In the late afternoon of September, 24, 2009, I spent about 90 minutes talking with Keith Jarrett in his home studio in rural New Jersey. Through thick glass, we could see his two grand pianos which, through more thick glass, watched over a lake. Next door was his old farmhouse. The entire compound is wooded, secluded, and peaceful in exactly the way you'd imagine.
I approached the conversation with two aims. On the surface, I hoped to engage Jarrett about the idea that shapes my book -- that talent is a process, not an inborn thing -- and to discuss the particulars of that process in his extraordinary life. My deeper aim, though, was to allow an organic conversation to unfold. Jarrett's work is ultimately about human connection. The secret to any successful interview, even when it is between a spectacular artist and a gushing fan, is to establish a space where two human beings can truly speak with one another. Jarrett, the master of improvisation, gets that.
Below is a lightly-edited transcript. If you read it slowly, you can see a very profound mind not just sharing, but working.
- David Shenk
DS: Thanks so much for taking the time. My idea for these interviews is to talk to extraordinary achievers about the roots of talent and the process of achievement. In the book, I try to defuse longstanding myths of "giftedness" and innate talent. I start with genetics. It turns out that genes, as you may know, interact with everything around them. They're not blueprints with established plans, but more like switches that get turned on and off all the time. So we need to get past the whole idea of nature versus nurture and instead understand nature as constantly intertwined--
KJ: In other words, those people that think I'm a freak of nature and therefore there's no point to trying are wrong, like I've always said. If they're not going to try to do it, they will never find out if it's possible.
DS: Exactly. We can't know our true potential until we put in an extraordinary amount of effort and time. And a lot of other things have to come together. One has to have the right resources, right motivations, and so on.
KJ: Right, the serendipitous part has to be serendipitously in your favor.
DS: So I was hoping we could talk a lot about process.
KJ: I tend to swirl things around. If you start with a question I don't know how to answer, I'll probably answer with another answer to a different question. That's how it works in the music, anyway. Like the question of what to play when it's still quiet? The problem is if you think about it, you're wrong. Thinking is very noisy in a situation like that. If I come on stage and I have a thought in my mind that's musical, that's like noise, that's like digital noise. It might seem like a great idea, but I'm locking myself into this noisy place instead of letting the air get swept into -- in some kind of motion towards who knows what.
DS: So what's the process of clearing out those ideas? Is there an actual meditative process, or do you just tell yourself I'm going to get rid of the ideas and they're gone?
KJ: I don't even know. It's never the same. It depends on environmental factors. I mean, in London, on the new recording, there was a catering lady --- often we have dinner backstage. I'd just been separated from my wife; she'd just been separated from her husband or lover. And that helped me to be distracted from this job I was gonna do -- which is what my job is before I do it, to stay distracted from it. At one point I said to her, "I can't help but thinking about my wife." And when I said that, she pointed at a blank wall and looked at me sternly. It was a blank white wall. So I had a collaborator without her knowing it. This was a collaboration to produce the right state of mind that would be -- not blank, I can't call it blank. I don't like the word "blank." But full of a kind of flux, a kind of energy.
She was somebody I never met. She was in charge of the food. And she got to the dessert and said, "And now we have the naughty parts," and she was English, so she was saying it with her Monty Python accent. And I thought, "This is going to be an interesting dinner if she keeps talking." She said something like, "You guys like doing accents, don't you?" And we said, "Can you do an American accent? And she said, "Yes, but not this second." So there was a thing happening that I haven't seen anywhere else and I never needed it more than that night.
The limo driver on the way to the hall -- the same thing. For some reason, we were just chatting and I thought, "This is good, this is good."
So there's no real meditative process that from the outside looks like it's going on, but I'm sure there's some sort of prioritizing and detoxifying of things inside my system before I do it.
