FESTIVAL NOTES FROM ALL OVER: Last Tuesday, the weather took a cool turn in the lovely, ancient hilltop city of Perugia, Italy. In this Etruscan-turned-Roman outpost, the Umbria Jazz Festival-clearly one of the world’s finest-had experienced a few blistering summer days. But on this night, it got cold, and it was about to get much colder. The Keith Jarrett Circus was coming to town.
The volatile, virtuosic pianist’s concert commanded the festival’s highest ticket prices and visitors came from far and wide. What greeted the generally elegant audience was an irrationally angry artiste whose vocabulary lately has taken cues from the Merchant Marines (no offense to the Merchant Marines).
Before playing a note, and without provocation, Jarrett strode to the microphone and ranted like a man on the brink: “Somebody tell those assholes to put down their fucking cameras. : I reserve the right to leave this goddamn city [did he know its name?] immediately. : Until you understand this, the music will not be at its best and you will have spent your money for nothing : ”
Collective chills and gasps were palpable in the 4,500-strong crowd, now dubbed “assholes” by jazz’s craziest, most caustic genius. After finishing their show with Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring,” joy left the building. Two people in the back flashed cameras (heeding the natural human impulse to poke a mad dog with a long stick, just to see what would happen). Reportedly, someone in the front fed Jarrett some of his own energy, yelling “motherfucker!” Encores were not forthcoming, and Jarrett presumably hightailed it out of this “goddamn city.”
Has Jarrett’s detachment from reality and basic human decency finally sent him over the edge? His spoken-word tirades have been part of his act for decades. In 1980, he played a memorable solo concert at the Santa Barbara High School auditorium and spewed a diatribe against then-ascending George Winston, whose lame, all-thumbs piano noodlings were wrongly compared to Jarrett’s work.
In Perugia, the kicker was this: Jarrett’s playing seemed truly inspired, reaching particularly expressive depths on the ballad “I’m Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life,” with a dreamily suspended coda, and on “Django.” This was not a public wig-out la Jaco Pastorius’s infamous 1984 Playboy Festival meltdown. The musical muse was in Perugia. It’s the connection with his audience-and his species-that Jarrett seems to have trouble with.
Responding quickly to the Jarrett fiasco, the next morning, festival director Carlo Pagnotta officially declared him permanently banned from the festival, justifiably ending an association dating back to 1974.
Music proposes a spiritual bond between performer and perceiver, especially the artful, thoughtful stuff, in whatever genre. By those standards, Jarrett the pianist is still angelic, but at the microphone, he can turn demonic. This was the prevailing opinion in Perugia, where Jarrett’s inhumane affront became a source of constant commentary. Someone jokingly asked, “Can somebody buy him a planet?” Someone else suggested that the Jarrett crowd now expects abuse, and takes it with a grain of masochism. Certainly, abuse is part of the theater of a Jarrett appearance, as with a Johnny Rotten show of old.