Keith JarrettRITUAL, a forgotten masterpiece

Spotlights 13.01.2022

A year before his famous concert in Cologne (1975), which became one of the best-selling records in the history of jazz and one of the most iconic improvisations for a whole generation, Keith Jarrett composed a work for solo piano that he would never play. This piece was intended for the young pianist and conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who recorded it in 1977 but only released it in 1982 on the famous German label of Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM. On the occasion of the French premiere of this piece by Maki Namekawa (wife of D. R. Davies) at the Philharmonie de Paris on May 7, we return to this forgotten masterpiece that is Ritual by Keith Jarrett.

In October 2020, when Keith Jarrett announced to the media that he was definitively stopping his career as a pianist following two strokes, it was a terrible thunderclap in the world of jazz but also in the world of so-called "classical" music. From the 1970s onwards and for more than twenty years, Keith Jarrett devoted himself to the "great" repertoire (is there a small one?) with recordings devoted to Bach, Mozart, Handel, Bartok, Shostakovich or Barber, but also to his contemporaries such as Alan Hovhaness (it was just after recording Ritual D. R. Davies introduced Keith Jarrett to Hovhaness' music, which they recorded together), Lou Harrison, Arvo Pärt and the composers Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Carla Bley

These versions have nothing to envy to those of an established classical pianist, as Manfred Eicher confided to Jazz Magazine in 2015: "[Keith Jarrett] has proved to be a scrupulous interpreter, very faithful to the letter as well as to the spirit of the compositions, and if some jazz lovers may have been disoriented by this apparent classicism, he has gradually earned the respect of classical music specialists." A simple example: Jarrett won hands down in a blind listening session( Record Critics' Tribune - 09/02/2020) in Bach's Sixth French Suite before Ton Koopman, Gustav Leonhardt and Christophe Rousset combined. 

Of course, what we remember of Keith Jarret's immense career are certainly his solo concerts such as the Köln Concert or the Sun Bear Concerts in Japan, his various collaborations with Jan Garbarek, Paul Motion, Gary Peacock or Jack DeJohnnette etc., but among all his original non-improvised compositions - often underestimated - (Arbour Zena, In the Light Luminessence ), one work generally passes over the radar of Jarrett's admirers even though it contains the very essence of the Jarrettian universe: Ritual

The genesis of this piece is clearly explained on the back cover of the 1982 release by the performer himself, Dennis Russell Davies : 'I first worked with Keith Jarrett when I was conducting a programme of new music with the Ensemble at Lincoln Center in New York in 1974. On that occasion Keith played the solo part of Carla Bley's '3/4'. In addition to his enormous improvisational talent, I was very impressed with his love and playing of the piano [...] During one of the many intense rehearsal periods, Keith - who had been hearing on the piano - told me about a new work, 'Ritual', which he wanted me to perform. While working on this piece, I felt an enormous satisfaction in being able to express, through Keith's music, my admiration for his artistic talent. [...] Those who know Keith will hear him in this music - it could not have been written by anyone else."

Unlike all of Jarrett's piano works, this piece is entirely written out from beginning to end with no freedom of improvisation given to the performer. For more than thirty minutes and in one piece Ritual develops a simple, highly repetitive initial melodic motif in a cyclical fashion reminiscent of Liszt and his B minor Sonata - also half an hour long and in one piece. Although improvisation is banished and Jarrett's distinctive touch is absent, listening to the piece one finds everything that makes the pianist's art: introspective melodies of great sensitivity, virtuoso flights of fancy, rhythmic motifs that seem to stall, and the enormous energy typical of Jarrett that makes you want to stamp your feet, breathtakingly long ostinatos and a treatment of the piano that looks as much to the past (chorales in the Elizabethan style) as to the contemporaries (treatment of the piano like a gamelan or a xylophone with the two hands parallel in the high notes) and to the jazzmen - harmony, of course - with phrasings in the style of Paul Bley or outbursts like John Coates Junior.
Listening in full, one finds above all a fervour and a mystical atmosphere specific to the musical universe of the controversial Greek-Armenian mystic George I. Gurdjieff transcribed by Thomas de Hartmann. Keith Jarrett became very close to Gurdjieff's philosophy in the 1960s through his encounter with saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who introduced him to his writings. Jarrett recorded an anthology of Gurdjieff/Hartmann piano pieces for ECM in 1980; Sacred Hymns

The character of the music in 'Ritual' certainly gives a lot of scope for varied interpretations and questions of phrasing, balance and dynamics can and should be resolved differently by each performer and each performance. Keith has always strictly separated his performances of notated music (Mozart, J.S. Bach, Shostakovich) from his work as an improviser. Indeed, in his wonderful recordings of six Mozart piano concertos for ECM, he invariably performed cadenzas composed by Mozart. His melodic playing of Mozart reveals his genius for singing with a sense of spontaneity. That was my goal with this work. "Ritual" is not a written improvisation, but listening to Keith's trio performances, solo improvisations and classical performances can serve as a guide to approaching this fully notated work that fully reveals his love for the modern piano."

But then, what does this piece lack in order to get the recognition it deserves from music lovers and musicians? The touch of Keith Jarret himself? The almost magical 'atmosphere' of the live solo improvisations? The spontaneous and inexplicable sound poetry that arises from the ineffability of an unprepared concert?

One of the answers to this lack of enthusiasm may come from the musical misunderstanding that remains with Keith Jarrett. The jazz world denies him the fact that he is a true jazzman because his improvisations draw from classical, rock, folk, minimalist and Indian music. Jazz lovers also reproach him for his incredible sense of sound exploration, which is not rigorous or jazz enough. And the classical world refused to give him credit for his interpretations of the great composers. Today, almost 45 years after its composition, Ritual , with its rich inspiration, rigorous writing and brilliant hybridisation of various styles, should interest more than one pianist and charm all the music lovers of 2022. While waiting for this wish to come true, here is the second version of this piece by Richard Trythall, a pianist who is less well known than Davies but just as talented and who has captured Keith Jarrett's universe. He had the great honour of obtaining the original score from Keith Jarrett himself. While waiting for the French premiere by Maki Namekawa, let's hope for a next edition of the piece to popularise it as the Köln Concert and its wonderful The Melody At Night With You were published.

François Mardirossian


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