Used to be jazz musicians were U.S.’s best ambassadors. Pianist Keith Jarrett’s prickly reaction to ardent fans’ cellphone photography as his trio walks onstage at the Umbria Jazz Festival — see it on Youtube.com (56 secs) — reverts to another type: ugly American.
For a improviser who flaunts his hyper-sensitivity, Jarrett displays no class at all, turning the air blue upon taking the stage with trio mates Gary Peacock (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums), because ticket holders (according to Dan Ouellette in Down Beat, 4500 people the equivalent of $130 each) clicked away as he approached his instrument. He’d lambasted his Montreal Jazz Fest audience similarly a week or so before, but at Montreal got over his pique and played three encores. Not so at Umbria — though he appeared after formally ending his second set, he had another outburst and announced, “That does it. No encore.”
Jarrett was exciting when he started circa 1966’s Forest Flower, live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, with Charles Lloyd and, yes, DeJohnette, who has accompanied him through many projects. Jarrett was adventurous and competitive when he played with Miles (see him duel with Chick Corea on the video Call It Anything, almost 19 minutes, at the Isle of Wight in 1970). He put out some quirky records (the earliest he has come to disown) and led strong a notable “American quartet” with saxophonist Dewey Redman and bassist Charlie Haden — both also playing with Ornette Coleman at the time — plus drummer Paul Motian. I recommend their Fort Yawuh.
But Jarrett has created a special niche for himself since the release of his first solo acoustic piano album Facing You in 1971, establishing a discipline of spontaneously improvised solo performance which he’s subsequently brought to major halls worldwide, often recorded and issued on ECM Records. His Standards trio with DeJohnette and Peacock also records for ECM, and is a major international jazz attraction.
Among the things Jarrett told his audience at Umbria: “I think the privilege is yours to hear us.” Not necessarily. Carlo Pagnotta, festival artistic director, issued a statement saying “Jarrett, the artist, is sublime, but Jarrett the man is very questionable,” and that the city of Perugia, host to the Umbria fest, “won’t have aything more to do with him. . . (W)e will do without his music.”
Jarrett’s manager responded in a letter reprinted in Italian newspapers that the pianist didn’t mean for Perugia to take his comments so to heart, explaining “He could just as easily have said this in New York or Paris.” Producers and presenters, you’re forewarned.