Pianist Keith Jarrett was about to start the second number of his program Wednesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall when he was distracted by a rumbling sound — late arrivals rushing to their seats.
Frowning, he turned to his audience and asked, "Do you hear that? It must be the sound of ghost cartoon characters. Creaky boards aren't usually found in new concert halls."
Then, about to begin again, he paused a second time to add another comment. "I have news for the person who designed this room. The sound travels better this way." He pointed to indicate a direction from the audience to the stage.
And that, in a sardonic nutshell, defined Jarrett's reaction to the acoustics in the new auditorium. After the rave reviews that the sounds of the first few orchestral concerts have garnered, the first question facing Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette at the hall's first jazz concert was whether the room would prove equally felicitous to a jazz piano trio.
And from the first number, Cole Porter's "All of You," it was apparent that there were problems. The balance between the three instruments was uncertain, producing no sense of individual dimension for each. At times DeJohnette, one of the jazz world's most subtle percussionists and the only player whose instrument was not miked, seemed to be overwhelming Jarrett's piano, and Peacock's usually crystal-clear bass lines were muddy and indistinct.
Jarrett declined to make any comment about the hall prior to the program. But his manager, Steve Cloud, indicated some concern.
"We know it's going to be a good acoustic venue — at least that's what we hear from all the reviews," he said. "But a good acoustic venue for a symphony orchestra is not necessarily good for a piano trio, with amplified bass. So we'll have to see. We certainly expect it to be an important event, but I'll be surprised if the acoustics, for our purposes, are as good as a proscenium-type theater like Royce Hall."
Great players, of course, are at their best responding to challenges. And as the program continued, it was apparent that the musicians were working hard to shape and tailor their sound, individually and collectively.
One of the central and most appealing qualities in Jarrett's playing is his capacity to make his lines sing, with the sort of intimacy and connectivity one usually associates with a vocalist. In "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" and "Someday My Prince Will Come" he gradually boosted the performance up a few levels via the sheer loveliness of his melodic expositions — even though the sound continued to lack clarity and definition.
The second half of the performance was a distinct improvement, in part the result of continual adjustments made at the sound board by Jarrett's own technician, but largely a reflection of the trio's yeoman efforts at musical adaptation.
"Bye Bye Blackbird" featured a fleet improvisational display from Jarrett that was enhanced, like other tunes, by the dramatic physical movements and vocal interjections — rising from his piano bench, crouching, reaching, grunting and humming — that have long been characteristics of his idiosyncratic performing style.
"And They Asked About You" and "When I Fall in Love" revealed more lyricism, and a bop-drenched rhythm tune was enlivened by Jarrett's wickedly humorous sendup of avant-garde dissonance.
Backstage after the program, Jarrett looked healthy and spry. Embarked on a busy schedule of performances in celebration of the trio's 20th anniversary, he revealed no signs of the chronic fatigue syndrome that prevented virtually any activity at all a few years ago.
But he did not seem pleased about the circumstances of the performance that had just taken place. "It was like being in the center of a big bowl, with the sound stirring around and never finding any sort of focus," Jarrett said of playing in Disney Hall.
Jarrett, who has performed in virtually every major musical venue in the world, noted that "when you're playing in rooms that feel right, none of the traveling is a problem. I just wish that were more the case in this country, but it really isn't."
Obviously it's going to take a few more concerts by a few more ensembles of different sizes and instrumentations before any generalizations can be made regarding Disney's effectiveness as a venue for jazz. The music, after all, embraces many sounds and many styles, from the brassy timbres of the big Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra that Wynton Marsalis will bring to Disney Hall on March 15 to the intimate chamber jazz of Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette.
For Jarrett, the answer seemed to be contained in his final comment on the evening's events.
"Well, you know," he said, "we always say we'll try to play almost anywhere — once."
Making noises about Disney Hall acoustics
Pianist Keith Jarrett ran into some problems at the hall's first jazz concert.
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