Thursday, March 25, 2010

Performing for a Less-Than-Perfect Audience?
Perhaps Keith Should Just Grin and Jarrett

The legendary jazz pianist Keith Jarrett is known for a lot of positive things: Dazzling technique, musicality approaching the sublime, the ability to improvise solo for an entire evening and leave the audience enchanted. But he also has a few quirks: The distracting, nasal vocalizing that's often done along with (and sometimes as a major distraction to) his playing, and, especially lately, a rather prickly relationship with his audiences.

You might have already seen his rant against an audience in Italy (often known simply as the "no effing flash photography!" incident), and last week, he railed against a California audience, seemingly because of the high crime of excessive coughing:
Good thing Keith Jarrett had the piano on his side Friday night. Otherwise, things could have gotten really ugly.

The jazz piano legend was at Davies Symphony Hall, performing one of his rare solo concerts, where the conceit is that every improvised piece is an act of pure, spontaneous creation. (Although, judging from Jarrett's comments, he does prime the mental pump a bit in his rehearsal studio.)

The approach often leads to moments of incandescent brilliance, as documented on a growing canon of recordings. Lately, it also tends to bring out the artist's cantankerous side, expressed in free-form kvetches about various unsatisfactory aspects of the performance set-up.

Friday night, it was the audience's turn to take the hits, as Jarrett frequently broke stride to complain about coughing and other seemingly minor distractions. The climax came in the second set, when Jarrett scolded the audience for so long that some members started shouting "Shut up and play," along with a few choicer epithets.
This need for absolute quiet is not peculiar to Jarrett, of course; classical performances generally demand the same silence, as do professional golfers. But few people seem to take it as personally as Jarrett. David Becker of the Bay Area Jazz Examiner, who wrote the story linked and quoted above, noted a few other things:
Fact is, you can't put 3,000 living animals into an acoustically sensitive space and expect absolute silence. Life makes sounds.

And Jarrett's apparent belief in the artist needing needing and deserving absolute control is a romantic fossil, at best. Not to mention a delusion for anything with a price tag attached to it.

Besides, doesn't improvisation at least partly mean working with what's there?
Good point. If you want absolute perfection with regard to your environment, stick to the recording studio. While some of the commenters at the linked story defended Jarrett's demands, others fall in line with my own thinking: If someone is being intentionally disruptive, then yes, go ahead and toss 'em. But for those who paid to see you and happen to have an unfortunate moment of humanity...well, maybe they should be treated a little bit better, or they'll stop coming to see you and tell their friends to do the same.

More thoughts from Becker may be found in this later story.

(Hat tip: Christian McBride, via MySpace; I told you people still use it!)

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