san francisco — keith jarrett stepped onstage friday at davies symphony hall to thunderous and worshipful applause. spot-lit, he made a deep emptying buddha-bow toward his 2,700 fans in the sold-out hall, then sat down at the at the piano for a solo recital. the ritual was about to begin.
quietly, he launched a free-form improvisation, flicking fingers at keys, building sounds from scratch, making them denser and rumblier, adding in right-handed squiggles like jackson pollack paint splatterings. then someone coughed.
to jarrett, 64 years old and among the most revered figures in jazz, coughs are signs of ingratitude and insufficient attention. they break his concentration, interrupt his creative flow. it's been an issue at his concerts for four decades.
he stopped playing.
"perfectly placed," he snipped, about the cough. deep sigh. he was about to play again when someone else coughed.
"oh, now there's going to be a contagion."
jarrett stood up and wandered away from his instrument and over to a microphone to complain about audiences everywhere; they just cannot stop coughing when he tries to play softly for them. "even the japanese have started to cough. that's how weird it is."
surely, this was now building toward one of his classic rants, which ecm — his record label, which recorded friday night's show — should collect and issue as a multidisc set titled: "curb your enthusiasm!"
jarrett was there to perform for people who love him, who paid up to $90 per ticket, yet here he was, doing a larry david routine. he didn't look happy with himself, but he kept on with it, one minute playing the role of professional victim, the next behaving like a proustian eccentric who just can't tolerate what he called "impurities entering the system."
meaning coughs and inattention to his creative process.
verging on heartbreak
over the next half-hour, jarrett managed to alternate his ornery outbursts with tender interludes of meditative impressionism, or the rollicking blues-gospel vamps that are his calling card. he stood, crouched over the piano as he played, left foot stomping, his hands working in tandem, like call-and-response choruses in a church, or his right hand carving improvised arabesques, graceful as a figure skater.
he began one of his searching ballads, where the harmonies never quite resolve, leaving the listener in a state of wistfulness verging on heartbreak.
but then someone again coughed, quietly.
jarrett stopped in midchord, and wandered back to the microphone.
"i have a theory. maybe music and mucus are similar." with a pained smile, he offered another theory: "we've forgotten how to concentrate." true enough. his own lack of focus was undermining this event, presented by sfjazz as a highlight of its spring season.
"i did a whole talk to several audiences already," jarrett continued minutes later, "and when they write the reviews, if there are any, they mentioned that i complained."
"i'm going to keep complaining 'til i die," he promised. "i mean, where does the music come from but a complaint? i walk out on the stage — out from this world from which i came, and i realize what a complaint i have against it."
thank you, mr. david.
now about coughs: they are annoying, but they happen at every concert, especially in wintertime. at quiet concerts, they tend to stand out. and jarrett was choosing to play quietly.
after intermission, he improvised a lullaby, more gentle music from this ornery performance artist — this sensitive man in meltdown.
he stopped playing, shaking his head and just staring at the keyboard.
"ok, i give up."
he stood up.
"i flew my engineer from switzerland to do this," he said.
he was affronted by the lullaby's curtailment: "i was in the process of making something. i had to cut it short."
the coughs, he explained, are "on the tape."
and now from the balcony: "just play!"
another voice: "shut up!"
jarrett looked stricken: "i've been a really good guy since perugia," he said, referring to his 2007 performance at the umbria jazz festival, where he infamously cursed out the crowd for taking flash photos.
a defender at davies shouted out: "let him talk!"
jarrett went on: "am i wrong that there's something weird going on in san francisco?"
"this reminds me of the tour i did in europe," jarrett said. "they hated americans there."
throwing up his hands, he asked for requests.
the first was "what is this thing called love," and he played it. someone asked for "in-a-gadda-da-vida," and he laughed. he played a gospelized "summertime" and soon was ready to call it a night.
jarrett left the stage. but about two-thirds of the crowd remained: his fans stood and cheered for their hero, shoring him up.
looking both miserable and grateful, he returned five times, for five encores, including a purely felt "over the rainbow" and a tepid blues.
the tapes were running, presumably. maybe there'll be enough for an album.