Keith Jarrett On High Performance Audio and Its Influence on His Recorded Output

Posted on by Mike Quinn

Keith Jarrett (photo by Jimmy Katz)

I got a call today from a musician friend who, upon my recommendation, recently purchased a new stereo amplifier. Previously he had been incredulous when I spoke about the differences high performance audio equipment can make when listening to jazz. “Mike, damn it!” he exclaimed over his crackling Blackberry, “you were right. This new amp really sounds great. I can hear every strand of each individual wire on every brush stroke. I can hear glasses clanking behind Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard. It is sometimes almost TOO good.”

This happens all the time. However, knowing more than a few known and unknown players, it never ceases to amaze me that, for folks who devote their lives and livelihoods to music, so many are completely nonchalant about the audio equipment they employ to conduct so much ‘professional research’, not to mention for their outright pleasure.

But this point is not open for debate: Better sound makes for more fun, more tingle, more snap, crackle, pop—more music. So it’s encouraging when one hears of more and more jazzers making the move to a higher level of gear; names I hear tossed around include Ron Carter, Kenny Washington, Billy Drummond, Dennis Irwin, Bennie Golson and Dave Holland, just to mention a few. But one figure looms largest on the audio scene, has been known as an audio gourmet for nearly two decades, has contributed letters to the editors of several swank audio rags, and has extended his love of good sound from his living room to his recorded output—such that each successive release appears markedly better than the last.

Of course, we are talking about Keith Jarrett—exceptional keyboardist, particularly particular artist, and self-proclaimed, part-time audiophile. He’s recorded for Manfred Eicher’s German ECM label for more than half his life, creating an unequalled oeuvre that crosses over from  jazz into classical, and luckily for us listeners, the sonics of every disc have been tweaked to perfection by artist and label owner alike. But it is clear that Jarrett himself has become the taskmaster of late when it comes to spiffing the sound of his own work, in large part, he admits, due to his being infected by the high-end audio bug.

We recently spoke with Jarrett about his quest for better sound at home, and how that has affected his recording process. Here is what he had to say:

Keith Jarrett

“One of the problems with being a musician is you don’t have time to be a proper audiophile. To be proper, you have to be insane all the time and obsessed all the time. You need a psychotherapist after a while. And I would also say this about improvising alone on stage: it is also a kind of craziness, a certain insanity. You need a certain type of craziness to be a musician, and also to get into this audio thing appropriately. So I’ve learned that if I’m only an audiophile part-time, it works really well.

“Luckily, it’s not a process that is continuing for me anymore—what I’ve been using for quite a while is a high-end tube preamp with very good transistor monoblocks, both from American companies.”

Recently, Jarrett put a couple finishing touches on his dream system which he uses for work as well as for his rare moments of leisure:

“I was completely blown away by one of the most revelatory things I’ve ever heard, the ELP turntable, the laser turntable. The presentation is not like anything I’ve ever heard before from an LP. As soon as it arrived, instantly, my entire record collection was brand new. I’ve never had that experience. I’m listening to real people and real bass—you even get depth and layers out of mono recordings.

“Almost equally revealing are the new speakers I recently purchased. I kept hearing things through them thinking I must have blown a driver because I was hearing this distortion. But I got out my electrostatic headphones which are very revealing and listened very closely then realized there WAS distortion over there in the right channel. I’d never heard it before. I went back to the speakers and it was plain as day, something apart from the music. The speakers are amazing at revealing those kinds of recording realities, and also, lifelike instrument size. And I had to learn all over again that every recording was made in a different space, on a different day, with different mikes, as though I shouldn’t know that already.

“My reference system allows me to listen to a master tape or a test CD, so that if I say ok to it, I say ok to it. I mean, it’ll be out there forever. Since the inception of digital, I have been disappointed with every single piano recording I’ve ever made, with the exception of two or three, and I’m now able to describe accurately to Manfred what I hear that I don’t like.

Jarrett goes on to describe how better equipment helps him make better and better records:

“You know, sometimes in audio, the adjectives are very hard to find, like describing wine. You have to develop a whole new vocabulary. Manfred likes to use the word ‘silvery’—he likes that sound of the piano—but I would never want a piano to sound ‘silvery.’ However, he might mean what I am hearing, just using different words, it’s just hard to know. But, because I’m dealing with a public release, I felt obliged to become an audiophile. I needed one of us to be so involved with audio that we could almost know—almost know—what’s on the tape.”

