Keith Jarrett: Encore from Tokyo

I cannot say what I think is right about music. I only know the rightness of it.

-Keith Jarrett

The American pianist and composer Keith Jarrett (b. 1945) began his career performing with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd, and Miles Davis. He remains firmly rooted in jazz. Yet, when you venture into the magical world of Jarrett’s solo piano improvisations, the shackles of category fall away. Pure music remains, with echoes of Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, and many other influences, including the rich jazz tradition.

Encore from Tokyo is an excerpt from Jarrett’s 1978 album, Sun Bear Concerts, a compilation of recordings from his solo tour of Japan in the mid-1970s. Most of the improvisation unfolds over a repeating chord progression built on a descending ostinato bass line—a construct used frequently by baroque composers such as Henry Purcell. It’s a restless and searching progression, filled with quiet lament and aspirations for new harmonic territory.  As the music develops, it becomes increasingly adventurous and expansive, with subtle surprises. One note makes all of the difference, shifting us into a new universe. (1:18 provides a sensuous example). An ear-wrenching new harmonic progression emerges around the golden mean. The coda section drifts into a glassy, otherworldly serenity.

Keith Jarrett on Improvisation

The art of keyboard improvisation flourished with composers from J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert to Chopin. In a January, 1979 Rolling Stone interview, Mikal Gilmore asked Jarrett about the mysterious nature of improvisation. Here is an excerpt:

I start by asking him how consciously or analytically he monitors the music as he’s improvising it, how much his own ear dictates what an audience hears.

“The process is mysterious,” he says evenly, removing his sunglasses and fixing his dark eyes on mine. “That’s the best thing I can say about it.”

“Surely there are decisions you make in that moment-to-moment process about what notes to play and not to play, and how long and how loud to play them?” I ask.

He shrugs a smile and half nods his head. “Since it’s all improvised, every second may contain a hundred choices for me, and my first job is to know whether I’m making those choices mentally or not. Like, if my finger is about to play a note, I can’t play it because I want to play it, and yet I can’t not play it because I don’t want to. It’s a course of thought and no thought, decision and no decision.”


About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

4 thoughts on “Keith Jarrett: Encore from Tokyo”

  1. I just came in from transplanting a bush this evening, exhausted, and turned this selection on, not knowing if it would be bizarre and noisy, or gentle, which I needed, and that proved to be the case. A very fine improvisation, relaxing, yet with substance.

    Improvisation is near the core of my own musical life; in college times I carried a battery-powered cassette recorder in my car and improv’d at church in the quiet, on the organ, singing from an open Bible, whatever would come out. Virtually all music, even that which has rigid format, began with a stub of something that lodged in a writer’s mind and had to be given its freedom.

  2. I am a former professional piano player. Most of my playing is improvisational. I long to look directly into Keith’s eyes and ask him if he really improvised this.

    Oh, I believe he did, but this is so magnificent, and so perfect, and so humbling to me as a musician, that I just need to hear it from his own mouth to make sure the deep epistemological angst I feel over not yet being able to even approach Keith’s ability is justified. I almost quit playing altogether after hearing The Koln Concert. And yet……….my playing is better today because of him. It’s a bittersweet experience.


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