The Earshot Jazz Festival, which lasts a whopping seven weeks this year, gets under way Tuesday at Benaroya Hall with headliner Keith Jarrett.
The famously creative (and notoriously fussy) pianist — jazz’s own Glenn Gould — appears with his trio, which features former Cornish College instructor Gary Peacock (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums).
Jarrett played on Miles Davis’ seminal 1969 “Bitches Brew” album, went on to work with saxophonist Charles Lloyd (“Forest Flower”), then in 1973 became widely known for his spontaneous solo piano concerts.
In 1983, Jarrett formed a trio to perform “standards” — a body of classic popular songs also known as the Great American Songbook — and, surprisingly — even to him — it has endured three decades, producing a monumental body of gorgeous work, including May’s “Somewhere,” the trio’s 20th release.
Jarrett approaches improvisation as open-ended, responding to the mood of the crowd, his own mood, the season and whatever thoughts or emotions may surface in the moment. Yet “Somewhere” feels remarkably condensed, as if the trio went into the hall in Lucerne, Switzerland, knowing exactly what it had to say.
In a relaxed and jocular phone interview from his Pennsylvania home a few weeks ago, Jarrett explained that the concise feeling of the concert may stem from the fact that it was necessarily short.
“The airport closed at midnight,” he explained. “This was just one long, single set. That’s what happens when you don’t think you’re taking a break.”
Jarrett added that the trio was not particularly happy with the concert hall that night.
“We did hate that room,” he said, “and I disliked the piano. Gary couldn’t believe I was thinking of releasing it because he remembered everybody was having trouble with the sound.”
One would never guess that by listening, though it may have something to do with why Jarrett launched into an almost obsessive, two-note vamp on the 19-plus minute track, “Somewhere/Everywhere.”
“I don’t know why it happened,” he said. “Maybe it was the sound of that room. But I tried it at another concert after that and just the very fact that I decided, it made it not work at all. It was just proof that improvisation is like a death-defying jump. But you gotta make the jump. And if you have a net, don’t do it. Forget it.”
Unlike many jazz instrumentalists, Jarrett actually likes vocalists and popular songs, knows song lyrics and tries to honor the “overall message” of a piece, not just take it into outer space.
“This is something Gary asked me not long ago,” he said. “ ‘Do you know the words of all the things we play? All I ever learned were the chords and a bass line.’ When I said, ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘That explains a lot.’ ”
What he’s reading are as big an influence on Jarrett as music, he said. His recently read author list isn’t for lightweights: William Gass (“The Tunnel”), David Foster Wallace (“No wonder he had trouble!”), William T. Vollman and Richard Powers.
“The English language is so beautiful and capable of nuance,” he said, “and different words that mean the same thing don’t quite mean the same thing. It’s fascinating.”
Two years ago, the trio’s Seattle concert was a bit under par, though a second-string Jarrett show is better than a first-tier one by most other groups.
“Those are the ones I have no recollections of,” he said, laughing. “I don’t want to be suicidal.”
Jarrett did allow as how, just before that show, a storm had “destroyed 70 or 80 trees on my property,” which may have affected his mood.
But Jarrett’s in a good place these days. Whatever his mood, or whatever the weather brings, chances are the show will be a great kickoff for Earshot.
Keith Jarrett-Jack DeJohnette-Gary Peacock Trio
8 p.m. Tuesday at Benaroya Hall, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, 200 University St., Seattle; $30-$125 (206-215-4747 or www.earshot.org).