When asked how and why he drifted into audiophilia, Jarrett responded:

“It was the need to be able to speak about constituent parts of a recording in a way my producers would understand, and that I could, at will, reproduce. That was the reason, in addition to the normal one of wanting a better system at home just to enjoy listening to all music. I started to read the audio magazines and learn the language.

Keith Jarrett

“It’s like any tool. When I was young and playing solo concerts, I had some shitty pianos, but I still played good concerts. But each time that happened, we tried harder and harder, through the rider in our contracts, to make sure the right piano would be available. As I got better at playing and more deeply involved in nuance, I needed better pianos. It’s like a spiral in a way, you have to go up.

“It’s the same with the sound system. I’d come back with a tape and put it on, then say to myself, ‘I’m not thrilled by this, but I know I played well, so I better investigate this. It was good in the control room, but here it does not seem to represent what I thought that it was.’ So it was more from the professional side probably that I got into this.

“Those experiences were presenting me with conundrums I had to solve at home. I had to go home with a tape and ask myself: ‘Is what I’m hearing true? I’m going to have to listen on something better because it’s my music and I’m going to have to be able to say yes or no about a release and know that I’m not making a stupid mistake.’ That’s how that came down.

“Of course there is also the enjoyment level: When I’m actually listening for enjoyment, not that terribly much these days, unfortunately, with the present state of my system, I can say everything I listen to is drawing me into the music, but it took me since the early ’80s to get here. Back then I didn’t know what I was listening for, didn’t know how to listen, how to tweak or test, didn’t know acoustics or how to make a room work…that takes a long time all by itself and it can be horribly frustrating. You go to bed and have nightmares about the room sound!”

But his system has now gelled, and, when time allows, Jarrett is able to luxuriate in the sound and the music:

“My listening is wildly different from day to day, anything from African music to Stockhausen or Natalie Cole. I can’t tell you what I listen to. But when I listen, there’s nothing in the room but the speakers—all the equipment and CDs are in another room. I think if it were not like this, I would not have become an audiophile because I don’t like all the wires. I don’t want to see wires. Even when we do recordings, Manfred knows to keep everything as minimal as possible on stage. So at home, sitting in the listening room, especially with these new speakers, I can have the illusion of sitting with musicians, and that is a big difference from my older systems.

“Sometimes I do have concentrated listening sessions sitting in a chair, or I might listen doing my stretches or something else, though in that case I would not program music that would require utter concentration.

“But when I get a new tape to listen to, I’ll listen two ways. When you’re at a mixing session, most people try to listen for things, so they listen with a certain kind of tension. But the best way to listen at a mixing session is to listen as though the music is just happening. So I do both when it comes to my own releases—I listen as though it’s just happening, just casually there in the room, and I listen in my chair with whatever amount of light seems appropriate. Interestingly, I don’t have the audiophile’s ideal of a detached listening room, it’s my living room. And even in my studio, where you’re not supposed to have glass, I break the rules. I can’t live in the woods and have the sun go down, or come up, and have a lake I could look at while I practice, and not put a window in there. Life is life.

“One of the old discs I was listening to recently was a Stravinsky piece that I thought was really not that great, at least I thought I thought that—I’d had it since I was a kid. I put it on and I’m thinking that I never really listened to the piece knowing everything about what was going on in it, and when I finally realized what was going on, I could see the score, I could hear the colors of the winds and the chorus. It radically changed my opinion of that piece. It became something that influenced me from that moment on, and I’m sure when I practice in the studio, that piece is part of me in a new way because of my revised appreciation for it.

“As is true of my audiophile phases, I also have listening and non-listening phases. I’m currently in a non-listening phase. Sometimes it just shuts itself down. I remember reading one of my favorite poets, Rumi, who talks about spiritual slumps as being a positive thing. I used to tell my students, ‘Don’t listen to music all the time.’ They’d say, ‘What?’ And I’d respond ‘Ok, you’re young, you should probably forget what I said and listen to everything you can get your hands on, but don’t forget completely what I said. When you’re doing your work, you sometimes shouldn’t be overeating other peoples’ sound.’ ”

ECM has always been touted for its quality sound, and Jarrett’s individual discs, particularly, have improved noticeably year by year. His response was instant when asked if his home system was helping him fine-tune his recorded output:

“Sure, here’s a really good example. I reinstated doing solo concerts very selectively and I did a couple in Europe. I don’t like listening to music on an airplane, I don’t care how good the little earbuds are, they’re not real. But I made the mistake of taking along my machine because I knew I’d be getting DAT tapes of the concerts for listening at home. So, on the flight back, I’m listening and I hated everything. There were three concerts and I told my wife, ‘This is just shit.’