DS: I suppose that if there were a meditative process, that would kind of be setting yourself up to fail --
KJ: Yeah, exactly --
DS: Because if it got interrupted then you'd be upset and--
KJ: And plus I would be seeing myself too clearly. What I want to do is see who I am through the process of the feedback of what occurs on stage. If people knew what they were paying for - [laughs] -- if they knew how psychological it actually was, they might not be interested. It might just seem too heavy duty. But it works because we're all human beings and everybody's listening. They have blood flowing through their body. They have response systems. And almost every concert, something hits them as a personal thing that they can accept and then the rest of the languages I'm using flood in.
I've had people from the audience come backstage and I've asked them about a certain section I can easily describe to them: "What did you go through?" They'll say: "Well, I really got into it when you started doing it, but then you kept doing it. And then I got bored. And then I was really almost upset, I was almost angry, and then something clicked. And I say, "That's exactly what I was going through."
DS: And are you thinking at all about what the audience is feeling when you're doing it -- or is there too much going on?
KJ: Actually, it's close to what I think communion ought to be. I'm trusting that if it resonates for me, it's going to resonate [for them]. I'm my own most merciless critic onstage.
I've seen a real change in the audiences in the last year -- all over, in Europe and America and Tokyo. They can now be quiet and passionate at the same time. It's hard to read them. It's almost as though they were educated at the same school, and the school had to do with listening to my stuff. And whether or not they thought I was lying when I said I came up with this on the spot for twenty years, they just can't keep resisting. [They realize]: "We've gone to a bunch of concerts and they're all different."
DS: So you're saying that up until recently, you noticed a lot of skepticism --
KJ: I wouldn't call it "skepticism" as much as -- they were not able to imagine that I didn't know what I was going to do. Once they get past that point and said, "Yeah, I get it now," they become a different audience. They know I'm curious, I'm coming on stage with an immense curiosity about where things could go. They're coming in with the same curiosity. So that finally meshed. If I hadn't had such a long career, I wouldn't ever have seen this.
I mean, in Naples of all places, which was the last solo concert I played until this moment [on May 18, 2009, Teatro di San Carlo]. I never would have expected that one of the noisiest cities, an Italian city in the south, would have an audience that was so far the quietest. I was going down in dynamics to the point where you can't even sense them on the recording. I could play softer for longer at that concert than I have been able to anywhere else. And yet when things would be over, and they liked a lot, they were Italian and they just went bananas the way a passionate audience does.
DS: So dynamically at least, you are interacting very much with the audience. You make a bigger sound --
KJ: Smaller is the hard part. "The Melody at Night With You," which I recorded in this room, people would ask, "Why don't you do a couple of concerts of things like this?" You have no idea how soft I was playing. Just to get the piano to project in a hall, forgetting whether there's an audience at all, is different than playing in this little studio. But there's one or two pieces on the Naples concert recording that I'm sure I couldn't have played in any other concert. And the place was full. It was an opera house.
••• A 30 second sample from "The Melody at Night with You" •••
DS: This is making me think of one of the most moving four minutes of sound I've ever heard, and that's the encore to Nagoya.
KJ: Nagoya from?
DS: From Sun Bear.
KJ: I haven't heard that music in so long. I believe you.
DS: The beginning is quite loud and the last minute and a half is so quiet. I don't think I've heard that range anywhere else.
KJ: Well, that's one of the reasons I recorded so often in Japan. The Japanese audiences, at least in that period of time were very quiet.
DS: Interesting. Another thing you brought up -- I've read the liner notes to Testament where you wrote about separating from your wife and feeling so vulnerable before these concerts in Paris and London. And that touches on a theme. Quite often, the material that really seems really special to you and Manfred [Eicher, founder of ECM records] is the stuff that was done under --
DS: Yes, exactly. Some kind of really painful condition or severe limitation -- the terrible piano at Koln--
KJ: My back being out.
DS: Your back, right. There's this paradox there: No one wants to be uncomfortable or vulnerable, and yet you must realize at this point that this duress has has so many times led to a magical performance.
