In 2005, the great jazz pianist Keith Jarrett released a solo piano CD entitled Radiance. In the liner notes, Jarrett stated, “Everything on these discs is completely improvised.”
Jarrett has made a cult out of his improvisatory skill (his Köln Concert remains the bestselling solo piano record of all time, and one of his DVDs is entitled The Art of Improvisation). And with Radiance, his rhetoric seemed to reach a new peak. In an interview about the CD he gave to The New York Times, he said, “I needed to get rid of stuff in my own brain that I was using as the raw material for my art. . . . If I can say I’m experienced at something, I guess it’s acting as a conduit. I know how to get to that place where that line is about as open as can be.” And in the liner notes, he wrote, “My career [has] a lot to do with transforming energy into something new each time. . . . The material [here is] seemingly unmotivated by any concept at all. . . . I didn’t want any premature resolutions. . . . I had in mind letting the music happen to me without sitting there deep in thought. I wanted my hands to tell me things.”
In other words, according to Jarrett, he clears his mind of preconceptions, moves away from any music that he might have previously played or heard, and simply lets his fingers carry him away, improvising purely, without “melodic--or even motivic--content,” to quote his liner notes once more.
Radiance is a terrific record, full of emotional peaks and valleys, but it’s wildly eclectic. One moment he’s imitating Prokofiev, the next he’s playing gospel. Some of his music is rather original, but most of it is utterly derivative. And exactly how improvised is it?
“Part 6” is one of several Chopinesque moments on Radiance. But it’s a bit too Chopinesque, isn’t it? Compare it to Chopin’s Nocturne op. 55 No. 1 In F minor (here played by Artur Rubinstein). It’s not the same piece, but it’s eerily similar in several ways. Jarrett uses not only the same harmonic and melodic language but most of the same chords in his opening theme.
So if something is really quite unoriginal, can it be said to be “completely improvised”? Jazz improvisers usually take as a basis a set of chord changes and improvise around them; Jarrett, instead, takes as a basis a certain style and improvises around it. Just as most jazz improvisers will improvise over a number of different tunes in a concert, Jarrett improvises over a number of different musical styles.
We shouldn’t consider this kind of improvisation any more pure or creative or, as Jarrett puts it, “transformative,” than Coleman Hawkins improvising on “Body and Soul” or Charlie Parker on the chords of “I Got Rhythm.” For a long time, fooled by his rhetoric, I thought Jarrett was more in-the-moment, more absolutely improvisatory, and therefore more authentically in touch with his creative impulses than other jazz musicians. I no longer think so. Jarrett is definitely not “faking it,” and his music is indeed “completely improvised.” But his rhetoric seems overblown.
What about Jarrett’s free jazz pieces, as exemplified by most of the music on his brilliant 2002 release Always Let Me Go, as well as certain tracks on Radiance? Free jazz is often defined as jazz without set chords, rhythms, or melodies. Yet why should improvising without them be favored in any way over improvising with them? The skill and inspiration required to do each is much the same. I find Jarrett’s “free” and tonal improvisations equally satisfying.
Certainly some jazz musicians improvise more than others. Quality of improvisation is also fair game for discussion. But, like authenticity, absolute improvisation is a goal that can never be reached. No matter how skilled you are at freeing your mind from preconceptions, you cannot improvise completely free from everything you have heard in your life; you cannot, as Jarrett so often seems to imply, reinvent your music on the spot. At the heart of every improvisation will always be something you already knew.