You don’t have to be an asshole to succeed in jazz, despite ample evidence to the contrary in both the fictive world of La La Land and on the real-life stage of Carnegie Hall this month. In La La Land, the unlikely smash of a movie musical, the male lead Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) stands by his ideal of absolute, uncompromising individuality—represented efficiently by that enduring symbol of arcane authenticity, jazz—to the frustration of his employers and his audience, as well as his girlfriend. She, the gifted but struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone), eventually sees him as a saintly purist, and not merely the obstinate jerk he is to others. The film is a fable of asshole-ism as the zealot’s curse, a very old story retold with cheeky visual flair and hot young bodies.
In Carnegie Hall, on the evening of February 15, a sold-out audience had firsthand experience with an actual, flesh and blood jazz star—the pianist Keith Jarrett, who has for decades now stood as the living embodiment of absolute, uncompromising individuality in music. Now 71, Jarrett has stood as an exemplar of the art of improvisation since 1975, when ECM records released a sinuous, continuous solo performance he had given at the Opera House in Cologne. Packaged as a double-album set, The Köln Concert sold some 3.5 million copies to become the best-selling jazz piano album of all time.
The extraordinary success of The Köln Concert, and the Jarrett phenomenon more broadly, is partly a function of the music’s accessibility to listeners not well steeped in jazz. Early in The Köln Concert, Jarrett finds two simple chords he likes (A minor 7 and G major—adjacent chords with no black notes) and stays on them for more than 10 minutes. Listening to him feeling his way around these chords, I’ve always found myself caught up in the wonder of discovery. There’s no flamboyant show of bravura technique, none of the virtuoso busyness that tends to alienate listeners untrained in the byzantine vocabulary of bebop or free jazz. There’s simplicity and warmth in much of Jarrett’s playing in The Köln Concert—and the many solo concerts to follow it—that is not far removed from the feeling of the plaintive, unjazzy solo piano piece that Ryan Gosling plays as the romantic leitmotif in La La Land.
The other secret of the Jarrett phenomenon is, of course, Jarrett himself—or the cult of Jarrett as a singular genius blessed with supernatural access to the improvisational muse. For 40 years now, Jarrett has thrived as an international celebrity whose music qualifies as jazz but whose place in the public imagination transcends genre. Although he no longer performs the seamless, open-ended concerts that first brought him fame, his image is still grounded in that music. ECM records has recently released a four-CD boxed set of vintage solo concerts in Italian opera houses recorded in October 1996, a marketing event that coincided neatly with the recent Carnegie Hall performance.
The evening had the atmosphere of a major cultural occasion, a rarity in jazz these days. Seated to my right, I spotted Ethan Iverson, the brilliant pianist and composer best known for his work in the trio The Bad Plus. A few seats to my left, I noticed Bill Frisell, the wonderful, category-crumbling guitarist and composer. The music writer Ashley Kahn, who was sitting in front of me, told that Brad Mehldau, another superb contemporary pianist, was in the house, somewhere in front of us, although I didn’t see him.