Listener’s Arc: The Shimmering Piano | Varyer
A red-and-purple illustration of piano keys.

Listener’s Arc
The Shimmering Piano

A purple illustration of piano keys.

In 1946, jazz critic and musician Leonard Feather started a feature called “The Blindfold Test” in the magazine Metronome, which he soon brought to DownBeat. He would play a musician or composer a series of records without saying what they were, then ask the subject to guess the players and offer impressions of what they heard.

A famous blindfold test with Charlie Parker is easy to find online, as is a recording of the session on YouTube. Parker liked almost everything Feather played for him, from Stravinsky to Dixieland to his modern contemporaries (he describes Dizzy Gillespie as “the other half of my heartbeat” when presented with one of his records). In a paragraph called “Afterthoughts By Parker” he defends his enthusiasm and expresses his discomfort with genre labels, even “jazz.”

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing,” he says. “You can’t classify music in words — jazz, swing, Dixieland, et cetera. It’s just forms of music; people have different conceptions and different ways of presenting things.

Personally, I just like to call it music, and music is what I like.

Charlie Parker

Boston, 1989. My girlfriend at the time had a summer job there, so I took a week off in July to visit her. I didn’t realize it at the time, but our three-year-old relationship — the first serious one for both of us — was winding down. A couple of months apart showed us just how much we’d both changed. I felt like retreating into myself for a while. The split was protracted and painful, filled with horrible communication and guilt, but that was still a few months away. First we had this week in the city together.

One afternoon while my girlfriend was at work I made my way to Tower Records in the Back Bay neighborhood. By that time I’d spent a lot of time in record stores, but only in local shops, which means single rooms, sometimes small ones, staffed by old hippies or college kids. This Tower had five floors. It seemed to me like an enormous shopping mall that sold only records. Back then I was a CD buyer, tentatively exploring jazz.

My primary guide in the jazz realm was a then-new book called Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, by Len Lyons and Don Perlo. I didn’t have money to buy the CDs I wanted, but I spent many hours putting on records I already owned — Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Bill Evans’s Explorations, Wynton Marsalis’s Black Codes (From the Underground), Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream — and thumbing through this book, trying to imagine what other players might sound like. I read every entry dozens of times and jotted down records to look for.

In the entry on Keith Jarrett, there’s an indelible description of his solo style: “... unprecedented, combining a European, pulse-like beat with melodic excursions that oscillated between ecstatic romanticism and soulful blues. The pristine clarity of his tone made the piano shimmer.” This second sentence made me want to hear his music badly. A couple of years later I read something similar in Miles Davis’s autobiography, when he described—accurately—Bill Evans’s sound as “crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” The Jazz Portraits description of Jarrett primed me to hear the instrument in this way.

An illustration of piano keys with text that reads "The pristine clarity of his tone made the piano shimmer.:

So in Tower for the first time, I was flipping through a Keith Jarrett section. I landed on Facing You, his solo piano debut. Even though my book called it “musically lackluster” I was, as is often the case for me as a record collector, compelled to start at the beginning, so I bought it. I didn’t have a Discman then, so I had to wait until I was back home in Michigan to hear it.

There in my room, I had to contend with Facing You. It begins with a 10-minute piece called “In Front,” starting off abruptly with a fast and busy multi-octave motif, Jarrett collapsing melody and rhythm in a churning splash of notes. At this point my interest in piano leaned toward ballads, music for quiet nights. “In Front” wasn’t that, at least for most of its length. It actually bothered and repelled me at the same moment it drew me in. “In Front” sounded like a jumbled mess, but there were parts that were funky, catchy, even pretty — enough to keep me coming back. There was a steady tension; I recognized something I could love, even though I was momentarily unable to get there.

I played through the album and landed on a track called “Lalene,” a ballad with a gorgeous folklike tune, the kind you could imagine in years past someone putting lyrics to, the way Gene Lees did for Bill Evans’s “Waltz for Debby.” As was Jarrett’s wont, his left hand had a see-sawing, back-and-forth feel, hinting at a coiled energy that could be released at just the right moment. And so it was, three minutes and ten seconds into “Lalene,” when his circular melody resolves and the rhythm’s careful dance explodes into a stomp. As Jarrett lurches forward and then pulls back, he clips the right-hand melody, damping the notes instead of letting them ring and shaping them into a sharp, funky rhythm.

