In 1975, Keith Jarrett recorded the best selling solo piano album ever, The Koln Concerts. What’s even more extraordinary is that the music is purely improvised. Jarrett had spent the day feeling jet lagged and under the weather, he had to sit down and start performing almost immediately after arriving at the concert hall with little chance to prepare himself, and the piano he was provided with slowly went out of tune.
Jarrett credits the quality of his performance to all these distractions. Before every performance, he tries to make himself blank. He doesn’t practice for a month beforehand. He doesn’t plan, he doesn’t have tricks to get over the hump; he just empties his mind, feels the silence completely, then wanders out on stage and sits down before the 88 keys. What balls.
It’s far more interesting for me that for the audience even; he said in a recent interview on WNYC . “If you don’t have total freedom, you will not make mistakes. With total freedom, you’ll make mistakes you would never have dreamed of and may end up hating yourself more than ever. I aim to be completely devoid of ideas. But I’m not going to tell the music what I should be doing.”
He is just a vehicle, an audience member, and his art has a life of its own.
Now, how do you get to that place? If I sat down in front of a concert hall full of Germans, we’d all thrill to 15 seconds of chopsticks and that would be that. But Jarrett has laid down a lot of foundation. He had years of lessons, then played in cocktail lounges and Pocono resorts for years and committed all the jazz standards to mind. He played with Miles Davis and others, learning, absorbing, filling himself up. But so far that’s ‘just’ technical preparation. Many other people have that.
But when Jarrett improvises he allows the performance to be a distillation of who he is and what he knows. He says you have to assume that what you are doing is meaningless, be willing to toss it away. You can’t think that what you are making will be recorded, sold, reviewed, even listened to. Just do it and see what happens.
The best moments, he says, “are when I am playing only in the present and not heading anywhere. I aspire to not know what I am doing.” This is mindfulness, living in the present.
In this week’s New Yorker, in a review of Savion Glover’s new show at the Joyce, there’s the following quote: “I try to keep my chops up,” Glover told Jane Goldberg, for Dance Magazine, “so I can just be.” Glover is the greatest tap dancer who ever lived, a breathtaking artist and his goal: to just be.
Don’t dismiss all this because these are incredibly accomplished craftspeople. Sure, you need enormous amounts of technical expertise to be the best in the world. But to accomplish mindfulness, you just need something you already have: the willingness to quiet down, clear the crap and trust yourself.
* This piece was inspired by re-reading Keri Smith**’s new essay, Ode to Ross Mendes but I have tried to avoid reiterating what she has already written so eloquently. Nonetheless, I have come to a similar conclusion via a different path: “The answer is me.”
** Keri is a wonderful illustrator and writer and a very good soul —if you’ve not done so already, please examine her inspiring new book Living Out Loud