Life-changing jazz albums: 'My Song' by Keith Jarrett

Pianist Gwilym Simcock talks about the album that changed his life, 'My Song' by Keith Jarrett. Interview by Brian Glasser

The biggest turning point I’ve ever had, it was a life-changing thing that nothing else has come close to, was a cassette that was made for me by Steve Berry. He was the bass player in Loose Tubes, of course, but he was also a tutor at Chetham’s School in Manchester, which I attended from the age of nine till 18. It’s had a lot of terrible press recently, but I can only say that I had a very good time there.

Steve was teaching improvisation classes for classical musicians, and he’s an amazing educator. The first class was brilliant: at one point he set up a chord and got everyone to play over it. That immediately connected for me, because my dad was a church organist and he’d always sit down at the piano and play without any music. Not jazz improvisation of course – I didn’t know what jazz was until this cassette – but I was familiar with the concept that you didn’t need music. So realising, thanks to Steve, that there was a whole genre of music where that’s what it was all about was extraordinary.

I’d been in this hothouse atmosphere of music school, doing competitions and so on. I loved it there; but I already suspected at that point – I must have been 15 – that being a concert pianist wasn’t something I’d like. You’d get a piece of music, and learn it, and then play it, and the most important thing was to get it right. That’s not really a good reason to be playing music. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of that was also the performance anxiety; but I’ve always loved composing and doing my own thing rather than playing music that’s been played a million times before, and by amazing interpretive musicians like Brendel or Schiff, who really have a huge skill for that.

I’ve listened to the whole record millions of times now, but this is still my favourite track – maybe nothing’s quite like your first kiss!

Steve brought this cassette in for me after the second class, which was amazingly generous of him. The first track was ‘Questar’, off My Song. There was such a strong bridge between the classical world and the ECM approach to the music, the beautiful harmony and melody. But I think one of the main things as a young classical musician at the time was the rhythmic element: the rhythmic thing in jazz is so different. In fact, for me as a player it’s been the hardest thing to get together – the time feel is so different to the more rubato, breathing approach of classical music. On ‘Questar’, the propulsion, the momentum, is continuous but it’s so gentle. The drumming is so tender; and there’s a lot of air in the bass line, which the ECM sound accentuates. I’ve listened to the whole record millions of times now, but this is still my favourite track – maybe nothing’s quite like your first kiss!

I can’t remember whether ‘Questar’ was the first piece of jazz I heard. It might sound a crazy thing to say, but I find it quite difficult to listen to music, because it’s an analytical process for me. I’ve got perfect pitch, which is incredibly useful because jazz is such an aural artform; but the only downside is that you know what’s going on the whole time, which makes it difficult to get recreational enjoyment from it. So if I want that, I find myself gravitating to things like Stevie Wonder, or Earth Wind and Fire, or Tower of Power, or Steely Dan – things which just feel good. (Of course, it’s very clever music too.) When I was at classical music school I found it a challenge to listen to classical music – whereas now I like to! It’s far enough removed from what I do. But for me to listen to jazz is quite hard, because I can’t help analysing while it’s happening.

The first four tracks on the cassette were the ones that did it for me: after the Jarrett, the next two were off the Metheny album Travels – ‘Phase dance’ and ‘Straight on Red’; the last was ‘Lôro’, by Egberto Gismonti. The melodies are so beautiful on all of them – they instantly sit in your head and then you hear the improvisation on top. I didn’t understand how it worked when I was 15, it was just musical expression, which I guess is how most people hear music. It’s always struck me: what we the musicians are thinking about when we’re improvising, the technical things, just doesn’t matter to 99% of the audience. For them, it’s the communication. There’s a definite soaring quality to all those tunes that’s very uplifting. I’ve always wanted my music to be positive and optimistic – and I think part of that comes from that cassette.

The album

Jarrett My SongKeith Jarrett

My Song

ECM (1978)

PERSONNEL: Keith Jarrett (p), Jan Garbarek (ts, ss), Palle Danielsson (b) and Jon Christensen (d).

TRACKS :: ‘Questar’, ‘My Song’, ‘Tabraka’, ‘Country’, ‘Mandala’ and ‘The Journey Home’





This interview originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit:

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