Keith Jarrett and Bach, from 1987

Thirty-two years ago, pianist Keith Jarrett mesmerized an audience in upstate New York with Bach, and now that the recording has finally been released, WCRB has chosen it as our CD of the Week.

Pianist Keith Jarrett has long been a global phenomenon – a rare and unique musician known and loved not only for his soulful adventures in jazz improvisation, but also for his recordings of classical music (Bach, Mozart, Shostakovich, Handel, Hovhaness, Harrison, and more). When he turned seventy in 2015, Jarrett told NPR’s Rachel Martin about an incident when he was young that helped him to realize that he couldn’t remain exclusively in the classical universe:

I missed my entrance in a very simple Mozart piece because I was
listening to the orchestra and they sounded so beautiful. And the conductor
turned around and said, "Don't listen." That ruined me, man. That destroyed
my interest in constantly staying in that world, because my main job is
listening. If you're improvising and you're not listening, the next second
that comes up, you have nothing to say.

In 1987, when he was 42, Jarrett made a studio recording of Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier – 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys that stand as a towering monument to the expressive power of the multi-layered world of counterpoint. Before the release of that recording, Jarrett played the preludes and fugues live in upstate New York at the beautiful Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. And now, the archival recording of that evening has been released on CD.

Bach and Jarrett have in common a reverence for the improvisatory, organic nature of music, so there’s a special quality to this recording’s live-in-concert feel. There are beautiful moments that savor the space and the impending silence, as in the 8th prelude (track 15) where Jarrett hangs slightly behind the beat and gives the solo lines an elegant vulnerability. He is masterful and discrete with the Steinway’s pedal, using it to add and take away color and expression – conjuring the human voice, from full-throated to whispering. The famous first prelude in C (track 1) is instantly communicative, but gentle and never pushed in the way it unfolds.

When he released the studio recording of these pieces, Jarrett wrote: “This music does not need my assistance. The melodic lines themselves are expressive to me.” The ECM record label makes note of a beautiful sentence Jarrett gave to Fanfare magazine in 1994: “When you’re an improviser, there’s a certain shimmer to the motion of things. It’s a dance.”

Click here for Rachel Martin’s interview with Keith Jarrett in 2015.

And here, for a fascinating interview he did long ago for Swedish TV.

Listen to a track from this album:

For more information and to purchase this album, visit ArkivMusic.