KJ: Well, yeah, and I even knew that [with respect to Paris and London, the Testament concerts]. I knew that that would either be true or I wouldn't play again if it wasn't true. Because there was so much pain and I couldn't see clearly into any part of the process. I just knew I had to get to Paris.
Manfred used to say, "Is there somewhere we can screw you up Keith, just before you play?" Because for one of the Bremen concerts that is released, I was on pain pills, I got nausea at the 10-minute soundcheck and I couldn't imagine how I could do a whole concert. And then when went to dinner and I played the show and I was thinking it was a very weak performance. But then a couple of months later, at Jan Garbarek's house, Manfred played me a tape and said, "Guess where this is from." And I said, "Well, I know it's me, but..." I couldn't' figure it out. It was strong, it was very strong. And I said, "It can't be Bremen!" And he said, "Yeah -- it is."
••• A 30 second sample from "Solo Concerts Bremen/Lausanne" •••
That quote at the end of my Testament liner notes was just the most perfect gift from this writer friend "Things are fragile and serendipitous indeed, unbearably so." And Manford said, "Keith, it's like a fermata. It's not an end. It's a fermata." But don't tell me to get sick.
DS: Let's talk about practice. I understand that you're not preparing any tunes for the solo concerts. But do you have a routine in the weeks or months leading up to them?
KJ: When I was younger, I didn't even want to hear piano music [leading up to a concert]. I wanted to be completely unaware of piano sounding things, and then walk on the stage and have it be new, have it be a fresh thing. But now, within two weeks of a tour, I come to the studio at least once a day, at what would normally be concert time. In other words, at approximately 8:30pm, I might practice for an hour. And some of those days, I might be playing the Goldberg Variations, or something that does my fingers good to be moving in a way that's different than what I do when I'm doing solo. And other times I'm doing a sort of dress rehearsal for a solo concert.
DS: As if you're in a concert.
KJ: As if I'm in a concert, but not caring how long something goes on and not being -- actually, very interesting things happen in here that don't happen in live concerts, because I have more patience. So I might be playing some kind of dissonant silliness for quite a bit longer, and because it goes on longer, I find things that I wouldn't find, that I haven't been able to get to very often in public.
If I have a good practice session, meaning something happened that I didn't expect to happen, it just gives me more confidence in the actual thing. "Aha, OK, so that can happen."
DS: You mentioned that you consider yourself much more patient about yourself than the audience--
KJ: I know I'm practicing. I know I'm not recording, so I can let some things go by for minutes that I may not -- if I had it on tape, I might say, "Why did I do this?"
I do record all the solo things, because you never know when they're going to drop off the edge of the cliff. It takes too much physical energy, so there will come a point where I don't do them, so we have to record them. If I hadn't recorded Naples...[grimaces and makes an image of blowing his own brains out].
DS: But you don't record the practices. Do you ever regret that?
KJ: It would just sound really bad in that room. My practice piano isn't...I think it's a good decision.
DS: Of course you know that your fans would love to hear that stuff, regardless of how unvarnished it sounds.
KJ: When a mic is on, that music wouldn't have happened. It's like the particle versus wave problem. It might be a mic that's just sitting there, but when the machines are turned on, I would have to not know that they're on. I would basically have to brought into my studio blindfolded, so I don't walk past the equipment that's turned on. And the mics would have to still be in the bag.
I enjoy the things that vanish -- even when it's fantastic. It's the vanishing part that we shouldn't forget about. The recording thing is always good to have, but...[pause]...I wouldn't have shot myself if Naples wasn't recorded. I would just remember it as a turning point in a lot of things.
The way I think about the practicing it is my undercover work. Even if I had a friend or my wife here, I would never let them in for this. So to record it would almost be like sacrilegious in a strange way.
DS: I get it. So, can I take you back to whenever it was that--
KJ: Yeah, take me. Take me somewhere else, man.
