Review: Keith Jarrett in London

Michael Tucker witnesses Keith Jarrett's sold-out first London solo performance since 2008, extraordinarily the first time special audience member Jan Garbarek had seen Jarrett live since 1979, the last year they worked together in the Belonging quartet

Billed as "The Solo Concert", Keith Jarrett's latest visit to the Royal Festival Hall (25 February 2013) drew the predictable full house: I'm told the event, promoted by Serious, sold out within a few days of its being announced. In the audience were Jarrett's producer, Manfred Eicher, the British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova – whose striking cello concerto is soon to be released on ECM New Series, together with some of her chamber pieces for strings – and Jan Garbarek, who had flown in from Norway especially for the occasion: extraordinarily enough, he hadn't heard Jarrett live since 1979, the last year they worked together in the Belonging quartet, and this was his first experience of a Jarrett solo concert.

As has been the case with the most recent ECM solo releases of concerts of his in New York, London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro, Jarrett eschewed the lengthy, ever-evolving improvisations of earlier days to offer instead a range of more overtly formed and focused perspectives on the improviser's art. Two ecstatically received sets of around 45 and 35 minutes (the latter fleshed out by four encores) each featured some six or seven pieces, ranging from scurrying if thickly bodied passages of seemingly arhythmic chromaticism to hymnal excursions into the sort of tenderly reflective and open-voiced tonality which the pianist has long made his own. The blues were there, in various passages of vamp-driven energy which found Jarrett stomping out his own rhythm accompaniment. So too was the world of standards which the Jarrett trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette has done so much to celebrate over past decades: a strongly rhythmic look at Summertime and a beautifully intimate reading of Miss Otis Regrets (the second encore) were highlights of the second part of the concert.

As wonderful as Jarrett's touch, sound and improvisatory love of melody remain, I found a fair portion of this concert much less riveting than I suspect I would have done 30 or more years ago. For all I know, this might have been the case for Jarrett himself, who had just come down with a cold. He spent quite some time talking to the audience, rather than playing: in a very friendly, almost Woody Allen-like manner, it must be said, even pausing at one point to invite suggestions for what sort of chord he might use to commence a piece – although he could not resist his customary dig at the world of the snapshot photographer. A Keith Jarrett solo concert has long been – at least in the eyes of some of the paying customers – as much an event as a performance and I had the unwelcome thought at some moments that what we were being invited to enjoy was not so much Keith Jarrett playing music as only he can, but Keith Jarrett being Keith Jarrett – as only he can.

So was Jan Garbarek's trip over from Norway worth the time and the effort? Along with the vast majority of the ultra-attentive and extraordinarily appreciative audience, Jarrett's colleague from the days of such classic ECM albums as Belonging, Arbour Zena, My Song and (the recently released) Sleeper had no doubts: "Oh, certainly! From the first note, he was there in the music, and he brought us to be there also, all the way through."

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