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Elsdon, Peter S.

Keith Jarrett's Solo Concerts and the Aesthetics of Free Improvisation, 1960-1973

Ph.D. University of Southampton, 2001
(P.S.Elsdon@soton.ac.uk)

Keith Jarrett began playing improvised solo concerts in 1973, performances which established him as a major figure in the jazz piano tradition. In this thesis I consider Jarrett's performances in terms of a number of musical and aesthetic trends within jazz of the time. The solo concerts draw on a new conception of form suggested by free jazz, one which posited a new kind of relationship between a performer and the musical constraints suggested by a composition. This new approach to performance allowed musicians to reconfigure formal conception in the moment, rather than being tied to an invariant set of constraints. Jarrett's performances also draw on aesthetic view of performance which emerged from free jazz, which saw music-making as tapping into a divine source of inspiration. The context in which he performs promotes this conception, by giving such dramatic weight to the process of improvisation.

Free improvisation has generally been understood in a negative sense, as the absence of preconceived rules in performance. I suggest that the reality as shown through Jarrett's work is rather different. The solo concerts can be understood in terms of the employment of a set of identifiable and recognisable musical styles. These styles constitute an important part of Jarrett's improvisatory approach, and I focus on his 1973 Lausanne concert in order to examine this aspect of his performances. Free improvisation is not just about conformity however, but also transgression. Improvisers seek to play the unknown, to constantly reconfigure their approach and avoid becoming formulaic. And I show how this strategy can be traced in Jarrett's music, and how it forms a vital part of how listeners hear free improvisation. Free improvisation emerges as music all about improvisation, its expressive qualities predicated on the contingency involved in performance.