DS: One of the themes from my book, one of the key, say, four or five attitudes that lays the groundwork for becoming great, is a willingness to fail, an eagerness to fail almost, to kind of push it to the edge and see what works and doesn't work. Is that something that resonates with you?
KJ: When I was a teenager, my youngest brother had a lot of issues, and didn't go to school. He couldn't go outside, so he couldn't have friends, so he was basically a prisoner in my mother's house. There was an upright piano there. And occasionally, my brother, knowing zero -- meaning really zero -- about piano, would work out anger or frustration, which he must have had gobs of, by going to the keyboard and just playing some shit. He didn't know what notes he was hitting or what would come out. But I realized there were moments that were so good and they came from his ignorance. I'm not sure he even knew they were good moments. But I found myself thinking: how would a pianist ever -- how do you approach that if you know the instrument?
DS: How do you find the accidental goodness?
KJ: How do you find these surprising combinations...if you have perfect pitch and you know what everything's going to sound like? How do you get past your own [understanding]? Those are barriers. Perfect pitch would lead you to know exactly what it's going to sound like before you're going to play it. So one of the things I do now as part of the risk-taking and have been doing more since "Radiance" [2005 album] is not to play something. If my hands are in a certain position at the keyboard, I don't play in that position -- especially if I've already thought about what that sound is going to be. I just move my hand [away] and say: "Do something."
So there's a direct link between that, which I'm now doing more of, and my experience with hearing my brother. And that the element of surprise -- if you suddenly started speaking in Romanian, it would be like, "He's at the keyboard, but the sound doesn't make any sense." Well, those people that realize that I might be going through the same thing they're going through, maybe they're starting to realize I'm going through these sounds without conscious intent to make a sound I already know in my head. And at a certain point, if that is a surprising point, that creates a language, the beginning of a language. If I can find the substance of that language and not undo it by playing a friendly sound that in the midst of chaos, or playing something that traps me in some other zone, then that's continuous risk. It's continuous risk.
For me, it's more of a risk; the audience wouldn't mind it if they suddenly heard a G major chord show up in the middle of atonality. They probably wouldn't mind it in the way I would mind it. It would cause me to suddenly go, "No, no, no," and then I might never get--I can't go anywhere from there. So I'm somehow working with this unconscious process and then the conscious.
David Chesky said to me one night -- he's a composer. He calls himself an urban composer and he has a high-end record company, makes really good recordings of orchestral things. He said, "You're out of control and in control and I don't know anybody else who does this. If I could do this, I wouldn't compose. I wouldn't hand a bunch of strangers my work. I would go to the piano and do what you're doing."
The first piece in London is dark and slow -- a very searching, dark thing. I had this D flat -- I don't usually take messages; my brain message machine is supposed to be off, but for about 24 hours beforehand, I was being told. "It has to do with D flat major. But it doesn't have to do with D flat major, you're not playing a tonality. Just forget everything else I say." This voice is really complicated. "They'll be combining it with other tonalities that have nothing to do with it. And it's going to be slow." And as I walked onstage in London, I thought, "Shit -- this isn't how I work. What do I do with this? I'm going to have to do it!" At least I'm starting and stopping now, so I can at least do that. It was the beginning of a 45-minute journey.
So a guy came backstage after that, after the concert, and said, "That first thing, that first set -- I'm a musician." I think he was a saxophone player, and he seemed like he probably was a good player. He said, "That had so much unexpected passing things tonality wise that I had to go out and get a glass of water."
••• A 30 second sample from Part 1 of London •••
DS: I hope not during the second piece!
KJ: One of my strengths that no one talks about is programming. That would be the word they'd use, but it's like a recipe for a structure, and that recipe comes to me at the moment I'm about to play and not before. Same for the trio. I behave the same way. So when the trio releases a recording, it's in order, it's never been mixed up. And when solo concerts are released, they're in order. I tried taking one or two pieces from London because we couldn't fit it all on a single CD, and it just collapsed -- the structure collapsed. I listened to it and I said, "No way."
