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Keith Jarrett. The Art of Improvisation
An in-depth DVD portrait.
Bonus; the Keith Jarrett Trio in concert, playing Butch and Butch, Tokyo 1993 and 30 minutes of exclusive interviews with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock.
Picture Format PAL 16:9 Sound Format PCM Stereo Region Code 0 Subtitles GB D F I E Disc Format DVD9
Directed and narrated by Mike Dibb. Produced by Danny Nissim and Mike Dibb
EUROARTS DVD 2054119 [84.00 + 42.00 bonus footage]

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This is apparently the first extended documentary with Keith Jarrett as the subject. It avoids the tyranny of a chronological approach and instead evokes the spirit of improvisation, one that which animates the whole enterprise. The unseen interlocutor is Mike Dibb and his questions encourage Jarrett's reserved wit and humour to surface, as well as his acute perception when it comes to his own music and musical development. More, small but significant, information emerges in the extra features about his withdrawn parents and this goes some way to unravelling some of the more gnomic utterances Jarrett has made over the years.

We hear that Jarrett learned the art of improvisation through classical music. He was something of a recital prodigy - which renders the classical recordings he's made of Bach, Handel and others very much more explicable and as one more exceptional gift at his disposal. In one of the most penetrating asides he notes that for him improvisation goes "from zero to zero" whereas classical players think of it as a connective device that leads "from one thing to another" - for example a concerto cadenza. For aficionados one can trace his lineage, on his own admission, to Ahmad Jahmal and it's an admiration just short of veneration shared by the members of his Standards Trio, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock.

That weird half crouching, half standing, feet pumping playing style owes its origin to his intense involvement in the act of improvisation - a level of involvement that he doesn't feel when he plays classical music. There are nuggets of this kind, throughout; his interest in Gurdieff and the music of the East, how he had "fun" in Miles Davis' band "but not with my own instrument" - he played an electronic keyboard and elsewhere we rather get the impression that the fun was tempered by exceptional frustration. We also see Jarrett's real "other" instrument, the soprano saxophone, which he played throughout the 1970s and of which he speaks with fondness and also not a little pride; he certainly cultivated an individual sonority and concept on it, certainly influenced by his liking for the eastern and the avant-garde.

We see Jarrett playing in his long favoured ECM studios and hear from his staunch admirer and producer Manfred Eicher; if ever there was a case of symbiosis in a recording studio this is it. Beyond the non-linear, non chronological approach, itself a kind of improvised dialogue we see valuable snippets of Jarrett with the Charles Lloyd Quartet and with Miles Davis; a lyrical interlude is provided by Gary Burton whose sole recorded meeting with Jarrett proved to be so memorable. It’s useful too to learn of Jarrett’s almost obsessive conduct. He asks for the same room in the same hotel in Tokyo – and has been doing so for the last thirty years. As someone wryly comments, the formality of Japanese life appeals to Jarrett – and one could add comes as a startling counter-balance to the volcanic performances Jarrett gives on stage. Other interviewees include Dewey Redman and Chick Corea, the former formidably articulate, the latter relaxed and seemingly star-struck. We also hear briefly about Jarrett’s debilitating illness; it was Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and in the aftermath we hear that Jarrett is not writing very much at all now.

The bonus footage includes a trio performance of "Butch and Butch" and revealing interviews with DeJohnette and Peacock. I won’t spoil your fun by repeating the allusions to Picasso-esque drumming or to their insider’s view of Bill Evans (well I will; Jarrett is more polyphonic, Evans harmonic). Only a few things jarred; the bonus interviews are slightly but noticeably (thus infuriatingly) out-of-sync. And the production sometimes inserts talking head boxes - usually Jarrett chatting - superimposed over a filmed performance. I can live without that kind of thing; what’s wrong with a voice-over? Still, Jarrett emerges as a thoughtful though not fulsome interviewee. His fingers, and the mind that animates them, are articulate enough. If the writer is always less articulate than his words, then the musician is usually less eloquent than his music.

Jonathan Woolf

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