The name of Keith Jarrett’s music publishing company is Cavelight. It is a reference, one guesses, to Plato’s cave. In the allegory from The Republic, the tale of prisoners chained to a wall and shackled to a distorted view of reality contrasts with the philosopher, who sees beyond the shadows created by a fire, free to see things as they really are. The tale argues for the primacy of ideas over the material world—in fact, it is the best-known illustration of Plato’s idealism, a point captured so well in Raphael’s School of Athens fresco in the Vatican Museums. Aristotle, in company with Plato, points his finger forward, horizontally. Plato points upward.
On 7 July 2013, in his first set at Umbria Jazz since his expulsion in 2007, Keith Jarrett, along with bandmates Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, played in the dark, illuminated—one could say distorted—by a solitary light on Peacock’s music stand. It was the only light in this particular cave, and the prisoners were not the musicians but the audience of roughly three thousand. The artist, one must assume, played the role of the philosopher, disciplining the audience into submission to the higher law of pure music without recourse to spectacle.
The symbolism is perhaps too tidy. The circumstances for Jarrett’s performance were inseparable from the performance itself, to an unfortunate degree. Audience photography had led to Jarrett’s discomfiture in 2007 and his angry response and departure before the performance that year was still a fresh memory in 2013. The prodigal had returned for the festival’s fortieth anniversary and his trio’s thirtieth. The organizers no doubt hoped for a triumphant evening of music unmarred by past wounds or by flash photography. Unfortunately, the flashes came. The problem is that we no longer are able to distinguish between flashes borne of ignorance and those of provocation, and the artist allows for no such distinction. Both garner an extreme response.
At this summer evening’s outset, Jarrett slumped onto the stage, hands in pockets, the tension already evident. Then a flash or two went off before Jarrett reached his instrument, prompting a curt “See ya later,” from the pianist and an immediate exit from the stage before a note had been played. Jarrett soon returned but demanded the stage lights cut. When a few gel lights remained for illumination, he insisted that these be dialed to black as well. So Umbria Jazz became what one suspects is Jarrett’s ideal performance space—a private realm where the artist may only be heard and not seen, and the trio launched into “On Green Dolphin Street” with its customary swing topped by Jarrett’s seignorial touch. The large video monitors on either side of the stage were rendered useless in the absence of stage lights to aid cameras, making it even less possible for those in the back of Arena Santa Giuliana to see anything.
The problem is that this outdoor concert was witnessed by (and, of course, funded by) actual people, deluded prisoners though they may have been. At one moment as the trio faded into the darkness, Jarrett could be heard commenting to his mates on the amount of noise coming from the audience. When the trio arose at the end of 50 minutes of music and departed the stage without acknowledging the applause of the prisoners, it was very much in doubt whether they would return. One assumes that furious backstage pleadings and negotiations with the leader prolonged the intermission beyond 30 minutes. Upon their return, the trio allowed for limited gel lighting.
By the time of the encore, after waves of gospel, blues, and ecstatic balladry, the audience and the artist, the prisoners and the philosopher, reached an impasse. As the trio returned for a final number, a couple of flashes went off, and Jarrett promptly turned around and left the stage to the sound of whistling (the equivalent of American boos). The performance, to the extent that Jarrett would acknowledge it as such, had ended.
At this point it is hard to imagine Jarrett agreeing to return to Umbria Jazz, or perhaps to any outdoor venue, again. The frustration is that once the man actually gets down to making music, the sounds are sublime. Jarrett seemingly wins his argument because he actually delivers on the notion that we are in the presence of greatness, as his lengthy blues improvisations and renderings of standards such as “Bye Bye Blackbird” made so clear on Perugia’s mountainside. And indeed, music is an arrangement of sound and ideally, should not have to be abetted by concessions to the visual. The artist would provide all the enlightenment needed, rendering the house lights irrelevant. But the framing of the argument in this case reveals its failure. The palpable tension surrounding the Umbria performance—the conviction among many that indeed he would not play at all, or that he would not return for the second half, or for an encore—made for an uncomfortable experience that even the choicest of notes could not entirely dispel. While the decision to play in the dark could be read as a philosophical statement about the ideal way to hear great music, it rather seemed a petulant response to a couple of people who either hadn’t grasped the significance of Jarrett’s issues with photography or who were trying to bait the pianist. If so, he took the bait and doubled down. He would provide the light in the cave for the misguided prisoners.
To be fairer to Jarrett, it was not clear to this audience member that the ban on photography had been sufficiently stated. The official program did not mention it. I would have expected a statement in unmistakable block letters in Italian and English. The ticket scanners did not warn patrons as they entered the arena. The tickets themselves said, and only in the fine print, that it was not “normally” permissible to take photographs or make recordings. Only after Jarrett had threatened to walk did the organizers make an announcement in English, the language of a sizable percentage of the audience, and it was not as emphatic as one might expect. This was risky behavior on Umbria Jazz’s part. Perhaps clearer and more insistent rhetoric beforehand would have saved much trouble later. But only perhaps, especially if the flashes were meant to provoke.
In the end, Jarrett has raised an intriguing issue regarding the artist’s relationship to his audience that is perhaps beyond happy resolution as long as he believes that it is the audience’s privilege to hear him perform rather than his to play for the audience. As much as the prisoners in the cave wanted to follow the philosopher’s enlightenment, we still had the sense that no matter what we did, the artist would walk away, leaving us in our supposed chains of ignorance.
Notice: Photography is Not Permitted in this Post