This was my in: “Lalene” didn’t sound like anything I’d heard, but I understood it immediately. And within a few weeks “In Front” had worked its way into my mind. I became obsessed with it. Though I knew very little about the history of jazz, I imagined the entire sweep of it in this ten-minute track — Harlem stride, funky hard bop, atonal improv, those crystalline notes Miles Davis heard in Bill Evans’s piano. It was all in there, an explosion of music with matter flying in all directions, and I was ready to seek out the pieces.

A purple and red illustration of a building and saxophones with text that reads "Lalene."

When you listen to jazz, you're listening to listening. Because most jazz is based in group improvisation, when we play the records we’re encountering performances highly dependent on what each individual player is hearing in a given moment.

The London-based magazine The Wire, which covers experimental music, has its own version of “The Blindfold Test” called “Invisible Jukebox.” Subjects aren’t asked to rate anything, but they do try and guess what the recordings are and offer thoughts on what they are hearing. Usually, the interviewer selects records that abet a discussion of the musician’s own work, including formative influences, aesthetic connections, and music by contemporaries.

Having read a few hundred installments of “Invisible Jukebox,” I’ve noticed that jazz musicians are more likely to recognize individual players, even when they might not know the record in question. Their training has led them to recognize musicians through sound as you might a speaking voice or a face.

As a listener my starting point is usually the other end of the spectrum: The challenge for me is to move from hearing the music as jazz and into the realm of listening to individual people. When I hear a particular kind of music for the first time, I tend to hear the form and style only. And the basic form and style of small-group jazz is so appealing on its own it’s easy to get stuck there.

Quieter jazz can be excellent background music, and I’ve spent decades engaging with that style as sound first, then gradually listening to study what each musician contributes individually. I tend to think of Thelonious Monk as the ideal entry point for anyone curious about jazz. His style is outrageously personal, filled with strange angles and small jokes and a lot of charm and groove. Listen to “Well You Needn’t” from Monk’s Music (1957), especially Monk’s first solo, where he rides the impossibly swinging beat of bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Art Blakey — the hi-hat is like the sound of tires clicking joints on the open road. Note Monk’s rhythmic peculiarities, the yawning space, the playful dissonance.

The challenge for me is to move from hearing the music as jazz and into the realm of listening to individual people.

But Monk was so distinctive, his music didn’t fit with every setting. He needed to be with players who understood what he was doing and were on his wavelength. Around the time I was first exploring Monk, Miles Davis published his autobiography. I’d been listening to a version of the song “Bags’ Groove” that they had recorded together in 1954, and in his book Davis explains why Monk doesn’t play for most of the tune. “Monk never did know how to play behind a horn player,” Davis says. “Trumpets don’t have that many notes, so you really have to push that rhythm section and this wasn’t Monk’s thing. ... So I just told him to lay out when I was playing, because I wasn’t comfortable with how he voiced his changes.”

An illustration of piano keys inside glasses and a person playing a saxophone.

Toward the end of 2019 I picked up a copy of Soundtrack, a live album cut by the Charles Lloyd Quartet in late 1968 and released in January 1969. Lloyd plays saxophone, and though I knew of him, I didn’t have any of his records nor had I heard his music. I bought the LP after looking at the credits and seeing that the personnel included Keith Jarrett on piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums, alongside bassist Ron McClure. As much as I’ve collected Jarrett’s music since buying Facing You in 1989, there are still many holes in my knowledge of his work.

When I buy a new album, I put it in a space near my turntable reserved for new arrivals; I don’t like to file a record away until I feel like I’ve absorbed it sufficiently and remember it well enough when I pick it out later. Soundtrack sat on that shelf for a while. I played the first side once, then early in 2020 the pandemic hit and Julie and I were home all the time and I wasn’t listening to albums in the living room as often.