DS: That's exactly the reaction I had when I was trying to pick out a single piece to stream online. I could not do it with the London concert.
KJ: [After the London concert], a listener told me: "I know which ones you improvised." And I said, "What are you talking about?" "Well, you can't have improvised the things that start right on the melody and have a totally integral structure like the last thing in London had to have been written and structured that way because it's too dramatically done." "Well," I said, "you mean I'm hitting the piano very hard, I needed heat therapy." "No, I mean the structure and the melody." I said, "OK, no, those are improvised, sorry."
DS: It's funny that you're hearing this from people, because the Jarrett fans I know don't talk like this at all. They just accept it.
KJ: Well, this was a very naïve [listener]. This isn't a person who knows my work. This was someone who was just introduced to it.
DS: Well, that would I understand. Someone who's coming to it new, you can't believe it.
KJ: Sometimes the melodies are -- when I hear the tapes, I think, "Well, no wonder I'm not writing." And those moments have to do with the previous moments which have to do with the previous playing in the previous track. And that's what makes it hard [to fully grasp]. I understand that.
DS: You mentioned risk before. Is there a feeling of apprehension with that risk?
KJ: Well, there's only two things: it's either stop or go. I may not know where it's going. I may think it was wrong to have ever started it like this. But there's almost always a solution to how to deal with that. I remember some of the things in London, one or two of them being like that and thinking, "How did I get into this? But now this piano has such a rich bottom register..." And there's all this information flying through my head and I'm not thinking thoughts like that, but I'm led to these solutions before I stop, before I absolutely say, "This is bullshit," and stop and start again....But you asked me about?
DS: Just the fear of that, does it become an apprehension ever? It sounds like you're saying no.
KJ: I'm saying no, but the thing I was referring to in Naples which no one can hear now yet, but it will be out, was a very long, very, very soft, very beautiful thing, and I remember being worried about, if I played a wrong note it was just going to stand out like a forever sore thumb. And I remember thinking very much about control, and because I knew this piece -- half of it had already taken place, it had developed into something that was really, really beautiful -- even though I wondered if I had heard the melody somewhere, which happens to me all the time--
DS: Well you can't avoid that; no one can avoid that.
KJ: But as it started to blossom, it was so good, the audience was so quiet and the piano was so absolutely beautiful sounding and I was using the top and bottom registers a lot, and some chords up the piano with my left hand. And I was just saying,"Don't fuck up," to my left hand. "Let's not have any accidents here; this is one place I don't want an accident."
DS: Wow, but that must be a pretty rare thing, because you couldn't live like that.
KJ: Yeah, that was very rare, which is why it's easy for me to think of it. I remember coming off stage thinking, "Phew, wow. I did it." I'm amazed at all the right notes I hit anyway, but I don't usually go through that. Maybe on some encores, if I'm going to play "Over the Rainbow" for an encore again, I'm competing with myself, and I want to find a new place to -- maybe not to compete with it, but maybe tie or something the other version and not have it be redundant. Sometimes encores are difficult. You'll notice there are no encores on [Testament], but there were encores at the concerts. It's the first time we've done that.
DS: Why -- because they just didn't live up to--?
KJ: No, it's just like another world. The way the concerts ended, both of them, was so -- the structures of them were so intact that I said to Manfred, "Look, I'd like to release both concerts, but forget the encores. I know they're good." Maybe we'll do an hour of encores.
DS: Can you talk some more about what you're aware of once the pieces are in motion? Are you planning ahead?
KJ: Well, on both of the new concerts, for example, there are places -- like at the end of the first set in London. It's a tonal thing -- folkish, but like a ballad. And it has a melodic motif that recurs, but never at the same intervals, and never at the same length of time, and never with the same melodic information in between that holds the whole thing together. And I realized after a couple of times landing on that phrase that, you know, it would be good if I produce it again somewhere when it makes sense. And so I kind of had it like a sidebar. That can happen. Not normally, though.
