A capacity crowd in an unusually somber mood converged on Symphony Center on Saturday night to hear what was billed as Keith Jarrett's "first solo piano recital in Chicago since 1985 and his only solo recital in North America in 2007." No pressure, Keith…!
A pre-concert announcement informed us that the performance was being recorded and to therefore refrain from extraneous noises and coughing — so the audience responded in turn with a chorus of coughs followed by tittering, self-satisfied chuckling. Welcome to Chicago in February.
Mr. Jarrett was greeted by riotous applause as he appeared on stage wearing dark sunglasses and what appeared to be the same austere outfit worn during two previous appearances here with his trio.
Surprisingly, he began by speaking to the audience using a stand-up microphone set up on the side of the stage, grasping at tenuous Chicago connections from his past and even calling out an audience member for illegally recording: "I can see those two little red lights… you should at least change the color or unscrew the bulbs."
In general, I was taken aback by Keith's chattiness — throughout the evening he frequently addressed us from the mic and the piano, name dropping philosophers and classical composers, debating the relative merits of American vs. German pianos, and once even wondering aloud what to play next… "how do I follow myself?" I have to wonder — Is this a common occurrence at his solo concerts that gets edited out of the recordings, or was he just in a talkative, Midwestern mood?
His often playful demeanor even extended to a large white towel he periodically used to wipe the sweat from his brow — at one point relishing the sound of dropping it onto the Steinway strings repeatedly, and later revealing that "I tell my grandchildren I get paid to fold towels on stage" (Many Jarrett fanatics in attendance would probably pay good money to see that, actually).
A few misguided groupies even attempted to talk back to Keith, shouting out things like "you're great," "thanks for all you give", and "easy on the starch!" I'm glad these folks were having a fun time, but it sort of ruined the mood for the rest of us (and probably reduces the likelihood that a CD of this concert will ever be released… at least that guy on the Main Floor was recording it for himself.)
One brave soul even dared to cough loudly during the performance, prompting a visibly annoyed Mr. Jarrett to request "one more… one more…" before resuming his playing. Keith is arguably his own worst distraction, however, and his trademark standing, gyrating, stomping, grimacing, singing, and groaning were in full force during the entire concert. While this eccentric behavior is presumably sincere and inadvertent, I admit I was sometimes a little irritated by it and almost embarrassed on his behalf.
As for the actual music, anyone familiar with Mr. Jarrett's recent solo piano recordings — Radiance, Tokyo Solo, and The Carnegie Hall Concert – probably knew what to expect here in Chicago: a series of relatively short, self-contained improvised movements exploring wildly divergent styles and emotions.
Gone are the epic, grandiose solo gestures that were Jarrett's original claim to fame, heard most notably on Bremen/Laussane, La Scala, and the blockbuster Koln Concert, where musical ideas evolved spontaneously and flowed organically over extended time periods.
Instead, Jarrett now serves up a buffet-style tasting menu of sorts that surveys the full breadth of his pianistic powers in concise, bite-sized chunks: from polytonal boogie-woogie to 12-bar blues vamps to anthemic balladry to post-Impressionistic tone paintings to atonal chromatic finger-busters to tender melancholic melodies.
Although he proudly proclaimed that his concert would be "100% analog" during his opening remarks, Keith's new formula is ideally suited to the random iPod Shuffling of our digital age.
Despite this disjointed and sometimes quite jarring approach, Mr. Jarrett's uncanny ability to conjure elegant counterpoint, rich harmonies, varied dynamic shadings, and soaring melodies from his instrument at will was consistently awe-inspiring and often breathtaking.
Predictably, he rewarded the boisterous, rock star-worthy applause with five encores: a wistful rendition of Cole Porter's underplayed "Miss Otis Regrets," a rapid-fire, almost barrelhouse romp on "You Took Advantage of Me," something lovely that sounded sort of like "Easy Living" but probably wasn't, another gorgeous ballad that I couldn't identify, and — last but definitely not least — one of Jarrett's signature closers, a stunningly beautiful "When I Fall In Love."