesthetic of risk, and it points attention away from a
romanticised conception of improvisation, towards a more physically-grounded
performer-centred one. Indeed, this might even be considered as a kind of breaking
of the spell; the presence of the improviser at this moment shatters any illusions that
this music exists beyond the physical body that produces it.
I have suggested that the analysis of Jarretts solo improvisations and their
underlying architecture might involve the identification of the fundamental stylistic
templates which he appears to draw on. These templates seem to function as
something akin to what Jeff Pressing calls referents, as they serve to provide
parameters which guide the generation of music.42 By using styles in recognisable
figurations and progressions, Jarrett sets up patterns which not only create expressive
effects, but which can then be transgressed in order to convey the taking of risk.
Because of a performance context in which the spectacle of improvisation takes

See Corbett, Ephemera Underscored, 225.
For more on this matter, see Ake, Jazz Cultures, and Elsdon Listening.
Pressing, Cognitive Processes.
Jazz Perspectives 67

centre stage, this music is heard to be improvised, and is heard as a reflection of the
creative process itself. For this reason, moments of transgression may have particular
dramatic impact and are likely to be perceived as representing Jarrett leaving behind
the familiar in favour of the unknown. In order to study forms of improvised music
such as this, it is perhaps necessary to construct an analytical strategy which is capable
of dealing both with conformance and digression, and to recognise the expressive
effects that music like this can have.

My thanks go to the two anonymous readers whose comments proved invaluable in
preparing this article for publication. All musical examples are used by permission of
Cavelight Music.

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This article outlines an approach to analysing Keith Jarretts solo improvisations. I

explore an approach based on topical theory, suggesting that Jarrett seems to employ
a range of recognisable styles as a means of creating formal architecture. Using the
1973 Solo Concerts recording as an example, I examine three styles: ballad style, folk
ballad style, and blues vamp style. I consider how Jarrett employs styles in certain
configurations, resulting in specific kinds of expressive effects. I also explore how in
transgressing these patterns Jarrett is able to convey the notion of risk, in a context in
which the spectacle of improvisation comes very much to the fore.

Keywords: Keith Jarrett, improvisation, solo concerts

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