Keith Jarrett

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Oliver Condy reviews the jazz pianist’s first solo London concert for five years

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Keith JarrettKeith Jarrett has, over the past three or four decades, set the bar very high for himself. His solo recordings, most of which are entirely improvised, including The Köln Concert, La Scala and the wide-ranging Sun Bear Concerts from a 1976 Japan tour, are all blessed with spontaneous music-making of much invention and beauty, because Jarrett and his record label ECM cherry-pick the best moments for his releases. So the pressure to deliver from last night's expectant crowd at London's Royal Festival Hall was colossal – many of us would have listened to Jarrett's music from a very early age but because he rarely performs solo in the UK, most have never seen him live. I'm sure many were expecting two hours of unalloyed inspiration. Secretly, I was hoping for as much.

A lot of what Keith Jarrett does is relatively simple, but his harmonic and chordal instinct, an uncluttered, almost chorale-like texture, melodic direction and a sublime piano touch often give his solo concerts an other-wordly, meditative quality. And last night, because we knew that Jarrett improvises without preparing a single note or idea, the atmosphere in the audience was one of hope, expectation and encouragement (mostly, I suspect, because we all wanted a return on our substantial outlay).

However, Jarrett wasn't well last night having succumbed to a cold. 'I heard all the advice about what to take, and I've taken them all', he joked with the audience halfway through the first half. And although he was in good spirits, you could tell that spontaneity was eluding him early on. From an introductory atonal whirl akin to Berg or Ligeti to pensive three-minute miniatures that nodded towards jazz's debt to Satie and Debussy, Jarrett's playing very nearly took flight. It was good stuff, but there was a sense he was plucking too readily from his musical vocabulary rather than letting his fingers run free.

The interval, however, was no doubt a chance for Jarrett to collect his thoughts, and for the Sudafed to kick in, because the second half was studded with moments of great beauty. Jarrett devotees have to put up with their hero audibly wheezing and groaning throughout the set, and standing up to play, vigorously shaking his head when a good idea takes hold. And God help anyone who takes photographs. Two members of the audience who took snaps of him returning to the stage were publically and humiliatingly told off. 'It's almost as if this thing [gesturing to an imaginary camera in the palm of his hand] has become more important than 64 years of studying the piano,' he said, before sitting down to play. Phew. I think we all thought he'd stop the concert. But it was a small price to pay when Jarrett made the piano sing as he did in the final half hour of the show, veering from calypso and ballad to post-Romantic sprawl and gospel vamp. Crowd-pleasing, certainly, but also excellently wrought. And his encores, planned or otherwise, stole the show with breathtakingly intimate arrangements of tunes including ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ and the lovely ‘Once Upon a Time’.

Going to see a solo Keith Jarrett concert is a little like planning a summer camping holiday in Cornwall. It's a risk, and anyone banking on 100 per cent sunshine would be a fool. But when the sun does shine, it's one of the most beautiful places to be in the world.