Keith Jarrett: A Biography by Wolfgang Sandner (Equinox)

Given the fact that the legendary pianist, composer and improviser, Keith Jarrett, refuses steadfastly to talk at any significant length about his music, stating that ‘words’ are effectively useless and that any words used are completely superfluous, it does seem a touch ironic that I find myself writing these words you now read, about words that have been written in a book about the life of Jarrett and his music. I can relate to the sentiment behind Jarrett’s opinion, but one only has to have a passing interest to understand why it is so intriguing to discover more about the man, his life and his music.

Veteran music writer Wolfgang Sandner’s new biography comes at a poignant time, with the recent news of Jarrett’s ill health, perhaps allowing the reader to reflect on the immense achievements of the pianist even more so than ever before. Sandner’s book benefits not only from the author’s personal experiences but also from a fortuitous set of circumstances that led to Jarrett’s younger brother, Chis, translating from the author’s original German text and adding some insightful family information to the published German edition.

I have to say I very much like Sandner’s writing style. As a biographer it’s refreshing that he doesn’t pull any punches, being unafraid to tell it like it is. As a result, this biography benefits from his objectivity. As one would expect, the book details Jarrett’s life in music, from his upbringing in Allentown, Pennsylvania, through his incredibly innovative and uncompromising musical journey, to his latter years and everything in between. But it’s not necessarily the obvious facts that make a great biography, it’s the little surprises, the anecdotes, the meat on the bone that adds to the storytelling. Sandner is especially adept at this, although it’s impossible to know just how much of the detail is from the pen of the author, and how much from the input of Jarrett’s younger brother Chris. Either way, it’s a good combination that actually makes this book a bit of a page-turner, unusual in itself for a biography.

Without a plethora of input from Keith Jarrett himself, any biographer would have to draw on his own experiences, if any, with the pianist as a starting point to write about his life. The facts are all there and the rest is perhaps a balance between understanding and intuition. Sandner does have, as much as maybe any writer can, some history with Jarrett, and a love for the pianist’s music comes over loud and clear. In addition to this, the author also dispels a few rumours, as well as bringing fresh and informative detail to key moments in Jarrett’s life, such as his time with Miles Davis, his ‘European’ and ‘American’ quartets, the Koln story, his highs and lows, and of course the complex nature of the artist himself.

For Jarrett fans, Sandner’s book is essential reading. It adds a different perspective and offers valuable insights in a thoughtful, often illuminating way. And unless Keith Jarrett finds a new tune that incorporates his own words, this book, in addition to Ian Carr’s 1992 biography, could well be as good as it gets.

Mike Gates

Astral Travelling Since 1993