Interview: Keith Jarrett conducted by Timothy Hill

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This ultra-rare promotional CD from 1994 contains an interview with Keith Jarrett conducted by Timothy Hill. Much of the interview is spent discussing the backstory and recording circumstances of At The Deer Head Inn, Jarrett’s phenomenal live album with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, and Bridge Of Light, a program of classical music composed by Jarrett.

When Jarrett first encountered the Deer Head Inn itself, it was the only place of its kind in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where jazz wasn’t exactly on the hearts and minds of communities far more concerned with everyday practicalities. Jarrett was living in Allentown, where jazz was limited to generic rooms at best. Deer Head was far enough away that he wasn’t really aware of it until he got his first regular gig there, playing drums for local pianist (and Jarret’s personal friend) Johnny Coates. “I learned a lot about what not to do twice,” he recalls of those early gigging days, long before the piano became his forte. After two summers of grabbing the Deer Head by its antlers, sitting in sometimes on guitar (which, incidentally, earned him an invitation from Stan Getz to play in a Calypso band), he left that part of his history behind to dive headlong into his career as a pianist. By the time the Deer Head gig materialized, he hadn’t played there as pianist for nearly three decades.

Many elements came together for that performance to make it what it was. First, the venue was a “piano room” in the truest sense, a place of intimate construction that practically begged for Jarrett’s song. Second was the fact that drummer Jack DeJohnette, his trio go-to, was unable to make it, leading Motian to fill in at the last minute. Third was the “behavior and concentration” of everyone involved—a rapt attention he attributes at least in part to Motian’s involvement. When things come together like that, following a natural flow without depending on “large things,” as he puts it, magic is born.

Jarrett further bows to a certain magic in the recording itself. He mentions the “crucial little keys” of how a player is feeling, and how technology may struggle to capture those details in such a beautiful way. In this case, however, they shine through with utmost clarity, including the vocal exclamations for which he is (in)famously known. “I should’ve written them a thank you note,” he quips, speaking of Peacock and Motian, who he makes a point of noting added their own whoops of excitement in the heat of the moment. “If I’m going to be the culprit, let it be all three of us.” The conversation turns naturally to the tune “Chandra” (included along with “It’s Easy To Remember” at the end of this CD), which Jarrett praises for Motian’s avoidance of sticks altogether. Where any drummer would start with brushes and switch to the punctuation of sticks, Motian’s continuous brushing spoke directly to Jarrett’s heart: “This is what we’ve got now. This is what it is. And it put me in another place, where the expectations were not the same as they would be every time you play.” Thus did Motian pull everyone into the center of things.

At around the time that Bridge Of Light was coming together, he was already working on a commission from Japan to write the Adagio for oboe and string orchestra featured on the album. When told there would be time left in the program, his thoughts turned to the Elegy he was writing for his Hungarian grandmother. Taking such an active role in directing that recording was, for him, like “being in charge of a country,” whereas Deer Head was like “being not in charge and knowing it would be okay.” Such polar, yet parallel, opposites would seem to define his career. At Deer Head, for example, there wasn’t any music until it was played, whereas in a classical setting, anxieties toward perfection ran high. Classical musicians, he avers, should be less obsessed over playing the same music better than anyone else and more concerned about being themselves enough not to care, allowing the music to “bloom for itself” instead. And if blooming is what it’s all about, then Bridge (from which the Adagio and the “Dance” of Jarrett’s violin sonata are also included here) is a veritable field of life.

“You don’t have to be emphatic when you’re doing something beautiful,” says Jarrett of the creative process. “If you emphasize the beauty of something, you might step on it.” And while one might easily flag this statement for hypocrisy, spoken as it is by someone who can stretch a concert staple like “Autumn Leaves” to well over 20 minutes, there’s a sense that Jarrett is always saying what needs to be said and, accordingly, wasting no notes whenever he’s “on.” As he observes of jazz: “It would be as though you were to write poetry in more than one language at a time…and make it somehow into a coherent language of its own.”

As interesting as the above insights are, at best I would say this rarity has value only as an archival curiosity for the Jarrett completist, though it’s always fascinating to hear him speak of his own work. Either way, the objects of this discussion tell more of their past, present, and future than even he could, and perhaps our journey to find and experience them is the strongest bridge of all.

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An Hour With Pat Metheny: A Radio Special

ECM PRO-A-810 Side A

In March of 1979, Pat Metheny appeared on the “Oral Tradition” radio program (broadcast out of Venice, California) to talk about the Pat Metheny Group’s self-titled debut and his then freshly released solo follow-up, New Chautauqua. Produced by Martin Perlich, this hour-long special was released on a rare promo LP by ECM and features an in-depth conversation with the guitarist between selections from both of albums.

