There's an overwhelming sense of ritual behind any solo piano concert by Keith Jarrett: a set of expectations and behaviors, often unspoken but widely understood.
To the extent that it's a code, it involves both the artist and his audience, and especially the transaction between the two. Since the 1970s, when Mr. Jarrett first earned a reputation for sustained, spontaneous rhapsody, he has trained his concertgoers to gather as congregants, complicit witnesses to his search for illumination. Also: no cameras. No coughing. No, seriously.
At Carnegie Hall, where Mr. Jarrett appeared on Wednesday night, these issues tend to come into sharp relief. His previous concert there, almost exactly a year ago, was by all accounts a peevish affair, pockmarked by complaints from the stage. This time a preconcert announcement pleading for the suppression of coughs sent a ripple of knowing laughter through the hall; a while later Mr. Jarrett, interrupting his performance, addressed the matter himself, adding one more layer of ritual, that of atonement.
Or something to that effect. Everything I've ever said, I apologize for," he said with an impish grin, after divulging that he was wearing an outdated, uncomfortable pair of pants, errantly plucked from the closet on his way out the door. He thanked those who had never let his words, or the ensuing criticism, color their view of his music.
Right, the music. Mr. Jarrett's standard for solo-piano performance is dauntingly high, maybe now more than ever: Rio," the album he released last year, is an outright astonishment, as is The Carnegie Hall Concert," recorded in 2005 and released in '06. Blame the pants or the muse, but Mr. Jarrett had to work hard to get to an equivalent plateau on Wednesday. In the first half, when most of his inventions clocked in at an uncannily precise five minutes, he often seemed to be rolling a boulder uphill.
Of course, even in the struggle there were moments of breathtaking artistry; Mr. Jarrett, with his exquisite touch and exacting intuition, doesn't settle for much less. He began with a dissonant overture, rummaging with both hands around the piano's lower register; what eventually emerged was a trancelike vamp over an Eastern scale. There was more to come in this vein, along with a few murmuring ballads, a brief gospel excursion and an outlying burst of atonal shrapnel. ("What is it about me that's bothered by coughing," he chuckled afterward, when I'm playing something as ridiculous as that?")
Whatever happened at intermission was salutary. Mr. Jarrett opened the second half with a song of deep yearning, with a more resonant touch and greater internal structure than anything that had come before. He followed this with an in-the-pocket groove, syncopating open fifths with his left hand; another gospelish piece, silvery and sure; a devastatingly pretty miniature suffused with dreamlike tremolos; and a ballad of somber beauty, its harmony shifting like a cloud formation. He stopped himself two minutes into a rousing but banal 12-bar blues, exercising a right as the keenest critic of his own work. When he resumed, his tack was more harmonically restive, and driven by tough, grinding rhythm.
The encores, as usual, were stunning: a soulful groove tune; a gleaming, Copland-esque ballad; and pristinely lyrical readings of Miss Otis Regrets" and It's a Lonesome Old Town." A great, worshipful clamor arose after each of these: the standard protocol, and the one that made the most sense.