This past Friday ECM released a four-CD box set entitled A Multitude of Angels. Each disc documents one of four nights of improvised solo piano performances given by Keith Jarrett in Modena, Ferrara, Turin, and Genoa, respectively. Each concert consisted of two uninterrupted improvised sets whose durations ran between about 30 minutes and about 45 minutes. Both the Ferrara and Genoa concerts also have brief improvised encores. The Modena concert concludes with a brief account of the “Londonderry Air,” specified in the track listing (on the Amazon.com Web page but not in the accompanying booklet) as Frederic Weatherly’s “Danny Boy.” Genoa, on the other hand, concludes with Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.”
ECM has been documenting these extended solo improvisations since the release of Jarrett’s 1973 concerts in Bremen and Lausanne, originally packaged as three LPs and now available as a two-CD set. The Multitude of Angels sessions take place almost a quarter of a century later, in October of 1996. Capture was made with Jarrett’s own Digital Audio Tape recording equipment. As is the case with all Jarrett recordings, the source content was prepared for production by Manfred Eicher.
Jarrett is far from the only pianist to work on solo improvisation at such an extended scale of duration. In my own listening experience the most memorable pianist to have done so was Cecil Taylor (which is my way of confessing that my encounters with Jarrett’s efforts have only been through recordings). It would be absurd to try to compare these two pianists. Taylor has always be way out there in the domain of innovative approaches to organizing sound (to take on a phrase that John Cage used to like to use when he would be accused of not “making music”). Jarrett’s improvisations, on the other hand, seem to be reflections on his own past encounters with the piano keyboard, perhaps going all the way back to his first piano lessons (which predated his third birthday).
At the risk of sounding overly reductive, one might say that Taylor has always been seeking out new paths in theory, while Jarrett’s preference has always been for practice. Nevertheless, as performers, both of them are, and always have been, solid practitioners. Perhaps a better distinction would be Taylor’s preference for the objective, while Jarrett has been more inclined to the unabashedly subjective. Ironically, both of them have been known for vocalizing while playing (more aggressively than Glenn Gould, who was frequently called out for doing the same); but Jarrett’s interjections often give the impression of personalized reflection. He, himself, has claimed that vocalizing is a form of interacting with the keyboard work that enhances what he is trying to achieve through improvisation. (It is important to note that, unlike Gould, Jarrett never vocalizes when playing from classical scores.)
Nevertheless, such subjectivity raises a question. If most of those listening to Jarrett, either in concert or through recording, know little, if anything, about his personal life, how significant is subjectivity to the listening experience itself? To invoke Cage again, a Jarrett improvisation is a little bit like wandering through the woods in search of mushrooms. Jarrett clearly knows those woods well, knows the best places to find the mushrooms, and is then happy to show them off to anyone interested. Concert listeners, on the other hand, probably have no idea where those woods are, let alone why Jarrett has chosen to go there. Nevertheless, I remember hunting for mushrooms with Cage on a particularly dry day, when he remarked that sometimes one walks in the woods just for the sake of walking in the woods. (We ended up looking at lichen patterns through a magnifying glass.) Any listener willing to accept this premise should have no trouble making any number of fascinating encounters on his/her own walk in Jarrett’s woods, regardless of any motivations Jarrett may have had for being there. Is this approach to listening any different from how we might approach a symphony by Anton Bruckner?