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(Soundbite of music from "Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert")

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

That vibrant music is coming from the legendary pianist Keith Jarrett. This performance was recorded live at Carnegie Hall in the fall of last year. For jazz enthusiasts it was a major event. That's partly because Jarrett has battled chronic fatigue syndrome since 1996 and rarely does concerts anymore. But Jarrett's solo performances have always been something to see, if only to witness his uncanny ability to improvise sometimes for 40 or 50 minutes straight.

NPR's Tony Cox talked to Jarrett and asked him to share the secret to making it up as you go along.

(Soundbite of music from "Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert")

Mr. KEITH JARRETT (Pianist): If Nike hadn't used the words just do it, I mean that is exactly what, you know, is happening there. If I question it even for a second, I'm probably wrong. It is an intuitive thing; it's probably the biggest talent I have. I mean as well as I can play the piano, if I didn't know what to play next I'd be one of many great pianists but I wouldn't have much to say.

TONY COX: You know, I've been reading up on you in preparation for the interview, and one of the things - well, obviously you are known for your improvisational skills and yet I read where you said that you actually, at one point, practice improvisation. How do you do that?

Mr. JARRETT: More likely than not I was talking about recently, and what happened was, well, I had chronic fatigue syndrome. I was completely out of the playing picture. And when I finally started to be able to play, naturally I had to test my systems because energy was not, like, immediately 100 percent or even 25 percent.

Trying to get myself in shape for a solo concert meant that I had to play a synthetic solo concert sometimes in my studio. And when I started to do that I didn't like half of what I played. It was an old me that I was not interested in anymore. So I would be playing for a few minutes and then I would realize, no, no, I don't really hear this. This is not what I want to hear.

So I would stop, and the stopping actually led to the new - so-called new for me anyway - concept of being able to stop during a solo concert instead of playing 45 minutes straight so that an idea could come to some sort of fruition. And I remembered back for decades during the older solo concert days, pre-chronic fatigue syndrome, playing 20 minutes and thinking, I wish I could stop here because this is so perfect but it's only been 20 minutes.

(Soundbite of music from "Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert")

COX: Let's go back to the beginning, because you were a child prodigy. As I understand, you began taking lessons at the age of three.

Mr. JARRETT: Mm-hmm.

COX: Did you have pressure on you as a youngster or the expectation from those around you that you would be great?

Mr. JARRETT: No. There was no pressure to be great. There was the correct amount of pressure to convince me that I should be practicing if I wanted to be worth anything. Of course, I want to be out playing basketball. Sometimes I'd move the timer on the stove ahead so that the bell would ring and everybody would think, oh, well, that's - Keith can leave now and go outside. My parents were not well off. They would say, well, if you don't want to practice that's okay, but we might have to sell the piano. And that would do it.

COX: Parents have a way of getting what they want, don't they?

Mr. JARRETT: It was what I wanted and they knew that.

(Soundbite of music from "Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert")

COX: Let's talk about performing live. And you are well known as an artist whose music connects with a live audience in a way that perhaps it may not on a recording, and that may be by design. And that actually is my question. Do you try to reach your audience in one way when you are performing live, in a way that you would not expect or hope to be able to reach them on a recording?

Mr. JARRETT: I haven't been in the studio for probably since Bye-Bye BlackBird. It was the year Miles died.

COX: That's 15 years.

Mr. JARRETT: And the only reason we went in a studio that time was because Miles died. But I need real people in the room to either make it more difficult for me to do what I might have done and therefore maybe end up surprising myself with something new anyway; or to make it easier for me to understand how similar we all are in that we all have blood flowing through our veins. And when you're playing in front of an audience, you're aware every moment of how focused or unfocused the audience is.

If they're unfocused, you don't know quite how to continue what you're doing. So you might alter something to try to get them in line with their own selves somehow, and that changes the music. If you're playing in a hall where everyone is incredibly focused, that also changes the music to where you want to give them something back for their focus.

COX: And so sort of feeding off of them in a sense. Was that the case with Carnegie?

Mr. JARRETT: That was definitely the case in Carnegie Hall in a bigger way than I've ever experienced.

(Soundbite of music from "Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert")

(Soundbite of applause)

COX: You are famous, Keith Jarrett, for moaning and contorting in your concert. Where did that come from and how has that impacted your style?

Mr. JARRETT: Anything I'm doing on stage that looks like it's part of a circus act is something I would rather not do. If you watch Jimmy Connors hit a tennis ball with the kind of accuracy he was capable of at his peak and listen to the sound he made every time he did that, I never asked myself why is Jimmy making sounds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Keith Jarrett speaking to us from his home at Oxford, New Jersey. He is, as one critic put it, one of the world's indisputably great pianists. His latest recording is called Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert. Keith Jarrett, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. JARRETT: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music from "Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert")

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox with pianist Keith Jarrett.

(Soundbite of music from "Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert")

CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing your times with us. We'll be back tomorrow. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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