“I came back to my home system and put on the tapes and I didn’t like the first thing, then put on the second concert and I stopped in my tracks and said ‘Wait a minute!’

“What I was hearing was parallel to my experience at the concert. I thought it was a good concert, but on the flight, and even in my hotel room, I didn’t ever want to listen to it again. If the sound isn’t right, sometimes it almost doesn’t matter how good the music is…up to a point. You can’t get it back if it’s not there. But then I realized, if you have a system that can resolve it for you, you can be taken off that worrisome path—something is revealed and it might actually match your remembrance of what you were playing in concert.

“Now, whenever I get something that’s not released yet, and I’m asked to say ok or not, I know I have the appropriate tools to do that with. If anybody wants to argue with me, I know exactly what to say about what I liked and didn’t like about it.”

So the sound is improving?

“Definitely, because I’m hearing more at home on my better sounding system. Earlier in my career, I was so involved in the music, really truly, if I listen to some of that stuff now, I can’t imagine how I could not have hated it, even I don’t know. But I was only listening to the music, I wasn’t paying attention to how much better it could have been presented. I was a naive young jazz guy. Now we’re all old and naive, the difference is, now we know it.

“My relationship to what jazz should sound like has more to do with the old Contemporary recordings [Lester Koening’s Contemporary Records, known for simple, straightforward engineering with minimal miking through the 1950s and early 1960s] than it does with anything with echo.

“But over time, my recordings have been getting drier as a rule. Manfred likes to close-mike the piano. We’re also using a new Swiss engineer, Martin Pearson—I immediately liked what he was doing.

Like most audiophiles, full or part time, Jarrett is not a great fan of digital sound:

“I recall, in 1981, when digital was getting started, Manfred and I were in the studio in Stuttgart recording a solo piano thing to digital and analog both—same mikes, same feed, only the recording devices were different. We listened to them A-B, A-B, A-B, and I said, ‘Man, uhhhhhhhh.’ He said, ‘I like how quiet it is on the digital version.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, but it isn’t that quiet in the studio.’

“How realistic is that? What you got was blackness in the background, but it was synthetic blackness to me. I was hearing it as an absence, like a vacuum cleaner came in after every note and went ‘schlurrrp.’

“Analog LPs just sound better. If you want to know the position of instruments, if you want a soundstage of any kind, and if you don’t want a shimmer music doesn’t really have—I don’t even know how to describe it—If you’re not listening to a record, you’re not getting the whole thing. They’re just more natural.”

But, as much as he strives for the best sound, Keith Jarrett still admits the recording process can only go so far. And what it still comes down to is the message of the music:

Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock

“Gary [Peacock—longtime bassist with the ‘Standards’ Trio] has told me, I don’t know how many times, ‘Keith, no one’s heard you the way I hear you. I’ve not heard a recording of you playing where you’re doing what I know you’re doing.’ And yeah, that’s the whole quest. He’s standing right at the piano and he hears everything I’m doing at the keyboard as far as nuance is concerned. But every sound reproducing system is going to be missing something of the dynamics, so I just write that into the constitution. It’s never going to be as good as it actually was, and if it’s good on record, then live, it was better. When you think of all these wires and connections and physical materials, it’s a wonder the sound ever gets there at all.

“I used to have a mid-fi system in the studio to assess what the average—so-called average CD buyer—might hear. But since the advent of the latest, more revealing pieces in my system, I don’t use that anymore. I just turned 60 and I’ve decided I’m just going to listen to the best sound I can listen to. I’m not going to double my time, since my main job, after performing, of course, is to know what’s on the master tape. So I’m leaving it to the world to figure out if they like the recordings or not. There may be things I don’t like about the record, but the music has to win.”

And what about the disease of audiophilia?

“A lot of audiophiles are like shopaholics and they couldn’t settle down with one system if they wanted to. They could just as well be into model trains, which I am also a fan of, by the way.

“If it were truly about the music as many of them say, magazines would be reviewing music as music, and they wouldn’t be reviewing it based on sonics. That’s so depressing to me. It’s like, ‘Well shit—how did Hank Jones know they weren’t going to record it perfectly.’  How come people still buy certain Charlie Parker recordings even though all you hear is his horn and nobody in the band? There’s got to be some reason beyond the sound.”

Because, as Jarrett is saying, it is still all about the music. Composer Charles Ives, way back in the early twentieth century said the same thing, only a bit stronger: “My God! What does sound have to do with music?”
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