Metheny gets into the meat and potatoes of his upbringing. Growing up in small-town Missouri among a family of trumpet players, his brother Mike having taught the instrument at Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1976 to 1983, Metheny needed only reach his hand out to grab hold of one. And that he did, joining the school band and doing fairly well for himself until his need for braces put an end to his future in brass. Immersed as he was in Top 40 culture, guitar was an easy choice for a substitute, and so he picked out his first axe and starting swinging. After doing the “garage band thing” for about a year, at age 14 he had a watershed moment when he saw Wes Montgomery and Gary Burton’s group perform a stone’s throw away in Kansas City. Hearing improvisation in earnest for the first time, and in such close quarters, converted him to jazz on the spot. It wasn’t long before he had every album by Burton, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane he could get his hands on. He recalls how naturally the concepts of jazz came to him, whereas in rock music the role of the guitar was ultimately unclear. Sitting in with blues musicians in Kansas City, where he humbly guesses he was being brought onstage as more of a novelty at first than anything else, was his first real classroom. After a year of teaching in Miami, he joined Burton’s band with Steve Swallow, Bob Moses, and Mick Goodrick, all of whom saw something in the young guitarist. Along with their already-heightened abilities came the patience needed to allow someone like Metheny to blossom.

Metheny elaborates on his jump from rock to jazz. Whereas in the former vein he saw a vital sensuality that was of organic appeal to younger listeners, he also yearned for a subtlety that rock just didn’t have. He even gave prog (Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, etc.) a chance in the hopes there might be something there. But he quickly realized how those guitarists were just “playing blues scales up and down like every rock player always did, [only] a lot longer and twice as boring.” It was in improvisation that he found the wider, more nuanced feeling he was searching for, and the first guitar icon to show him how it was done was Jimi Hendrix. Thinking back on it, he still wonders how Hendrix was as popular as he was. Still, Hendrix was in no way a conscious influence, but a talent to look upon with wonder. In Metheny’s estimation, the guitar was essentially neglected as a frontline instrument until Larry Coryell joined forces with Burton in 1967, paving the way for John McLaughlin and other pioneers. Before then, advances in guitar technology just weren’t developed enough to make it stand out against the harmonic landscape of a saxophone or piano. Coryell was groundbreaking for bringing a hard-edged sound to a jazz context, thereby widening the scope of what the instrument could do as a method of sound production. When Metheny himself came on the scene in 1974, the only viable gigs for jazz guitarists were with Jack DeJohnette, Chico Hamilton, or Burton. Burton was the natural fit.

From Pat Metheny Group we hear “Phase Dance” and “San Lorenzo.” In light these wonders, even Metheny is aware of their commercial appeal the non-jazz listeners (the album hit the Billboard charts, after all) but is adamant about changing nothing to achieve that success. “I just physically couldn’t play something that I didn’t really believe in,” he admits, thus capturing something essential to the steadfastness of his art.

Metheny transitions into reminiscing about touring in Oslo, where he spent three days writing, and two more recording, the music that would become New Chautauqua. Spurred on by fears of typecasting himself, and encouraged by producer Manfred Eicher, transitioning from a quartet to a solo project was the logical next step in his recording journey (though he isn’t without his sense of humor, as when quipping about a “fantasy record” with Lyle Mays and singer Nicolette Larson). Metheny likens the sound of Chautauqua to the open spaces of his childhood—hence the country twang of the album’s title tune (heard here, along with “Sueño Con Mexico” and “Daybreak,” the latter a nod to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”). He also unpacks the title, which pays homage to the so-called Chautauqua who drove around playing one-nighters all up and down the Midwest (his great-grandfather, in fact, was a leader of one such group).

In addition to these anecdotal details, Metheny reveals a bit of his creative process. “Every time we hit the stage and we play the first notes, it enters a completely different realm for me,” he says of live performance, which is more than his wheelhouse but a way of life. He goes on to describe his style as one of playing “out” and never for himself, and shares an analogy for playing that was passed on to him by Burton: “There’s a whole grammar thing you go through when you’re becoming a musician and an improviser that’s very similar to…when you’re a child and you’re learning…how to speak…. It gets to the point where…you don’t think about verbs and pronouns and stuff…you just say whatever you have to say and it comes out. Sometimes there’s little goofs…but the message comes through if you’ve got something to say. It’s exactly the same when you’re improvising. You have this whole backlog of information, but when it comes time to play, as you become more advanced as a player, you think less and less about the technical things…and you just say what you have to say, and hopefully the audience will respond to what you’re saying if you make the picture clear enough for them.” And how does he respond whenever people come up to him and ask how he plays so well? “I haven’t practiced in four years.” The stage is where it all goes down.

“I don’t see myself as a guitar player that plays melodies in a setting,” he self-observes. “I see the act of playing the guitar and writing the tunes and having the band as a statement about what I want to be like as a guy, you know…. If I were ever not going to do that, I would go sell cars for my father.” Of course, we can be thankful he isn’t selling cars but rather music that was made to flow from their stereos as we drive along open roads to places we’ve yet to know.