I've ended pieces on the same two notes I started the piece on and I didn't know until I come back and listen to the tunes. They go all over the place and then end with the same two notes -- from the same register.
DS: Power of the unconscious.
KJ: If it indeed should be called the unconscious.
DS: Does that seem like the wrong --
KJ: Yeah, it seems like the wrong word. It really depends on how you define "conscious." You know, when people look at a tree they look at the leaves, they don't look at the spaces between the leaves. They're focused on the tree. I think there's an awareness of spaces or it wouldn't look like a tree to them. In what I'm doing, I think there's an ongoing awareness of lots of things, and I can't say it's unconscious, or even subconscious, it's almost overseeing the entire thing, which is weird. It's hard to call it unconscious. But I don't know what else to call it. I'm not manipulating it, I'm not controlling it by any conscious method I know of, and yet I know what the hell I'm doing which I don't understand. I'm the expert, but I don't know.
DS: Clearly it's best that you don't understand it.
KJ: I think about these things occasionally, and it's good to have dialogue. Music always turns into music. As soon as I play a key, push a key down, there's no theory any more. When I go and I hear a sound on the keyboard, all theories go out the window. If there's something to do with that sound, it's only apparent to me then. And it could be contrary to all rules and regulations.
DS: And you clearly listen to all kinds of music and enjoy all kinds of music. I don't know if it was ever a conscious decision as you got into jazz, to say, "I want to bring all these other elements into jazz." But that is what's happened.
KJ: I was improvising as a kid, but I didn't know what to call it.
DS: What age are we talking about?
KJ: Six, seven. Some of the recital programs would include a piece of mine. And there would always be a program music, like "This is about the jungle." And we'd have a theme and maybe various parts were things I would do more than once, but then I'd just play off. And that was before I'd heard any jazz. It was almost as if jazz absorbed me, because it was the only music that asked you to express yourself and not follow a plan. Or if there is a plan, it's relativity. It's not really the point. The point is to tell your story.
DS: Which is why it's such a strange thing to hear you play classical. Strange in a good way.
KJ: Yeah, it's strange for me too, to hear [me play] it. To play it isn't strange.
DS: I want to ask you about your phrase earlier about being your own severest critic, because that, again, is one of the four or five things that really is absolutely essential for greatness to develop. I don't know if you still feel as though you are severe on yourself as you were in the past.
KJ: Yes, this has not changed. I record every solo concert. Manfred would have released six of those but they aren't out there. They aren't out there because I don't think they're good enough. And because they're a whole, each one of them is a whole, I won't take them apart. I made an exception with Radiance because in each concert, I took one or two things, that were not possible not to include. I've become a more merciless critic -- and therefore I'm a little more satisfied.
DS: Is there also something in you not yet satisfied, saying, "There's more to do."
KJ: My brother said to me a couple of days ago, "Keith, you're so hard on yourself. Now that you're free, why don't you just get a villa in France or something and just be aware of how much you've changed the history of piano, and the hundreds of thousands of people you've touched." And I said, "What are you talking about? That's not how it works." The recent stuff I've done is representative of those selves that inhabited my body at that time, and the things I was going through. It's amazing that something as mechanical and in some ways as thick-headed as a piano is can constantly do more things. That there's just more for it to do.
When you ask about whether I think there's more to do, I don't know. I didn't know when I went to play Naples -- I had no idea why I was in Naples. I remember thinking, "Why the hell did I fly all the way to Naples to play just one concert?" I had to hire a tour assistant, take a lot of medications and supplements, and a mattress, and all kinds of stuff. Why was I there? I was walking around town thinking, "Yeah, it's nice. This is a nice day, OK, that's the opera house -- but what am I doing here?"
