Matthew Shipp Talks Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette’s Somewhere

I have struggled long and hard to evaluate the position that Keith Jarrett's music occupies in the hierarchy of the jazz industry. I have always...

People often ask, “Are there ever negative pieces in the Talkhouse?” There sure are, and we figured it was time for a week’s worth of outstanding pans. It does take a little gumption to knock the work of one of your peers in such a high-profile forum, but plenty of Talkhouse writers have registered their displeasure. As ever, though, they do so from a musician’s perspective, a rare and very valuable point of view. Best of all, the pieces come from a place of respect… usually. But we’ll let you decide.
— The editors of Talkhouse Music

I have struggled long and hard to evaluate the position that Keith Jarrett’s music occupies in the hierarchy of the jazz industry. I have always felt a tremendous amount of pretense surrounding his whole universe. Of course he has some real skill, and sometimes sounds inspired. But I just can’t get past the layers and layers and layers of pretension. I’ve tried. Maybe it’s just me.

In the ’70s, as a teenager I struggled to make sense out of what was, to me, the pseudo jazz/new age meandering that was the completely improvised solo piano concerts that he did. He never seemed to me to have sculpted a specific language system, but instead seemed like someone who had a lot of piano chops and knew a lot of devices from classical music and had some jazz chops and could get a line going when needed. Sometimes the devices sort of sometimes fell together and worked — sometimes — but a lot of times they did not. It seemed to me at the time to never get beyond the devices and matriculate into an actual language. He peddled a rhetoric around his solo work like he was channeling from the void, or translating the music from some platonic realm of pure forms. That is all fine and well. That type of talk has always been around the music, and I have used that mode of philosophy as a way to fuel my art too.

Cecil Taylor, who was also doing solo concerts in the 1970s, used language of that sort to talk about what he did. But on some level Taylor knows that it’s a poetic metaphor — even if it’s true on some level — and he actually has to construct a real language to live up to the mythos. When Jarrett talks this talk one gets the sense that he did not intuit that it is a poetic metaphor — though rooted in truth — it seems to me that Jarrett actually thought he was a god, and anything he played, whether it was vapid, watered-down impressionist devices or insipid vamps, was sacrosanct just because he was Keith Jarrett.

So what does this have to do with this trio record, Somewhere, which was recorded live in Lucerne in 2009? Well, first of all, there is some nice music on the disc. That should be all that matters. I should be able to get past what I perceive as the Jarrett pretense and just enjoy what is here for what it is. I’m having a hard time with that.

Guess my main beef is the tremendous status that is accorded to Jarrett’s trio — with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, they’ve been together for 30 years now — by middle-aged white jazz critics. I just fail to see what makes his trio playing standards any more ”state of the art” or dynamic than any number of African-American pianists I can think of. Just for example, take someone like Joe Sample. He has a holistic sense of the piano, where the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic elements arise out of a unitary matrix. He has impeccable articulation. The melodic tissue of his motifs are exactly that, melodic, and his syntax is completely original. He can do long looping phrases and gather a hypnotic storm, and if he decided to play a vamp Jarrett would have to leave the room.

I guess what I am getting at is I don’t think Jarrett’s work lives up to the hype as a mature artistic statement. Somewhere feels like a dated trio concept. It does not even live up to its predecessors. It has none of the austerity and depth of the early ’60s Bill Evans/Scott LaFaro/Paul Motian trio or of Paul Bley as, say, on the 1963 Sonny Rollins/Coleman Hawkins album Sonny Meets Hawk! — Bley’s playing on that album is the template for a lot of Jarrett’s straight-ahead work.

To be fair, on the uptempo numbers Keith can gather some steam and get a line really going; he can phrase all over the place and approach the changes from some oblique angles, but I personally don’t really buy into his phrasing. What can I say? I worship the phrasing of Bud Powell-Monk-Hampton Hawes and Phineas Newborn, Jr. Even when Jarrett gets a sort of hypnotic line going it does not have the same internal dynamism to me that these other gentleman have. The ballad playing on Jarrett’s album I have nothing to say about — it goes nowhere; likewise with the vamping on the insipid title cut —when it comes to vamping I worship Mal Waldron.

I am not a music writer — just an asshole musician — so I don’t put any weight behind my taste. It’s just that — my taste. There is some nice stuff on Somewhere — although some of it sounds like watered-down Muzak to me — and if you buy into Jarrett’s universe you will most likely like this record, but if you don’t there is nothing here to get you pass the tremendous pretense.

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Matthew Shipp is a pianist and composer. You can visit his website here.