Religious Experiences

by Mark Isaacs

Published by Sunday Herald Sun

Keith Jarrett ‘Belonging’ Band
Village Vanguard, New York City, May 1979

“You’d better come down real early if you want to get in”, said the man on the telephone from the Village Vanguard, New York’s legendary jazz club.

I had come to the Big Apple for a sojourn of indefinite length at the age of 20, and in order to make my savings last was slumming it at the Bryant, a seedy residential hotel  that was also used as a ‘halfway house’ for prisoners on parole. Hearing my jazz heroes in the flesh was one of my main reasons for coming.

Back in Australia, I had practically worn out my vinyl copy of My Song, by pianist Keith Jarrett’s European quartet (or ‘Belonging’ band). And here they were playing in what amounted to the next suburb!

Never one to take well-meaning advice lightly, I took my place at the top of the stairs that descended to the jazz cellar a full three hours before show time. I had stopped in at a second-hand bookshop on the way for some reading material to pass the time, and somehow ended up with a copy of an esoteric book called The Hollow Earth. As a queue formed behind me that ultimately wound around several blocks, I read crackpot theories of strange civilisations inside the Earth, allegedly accessible by holes at the North and South Poles. It certainly prepared my mind to be truly accepting of what it was about to receive.

When the doors finally opened, the nice man from the club seemed genuinely taken aback by the length of the queue. America loves a winner, and my place at the very head of the queue got his vote. “You must have been here all day” he said, as he waved me in without charging me.

Having the club fully to myself for a minute, I rushed to the best seat in the house. Well-known to musicians, it was right at the side of the stage next to the drum kit. It felt like you were virtually onstage and from the position of the piano, which was facing vertically into the band, I knew I would be staring Mr Jarrett straight in the face from a few metres away.

The ensuing performance was beyond revelation. More like an epiphany – the band played with so much spirit that they seemed no longer to posses bodies. At one point Keith, whose back was to the audience, looked momentarily horrified, and spun around to look at the assemblage. It was like he had forgotten that the audience was there and needed to check that they hadn’t gotten up and left. I was stunned when Jarrett moved from piano to timbales (small drums on stands played with sticks) to add some percussion. It was some of the most exciting drumming I had ever heard.

I tumbled out of the club, my head ringing with the potent melodies and rhythms that seemed to transcend ‘jazz’, or any other form of categorisation. I felt I had heard a universal folk/art music, a musical voice of the planet itself (this was years before so-called ‘World Music’ became a mere record industry category).

Back in my one room, with its rented upright piano, I poured out my impressions and interpretations of that experience for days. I was good friends with a black American pianist named Lance Hayward who lived in the room next door. He was blind, and I often used to escort him down to his regular gig at the Village Corner, where he played solo jazz standards and knocked back little shots of vodka like they were prescribed medicine. More than forty years my senior, and having approved of some of the more traditional music I had played for him, he banged on my door and said “I don’t think that’s jazz, but it sounds pretty nice”.

Later that year, I found out that the performance had been recorded, and it was released on the ECM label under the title of Nude Ants. Interestingly, I bought the record and was intensely disappointed. It just wasn’t the same as being there. Maybe that demonstrates that a true ‘religious experience’ only occurs when you decide to get off your backside and actually go to ‘church’.

Honourable Mentions

McCoy Tyner Band, New York City, 1979
Chick Corea, ‘Return to Forever’, Regent Theatre, Sydney, 1977
Bill Evans Trio, Bottom Line, New York City, 1979