And here's where serendipity can actually weigh more than that word suggests. [It turned out my new tour assistant, Daniella, who I'd met somewhere else] was born in Naples. She's Eritrean and her family fled to Italy and then London. And now we were going back to where she was born. We were staying in a hotel across from where her father worked and her uncle still works, who I met. And while we're there, we're walking up and down the street talking and we're talking about artists in Africa and artists in the west, and she's got good questions, like, "Why are you so protective when you go on tour, versus the guys who do these things in Africa, great artists in Africa, they just hang out and they don't have any special needs." And I said, "Well, aren't they doing this thing for a culture that already understands what they're doing?" And she said "Yeah, they're just the best at what they do." I said, "Well, one of my answers then is that I'm doing this tightrope walk. Everywhere I play I'm on the tightrope. I don't want to go. I'm not here to play Italian music, I'm not actually here to play European music or even American music. I'm here to do this thing I don't even understand, but it doesn't have to do with the culture I'm in, it doesn't have to do--although it does, because I feel the vibes from each place. We know I'm in Italy, there might be an Italian melody coming out for some reason. But because we were talking about Africa, Africa played a role in the music in Naples, because Naples was also connected to her story.
It was unbelievable. Afterwards I said to Daniella, "You know this concert, it was for you." But I didn't mean it a romantic way. She was a catalyst for this. And anybody can be. And in London there were those catalysts for that concert. London is one of the centers of rock for some reason, you know, a lot of bands came from London and brought some good music to the world. And I remember when I was in the middle of playing London, I thought, why am I playing like this?" I was playing so hard I felt like I was, for a minute, a pianist in a rock band, but there was no band. I had to be the band and the pianist. And the piano had this rich bass and it was all conducive to bringing something out that I hadn't really thought about.
I don't know. It gets served on a platter you're not looking for. I haven't recently played on the cast iron frame inside the piano, but since you've heard things like the Sun Bear concerts you've heard me do that. I went to Naples, played the first set, came out for the second set and just started on the frame. And played kind of this completely, constantly morphing time signature, translated it to the piano, back to the frame, back to the piano and then developed this thing. Just multi-rhythmic and absolutely insane.
DS: And by letting all that flow through you, you are connecting to core emotions. And that connection is so powerful and pure.
KJ: People ask me, "Why are you still playing? Why don't you stop touring?" I mean, I know that I'm sort of a representative of something and nobody else is quite doing it. [So] I'm doing it until I can't do it. When I was sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I knew if I ever played again that I was going to be the player, not the composer necessarily, the essential improviser part of me has to do this until I can't do it.
DS: And you feel a responsibility to uphold it now, is that part of what you're saying?
KJ: Yeah, it's personal. It's what I do. I always end up realizing something at a concert, so at the last concert I had a new realization, a possibility of a concert that I didn't have before. And as long as that continues, I'm not stopping on purpose. Certain things would stop me -- physical things -- though not according to Manfred. Not according to Gary [Peacock, his bassist]. Gary's like, "You have a problem with your thumb, you know--you can play with one hand tied behind your back, and everybody's going to listen.
DS: Oscar Peterson had a stroke and played with one hand for a while, right?
DS: Just the thought of you stopping is so depressing.
KJ: Well, it's not happening yet.
Part 1, which was posted earlier, is available here.
Transcription by Daniella De Franco.
Photos: Rose Anne Jarrett, Junichi Hirayama.
Postscript (added 10/22/09):
For my first book, Skeleton Key (co-authored with Steve Silberman), I was lucky enough to interview (in 1993) the master mandolin player David Grisman. Here's what he had to say about improvisation:
We call it 'free music,' or 'going into the zone' - the places in music where you can play anything...There are places in music where you suspend the structure, trying to create something that has no necessary base or rules. You might be searching for something, or following something. I see it all as composition. I don't think there really is any such thing as spontaneous playing. You're writing music. It's only a question of speed...There are a lot of highly developed forms based on the idea of improvisation as composing very rapidly.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.
David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us.