Chris Jarrett - From berrypicker to concert attraction in two Scottish trips
Chris Jarrett remembers his first trip to Scotland clearly, although it’s now some thirty-five years ago and he hasn’t returned until now. The younger brother of leading jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Chris also plays piano and actually played on occasion during that previous visit.
These weren’t concerts, so his Celtic Connections debut this week will also be his official Scottish debut, and they’re overshadowed by another experience - picking raspberries in Blairgowrie – that had the same end result, earning money for food.
“I hadn’t long moved to Germany at the time and I was teaching English in a school in Oldenburg,” says the Pennsylvania- born Jarrett, who wound up in Germany after leaving Oberlin Conservatory mid-course, taking to the road and working on a shrimp boat in Texas and a clothing store office in New York.
“One of my pupils’ mothers saw that I didn’t have much money and she offered to pay for me to accompany her son on a trip to the UK if I continued teaching him English. We were travelling around and staying in hostels and when this guy refused to make the beds as his share of the chores, I left him on the Isle of Skye and set off alone.”
Hitching lifts all around the coast, he played for his supper in a couple of hotels and was directed to the berry fields of Blair, eventually meeting up again with his student in London and returning to Germany. The experience gave him a fondness for Scottish people and Scottish folk melodies, although he concedes that the latter comes more through hearing Haydn and Beethoven’s arrangements of Scots song.
Jarrett could hardly avoid becoming interested in music. The family home in Allentown had a constant musical soundtrack and hearing his now illustrious older brother practising made the piano seem very attractive. There are eleven years between them, so by the time Chris started getting serious about the piano Keith had left home and begun the career that took him through the Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis groups and on into his own work as a group leader and auditorium-filling solo pianist.
Facing problems at home, Chris took his own route. At the age of thirteen he was taken under the wing of the Austrian pianist Vincenz Ruzicka of the respected Dougherty & Ruzicka piano duo. Ruzicka played a major part in Jarrett’s classical training and encouraged him to go on to Indiana University and Oberlin, where he found the environment and musical standards disappointing. So he left and went travelling.
In Germany, after his Scottish sojourn, he was able to make a new start musically. He took up piano studies again at the University of Oldenburg, eventually taking a teaching post there, and composed piano pieces and a fully-fledged ballet, For Anne Frank, which was premiered in Oldenburg Palace. His first albums, Tanz auf dem Vulkan and Aufruf/Outcry, followed and now becoming established across central and eastern Europe as a solo pianist and composer, he was commissioned to write music for films including Danton, Faust and Battleship Potemkin as well as a symphonic ballet and a choreadrama.
“If you give me a subject I can put it into music,” he says, adding that his composer for hire status even found him, an American with little interest in soccer, creating a piece for the World Cup in Germany in 2006. Written for eleven string instruments and portraying the movement across a football field during a match, its humour left the audience of politicians and football administrators bemused, he says, but it was fun for him.
One piece he began in the early 1990s, an opera based on the poet and philosopher John Donne, remains unfinished and it’s his ambition eventually to get the time and the offer of a premiere that would allow him to complete it. He’d also like to conduct but says that he realises this ambition to some extent when he plays piano.
“I always have an orchestra in my head when I sit at the keyboard,” he says. “So I feel as if I’m conducting by making the piano play the notes I tell it to.”
For his Celtic Connections concert, Jarrett is joined by the Italian violinist Luca Ciarla. Any thoughts that this might be a continuation of his ongoing interest in the folk music of Europe and points east, however, are countered by the partnership’s pragmatic beginnings.
“Luca contacted me and said he was looking for a pianist,” says Jarrett. “He’d taken a look at my stuff and thought we might be compatible. It’s that simple. But he was right. My style of piano playing doesn’t work with saxophone, could work with clarinet, doesn’t work with flute or guitar but does seem to work with brass and strings. So there was no big artistic romance bringing us together but musically it’s satisfying for both of us.”
Chris Jarrett meets Luca Ciarla at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Thursday, January 29.
From The Herald, January 29, 2015.