ECM PRO-A-810 Side B

Of Sound Faith: An Interview with Violinist and Educator Ruth Tumpalan

Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.
For the word of the LORD is right; and all his works are done in truth.
Psalm 33:3-4

Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, violinist Ruth Tumpalan is a dedicated musician and educator. She is currently a faculty member at the Lindeblad School of Music, where her pedagogical zeal has earned her a place of distinction in the hearts of students. She has studied with such renowned classical artists as violinist Christoph Poppen and pianist Gilles Vonsattel, and has performed with a range of others across genres, from Jaime Laredo to Michael Bublé. Most recently, she won first place in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Composition, and as a result of that honor was a featured soloist at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in New York City. Her focus on cultural diversity is paramount and drives her to constantly improve her technique in all areas.

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Yet behind the glamour of performing on some of the world’s most hallowed stages, Tumpalan has found special fulfillment as part of the music ministry at Heritage Baptist Church in Manhattan. Her love of God and music have been intertwined since childhood, and manifest with especial depth in her work with the church’s choir as part of a vibrant ministry.

I recently sat down with Tumpalan via Skype to discuss the role of faith in her personal and professional life, asking first about her musical foundations.

“My father is a pastor, so we were all homeschooled, but when I was 10 he enrolled me and my siblings in an extension program at the University of the Philippines to study music. Two weeks later, I was playing in a Christian wedding officiated by my father. Since then, I’ve always played in church, both as a violinist and choir pianist.”

At the age of 12, Tumpalan got the chance to visit the United States with her father while he was touring churches. Upon returning home, she immersed herself in recordings and live performances, all the while cultivating a desire to pursue music as a profession. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of the Philippines, with a focus on violin, graduating cum laude in 2009.

“After college, I played with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, but after five years decided I wanted to develop myself even further through study. I had been praying since high school for an opportunity to study abroad, ideally in the U.S., in pursuit of new perspectives and higher standards. In 2014, God led me to a full scholarship to earn a Master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts.”

Tumpalan doesn’t take such blessings lightly and has always seen her gifts as God-given. While at UMass, however, she found herself at an impasse.

“There I was, halfway through my two-year program, contemplating what the Lord’s real will was for me. Did he want me to go back to the Philippines or did he have something bigger in store? It was a long journey, filled with prayer. But God provided, one step at a time, lining me up with a job before I even finished my degree. Although music had originally led me here to the U.S., I know in hindsight that it was actually God’s provision all along, working through all the little things to get me where I am now.”

Although Tumpalan’s husband was in Hong Kong at the time, he also earned a scholarship to study percussion at UMass, bringing them closer under an unseen but ever-felt guiding hand. They were further led to Heritage Baptist Church, where Tumpalan became immediately involved in the music ministry.

“Playing at Heritage is my priority. My job is important, but I like the need of going to church and being with brethren. It also enhances my career, leading me with strength through daily life and its many decisions. When I don’t go to church, even for just a week, I feel that my well-being is lowered.”

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(Tumpalan performs at Heritage Baptist Church)

And what, I asked, of her experience playing at Carnegie?

“I never thought I would get to play there as a soloist. I’d played there before with the Philippine Philharmonic, and thought that was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But then, last year, I was working with an excellent pianist named Jongsun Lee, who suggested we try out for the competition. With my full studio schedule, it wasn’t easy to manage practice time and teaching, but my teaching actually helped me to prepare. Certain things my own teachers had taught me before suddenly made sense. I never expected to get first place, but God made it possible.”

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For that performance, she chose Henryk Wieniawski’s formidable Scherzo Tarantelle Op. 16, a work brimming with the very excitement that stokes her appreciation for music as a means of communication.

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“The best feedback I’ve ever gotten as a musician is being told that I moved someone to tears. In that respect, in my playing I aim to be more of an inspiration, to connect with people at a level beyond words.”

This approach is integral to Tumpalan’s teaching, which builds upon the renowned methods of Shinichi Suzuki.

“I always make sure to explain to parents that the Suzuki method was designed to create better human beings through music, and that the most important things to learn from the experience are discipline, empathy, and cooperation. These are more than musical skills; they’re life skills. Without them, playing well and achieving success in music mean nothing. Whenever someone makes a mistake in my group classes, no one is allowed to point. They must respect themselves, first and foremost.”

As for the future, Tumpalan sees herself becoming even more involved in the church, and has been considering putting together a book of Christian music arranged for various instruments. Whatever may come, her faith will only continue to grow.

Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary:
praise him in the firmament of his power.

Praise him for his mighty acts:
praise him according to his excellent greatness.

Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:
praise him with the psaltery and harp.

Praise him with the timbrel and dance:
praise him with stringed instruments and organs.

Praise him upon the loud cymbals:
praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.

Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD.
Praise ye the LORD.

Psalm 150

We Jazz interview

Please check out “Lauantaijatsit” (Saturday Jazz), a radio show hosted by DJ Matti Nives on FM station Bassoradio out of Helsinki, Finland. The latest edition, which you can stream here, features interviews with Manfred Eicher and yours truly, as well as a fine assortment of ECM gems, including a preview of the new Stanko record, Wisława. Matti’s occasional talking segments are in Finnish, but the interviews are all in English.

Matti Nives
(Photo by Hanna-Kaisa Hämäläinen)