NEW YORK -- Keith Jarrett declared he was done with classical music recordings after recovering from the chronic fatigue syndrome that sidelined him for nearly two years in the late 1990s. But the jazz pianist has just released his first classical recording in 15 years, a two-CD set of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano" with violinist Michelle Makarski that came together quite unexpectedly.
His illness led him to focus on creating music as a jazz improviser rather than interpreting music as a classical performer. He devoted himself to his Standards trio and his spontaneously improvised solo piano concerts that brought him international renown through such albums as the multi-platinum "The Koln Concert."
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"Everybody has a limited lifespan and I wanted to use mine intelligently," the 68-year-old Jarrett said. "I felt that if I had been called to do anything it was to make music."
Jarrett, recently named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the nation's highest jazz honor, had also become disillusioned with the approach to making classical recordings, which involved minimal interaction and rehearsal time with other musicians and an overemphasis on technical perfection at the expense of emotion.
But the Bach recording -- Jarrett's first since a 1998 collection of Mozart piano concertos -- developed in an almost organic way out of a series of impromptu get-togethers with Makarski at the pianist's home. Makarski had previously performed Jarrett's compositions, "Sonata for Violin and Piano" and "Elegy for Violin and String Orchestra," on his 1993 album of contemporary classical music, "Bridge of Light." They rekindled their friendship when Makarski visited him backstage after the pianist's first post-illness U.S. solo piano concert at Carnegie Hall in 2005.
Then Jarrett invited the violinist to his home for the Christmas holiday in 2008. She brought along the sheet music for the sonatas because she knew Bach was Jarrett's favorite classical composer. Jarrett was initially reluctant to play the sonatas but Makarski convinced him to give it a try.
"It started that casually," Jarrett said in a telephone interview from his home in rural western New Jersey. "We both have good senses of humor. We went at this as though there was fun to be had and that's probably one of the keys to this. We were having fun with a giant of music here. We weren't picking it apart and analyzing it."
Makarski says she was surprised at how adept Jarrett was at sight-reading the complicated score during the first run through, displaying what she called "a formidable technique" and "terrific sense of rhythm" that helped in the fast movements.
"Keith is incredibly respectful of classical music," she said, "but as a jazz pianist he knows how to listen and react to his partner in a different way than non-jazz pianists listen."
Jarrett says he felt comfortable with Makarski because she wasn't a typical classical musician but "has open ears ... and a relationship to improvised music." Makarski grew up listening to jazz violinists such as Joe Venuti thanks to her father who had his own dance band, and recorded for ECM with such improvising musicians as trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and saxophonist John Surman.
The two would get together at Jarrett's home studio in a converted barn to play the sonatas for their own enjoyment, getting together every few weeks or months as their schedules permitted, each time playing them at different tempos.
"We did not rehearse in the traditional way or listen to playbacks," Makarski said. "It was totally exploratory."
When Jarrett found out that the violinist had not recorded the sonatas, he suggested making a recording, which took place in November 2010 in New York. They stuck closely to the written music, adding only a few ornamental touches.
Jarrett says the CD complements two albums of Bach sonatas he recorded nearly 20 years ago with violist Kim Kashkashian and recorder player Michala Petri on which he played harpsichord rather than piano. These were part of a series of recordings of iconic classical repertoire, starting with Bach's "Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Buch I," in 1987. Jarrett says interpreting the classical repertoire has helped develop his touch at the keyboard when improvising.
Over the past year, ECM has released several archival recordings that display different sides of Jarrett's musical persona. Next month, the label plans to release two more Jarrett titles: "No End," recorded in 1986, on which Jarrett is heard on electric guitars and bass, drums and percussion, and "Concerts -- Bregenz/Munchen," a three-CD set with the complete version of two 1981 solo piano concerts.
Jarrett's main focus this year has been his Standards trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. They released the concert recording "Somewhere," which blends Jarrett's improvised solos with the trio's inventive explorations of such standards as Miles Davis' "Solar," Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere" and "Tonight," and the classic ballad "Stars Fell on Alabama." The trio has marked its anniversary with worldwide concert dates that will culminate Dec. 11 at Carnegie Hall.
Jarrett says the trio is ignoring the hoopla surrounding the anniversary.
"We're the same people and are just here to play music," Jarrett said. "This is the most tightly knit family I've ever had in music. There's no arguing or animosity. Call it a love group."