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Michelle Makarski and Keith Jarrett

Michelle Makarski and Keith Jarrett

We’ve heard him as a jazz sideman with Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Charles Lloyd, and in expansive solo improvisations like the Köln Concert of 1975 – one of the best-selling piano recordings in history. His own jazz trio (with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette) is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. But Keith Jarrett has consistently reminded listeners of his classical bona fides as well, with forays into the music of Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Shostakovich and more.

On his first classical album in fifteen years, Keith Jarrett is joined by violinist Michelle Makarski in Johann Sebastian Bach: Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano [BWV 1014-19]. The performance – profoundly beautiful – holds some surprises.

One is a lack of embellishment – those interpretive flourishes that many Baroque specialists automatically insert into the music – despite the pianist’s improvisational pedigree. That, combined with the remarkable sound that Ms. Makarski achieves with her instrument – suggesting in some inexplicable way the soul of an ancient viol – and the meticulousness of the rendering, makes for a unique listening experience.

“I feel responsible to the page, probably more than most players,” explains Mr. Jarrett, 68, by phone from his home in western New Jersey, “because I also do the ‘other thing’ [improvisation]. If you take the music away from a classical performer who has never improvised, he’ll be in shock and won’t know what to do. That’s why he has to put his entire personality into his interpretive skills. He has no music of his own.”

Mr. Jarrett’s musical life as an active improviser, he suggests, frees him of the compulsion to add something extra when he turns to Bach, a fellow improviser. That includes heart-on-your-sleeve emotion – though, in its honest search for Bach’s voice, the recording conveys both passion and tenderness. “I don’t think Bach would appreciate what Christopher Hogwood once called ‘teardrop’ style,” Mr. Jarrett says. “On early instruments, expressivity depended on how good your pitch was, and how graceful you could be. Michelle and I are pretty direct players,” he adds, “but I think we understand grace.”

The project came together serendipitously. “Keith was asked to play on the Lincoln Center Great Performers series in the early ’90s,” recalls Ms. Makarski, “and he wanted to use some of his written music, including a violin-and-piano sonata and a piece for violin and string orchestra. I had recently won the Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition, and his manager asked me if I would play that concert. It went well, but we didn’t see each other much after that.”

Then, beginning in 1996, Mr. Jarrett had chronic fatigue syndrome for two years when he wasn’t playing at all. “In 2008,” Ms. Makarski says, “I got an invitation to visit him at Christmas. ‘I think we should play something,’ he said. I knew he had already performed some Bach and suggested that I bring along the sonatas. He agreed. We read through three, had dinner, and then played the other three. We were so delighted by the experience that we continued to do it. But it was always playing – not rehearsing. We didn’t stop and talk a lot. There was no sense of fine-tuning, no aiming for a result. It was all about listening.”

For Ms. Makarski, it was the beginning of a musical adventure. For Mr. Jarrett, it was more like a moment of salvation. “When I had chronic fatigue,” he remembers, “I listened to my old recordings and all I could see were the flaws and the self-indulgence in my playing – finding too many notes, asking, ‘Why did I do that?’ I thought that if I ever played again I would focus on my improvising.” By that Christmas season he had decided that he “wasn’t going to be in the classical world again. And I had never read these Bach pieces before. But after the first couple of times with Michelle I thought, ‘OK, let’s not stop.’ It was a triumph. At the end of the sessions I thought, ‘You did it, Keith.’ I’m glad I went through this.”

Ms. Makarski had been working on developing the unique violin tone heard on the recording. “I had received praise for my playing by artists like Nathan Milstein. He loved my Bach. But I was dissatisfied, feeling my approach was overly Romantic. Then I heard a performance by the Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma, who often plays on period instruments. I loved it. I took it as a challenge to develop a technique to get that sound using modern materials,” she reveals. “I’m still having to make adjustments. But you can hear what I’m after especially in the slow movements.” I mention their gripping performance of the Largo from the Sonata in F minor (BWV 1018), with her poignant, detached swells on key notes in each phrase, as a particularly moving example. “I tear up at that,” she admits. “Keith and I would play that and we’d stop and hug.”

“Every time we went over the music,” Mr. Jarrett says, “the tempo was different. But the interpretation progressed on its own. One of our strengths is in sounding together when it counts. At one point there was a stream of thirds, and we were playing them so tightly that I said, ‘The Everly Brothers!’”

Jazz and classical music are, in his view, two different worlds, but Mr. Jarrett says that Bach’s ideas spark a certain resonance with his improvisational art. “When I’m playing chords with the Trio,” he explains, “I’m always thinking about what parts [separate lines] are moving, and how many can move at the same time. That’s what happens in Bach: all these melodies going past each other – I always think of them as voices – and his mind is operating at a remarkable speed. Hearing Glenn Gould, you could tell which ones he was listening to more because of the way he sang along. But I try to keep things balanced in this music and don’t want to give precedence to any of these voices unless it deserves it.

“You can think of the result as lacking in color. But that’s not true of this recording,” he adds, with justifiable pride.

Stuart Isacoff – The Wall Street Journal