The late Ian Carr’s Keith Jarrett: The Man and His Music long stood as the most complete portrait of its subject, who turns 76 this month. Being a product of 1991, however, the book begged a companion this side of the second millennium. In 2015, German music editor and biographer Wolfgang Sandner answered that call. Five years later, Jarrett’s youngest brother Chris, who lives and teaches in Germany, offered this superbly rendered, expanded and updated translation into English. The result, Keith Jarrett: A Biography, retreads some of the pianist’s formative milestones while stringing through them artful observations, interpretations and connections.
We find ourselves transported back to Jarrett’s upbringing in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Sandner credits Jarrett’s mother for not putting her son on the pedestal that has separated so many young prodigies from the possibility of a normal childhood. This may be one reason why his genius was able to flourish so organically—untainted by the bane of expectation, he built a career on transcending it.
We sit in the audience during his first solo recital at the age of seven—a mélange of classical and original compositions—waiting for the moment when jazz will enter the soundtrack of his past. We cling to the wall like proverbial flies as, in a mere five-year span, he joins forces with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis. Jarrett’s tenure with the latter, who convinces him to join after multiple overtures, goes largely unrecorded and survives only through anecdote. By the time Jarrett parts ways with the Miles, it’s 1971, just two years after the founding of ECM Records by producer Manfred Eicher, with whom Jarrett will forge a lasting relationship. Said relationship yields albums—80 between 1971-2020—that were made to exist, just as they exist to have documented a pianist who “had not really become a soloist—he had actually always been one” (pg. 88).
Jarrett’s “musical syntax” is as recognizable as it is challenging to distill in words. Whether in his traversals of the Great American Songbook with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette or his recording of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (of which he characteristically remarked, “I was actually refusing more than I was giving”), the mosaic we think we know has revealed tile after unprecedented tile.
All of which serves to validate Sandner’s decision to view jazz through a hypermodern lens, framing its latter-day developments as a recalibration of space among the rubble of the Second World War. And there, in the middle of it all, Jarrett spans the ocean like a bridge between the forward march of Americanism and the traumatic retrogression of the continent. This may be why Sandner concedes in his foreword: “Most of all, though, this music should be heard.” For a musician of Jarrett’s caliber, the best biography remains the discography.
(This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)