One afternoon last June when I was alone in the apartment I put Soundtrack on the turntable, this time “Forest Flower ’69,” a piece that takes up all of the second side. It’s an updated version of a Lloyd composition that this quartet had been playing steadily for a couple of years at this point. “Forest Flower” predated the existence of the band, appearing first as the opening track on Discovery!, Lloyd’s 1964 debut as a leader. Its position as the first track on his first solo album suggests something about the piece’s importance to him, and for a few years it was his signature tune — see the 1966 Charles Lloyd Quartet album Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterrey. But I didn’t know all that when I put on “Forest Flower ’69.” What I heard was Lloyd quietly playing the first few notes at Town Hall, where Soundtrack was recorded, and the audience erupting in applause, as if this were a moment they’d been waiting for.

An illustration of a record player on top of a credenza.

I was cleaning the apartment and listening to Soundtrack and I turned it up a bit as the band settled into a groove. Jarrett takes an early solo, and it's lyrical and slightly conventional but with some intense and dissonant flourishes. There’s a clear connection to the way he was playing Lloyd’s tune two years earlier, I’d later find, but you hear the band wanting to push things further.

Lloyd returns a couple minutes later, playing fast runs and restating his opening theme, and then DeJohnette takes over for a hypnotic solo that finds him bashing every surface on his kit while remaining connected to the groove. Lloyd returns once more, playing straighter now, highlighting the trills of the primary melody but also guiding the band into an Afro-Cuban beat with punctuated two-note booms at the end of his phrases. DeJohnette picks up this beat and then the piece becomes something else.

The clapping of the two cymbals powered by DeJohnette’s left foot opens up a space for things to happen. Time feels like it’s slowing down. Jarrett plays a teasing surge of notes, rushing up to an invisible line that represents the logical end of his current pattern and stopping just short of jumping over it; DeJohnette hits that two-note boom on the bass drum now. About nine and a half minutes in, Lloyd stops playing entirely, and it’s DeJohnette and Jarrett’s band now.

Love somebody, give somebody, teach somebody, touch somebody.
And when the good gets misunderstood
The repercussions can be cruel
And that ain't cool
Karma will avenge you

Jarrett begins a new solo in a floating place, the cloud of sustain hinting at any number of possible directions, where notes elegantly decay over a bubbling Afro-Cuban bass and drum pattern. He takes his time here, finding chords that bring to mind white streaks against a blue sky, a sense of ease and simple beauty.

DeJohnette pushes him, reminding Jarrett of the song’s infectious beat, hitting harder at that double note at the end of each bar. Jarrett will get there, but he knows that once he joins DeJohnette there is no going back — the groove is too strong to back away from it once you’ve committed fully. As the performance closes in on the 11-minute mark Jarrett starts to open up his solo and it grows more pointed and prickly. Finally he returns to that ascending scale and this time inches up to the precipice and then, finally, jumps over. He and DeJohnette lock in and the piece turns into a deeply funky, gospel-tinged flight that’s pure elation.

The moment when Jarrett and DeJohnette join forces here is so powerful and joyful that I replay it in my head in times of trouble. I’ve listened to “Forest Flower ’69” so many times in the last 18 months I can replay most of it from memory; it reminds me of what music can do for me, how an arrangement of sounds can pull me back from somewhere ugly and frightening. A few weeks ago I was playing it loudly on my living room stereo and I started dancing around the room, alone, as happy as I’ve been in a long time. It’s not unlike where I found myself with “In Front” 32 years ago. Jarrett’s performance on the Charles Lloyd piece and his solo on Facing You were recorded three years apart, when he was a young man, and they’re coming to me across decades, at two very different points in my life, but both when I am in a place of need.

There are times, when I’m saturated with information and wallowing in the mire of my problems, that music might momentarily seem like just another kind of “media,” something offered by our digital world, more raw bits. But one listen to “Forest Flower ’69” disabuses me of that notion. I remember that music is oxygen. I’m listening to the last few minutes of the track as I type this now and breathing deeply.

An illustration of the year "'69" inside a pointy flower.