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Keith Jarrett and the Inexpressible

I saw a great concert by Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette at Newark’s NJPAC last night (which Jarrett called “one of the best halls–if not the best–in the US”). It was a really extraordinary performance, especially during one transcendent passage near the end where he was seamlessly interweaving some classical themes with the jazz standards that had animated most of the rest of the evening. As legal scholar Olufunmilayo Arewa has noted, improv has declined in classical musical practice, but Jarrett’s work was like a bridge between this lost tradition and contemporary sound.

Jarrett audibly hums at some points in the performance, a practice explained by Peter Ruedi as follows:

It is Keith Jarrett’s piano that sings with greatest intensity. (His groans and vocal outbursts, conisdered by many to be a quirk, are in fact nothing but a form of suffering at the thought that the abyss between the piano and the sung melody can ultimately never be bridged. . . .).

This reminded me of a recent article on aphorisms in Harper’s:

The authority we grant words makes communication possible. But there will always be a gap between language and truth. Propositions, Wittgenstein cautioned, reduce things to what we already know, and therefore using words to convey how words represent (i.e., distort) reality is like repairing “a torn spider’s web with our fingers.”


[But] the awareness of uncertainty [does not] guarantee the truth of statements about it. Wittgenstein’s famous “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” seems to put the truth in a nutshell, but how do we know of what we cannot speak without first somehow articulating it to ourselves?

I’m reminded of a comment that literature is the one realm of reading where we tend to dump commentary on the human condition that can’t be measured or boxed into traditional “disciplines.” I tend to think of Jarrett’s work (ranging from the Handel Keyboard Suites to the Koln Concert) as a powerful reflection of the limits and wonders of working toward such profound, yet inexpressible, “commentary.”

1 thought on “Keith Jarrett and the Inexpressible”

  1. great piece–I was at the show too (3rd row) and know the moment you’re citing–where he came out of a piano solo and started reinterpreting the chords by injecting counterpoint ideas. incredible! even the usually-stoic jack dejohnette couldn’t help but lean back, close his eyes and smile a blissful smile…

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