Do, ray, ME

Music - Richard Cook on how Keith Jarrett's illness has intensified his appeal to his followers

Much of the attention centred around Keith Jarrett of late has had more to do with the state of his health than with his piano playing. His physical strength severely diminished by ME (chronic fatigue syndrome), Jarrett has returned to the concert platform only in the past year or so, performing with the bassist Gary Peacock and the drummer Jack DeJohnette in his so-called "Standards Trio". In the interim, he released a particularly quiescent solo record, The Melody at Night, With You (ECM), a set of familiar American songs turned into a series of impassive little nocturnes. It has become his most successful record for many years, and has done much to revive the Jarrett cult that seemed an inescapable part of 1970s and 1980s jazz.

He is a player who has never lacked adulation, from critics and the public alike. From the days of The Koln Concert, the 1975 solo recital that became the most successful piano recording since Erroll Garner's Concert by the Sea, Jarrett's following has been large and loyal; but many of his fans had drifted away over the past decade, perhaps intimidated by the vast documentation that Manfred Eicher's ECM label has accorded the pianist. The multidisc sets, from both a live and a studio perspective, have eavesdropped on a considerable talent, but they have tended to show as much exasperating ingenuity as genuine creative necessity. This is a musician who has a tendency to marvel at his own greatness.

Jarrett's illness has inevitably surfaced as a keynote topic in his few rare interviews of recent times, and it is a matter that seems to have become deeply embedded in his music-making. Suffering for your art is one thing, but for that suffering to become indivisible from the work itself is something else; while it is hardly fair to say that the pianist has in any way capitalised on it, the sometimes sickly pallor of The Melody at Night, With You has emerged as a mark of heroism for the Jarrett cult. It seems to have restored the magnetism that made his Koln record as integral to Seventies bedsits as any Al Stewart or Joni Mitchell album.

The less devoted might find it merely wan. Jazz has had its share of death-row poetry, just like any other area of music: Serge Chaloff, playing from a wheelchair because of his spinal paralysis, delivering a rapt yet gimlet-eyed interpretation of "Thanks for the Memory"; Bix Beiderbecke, already lost to alcohol, saying goodbye with his eerily poignant "I'll Be a Friend With Pleasure". Jarrett, fortunately, is not in that twilight zone, and there is no smell of death in what he is doing. Even so, his recent frailty has intensified his appeal to his followers, a kind of worshippers-come-nigh charisma that has gilded any shortcomings in his own performing. At his London concerts in August, there was an uncomfortable sense of paying homage to an interlocutor with the divine. Just as the composer John Tavener attracts sensibilities that seek a godhead in Classic FM commercials, so does Jarrett's rhapsodising speak to some of "higher things". One can't imagine the pianist ever saying after a brush with mortality, as Tavener has, that "death becomes one's spouse", but life-and-death musing never seems far away at a Jarrett concert.

All of which makes his new two-disc set, Whisper Not (ECM), something of a relief: this concert recording from Paris last year often seems as muscular and glittering as the best of Jarrett. It helps that there are two enormous talents to hand besides his own: Gary Peacock and the imperturbably swinging Jack DeJohnette have their own vitality, and bring much fire and finesse to the trio's music. There are bebop ruminations in "Bouncin' with Bud" and "Groovin' High", which are like fine polished steel: as a sceptical but admiring Jarrett follower suggested to me, they are like a quest for perfection more than a human reflection of bop's energy. In familiar standards such as a lovely "Prelude to a Kiss" or "Chelsea Bridge", the pianist reminds one of how these now hackneyed themes were once radiant. At the same time, however, Jarrett has surely taken his recitation of the common-law songbook as far as it will go. Jazz is currently uncommonly crowded with young and forward-looking pianists, most of whom would nod respectfully at these pieces, but would be looking to invent much more dramatic departures out of this material. At the trio's London shows, there were refreshing hints of freedom in certain passages, which aren't really touched on here. Next time he is in a recording studio, Jarrett needs to get out more.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie