Praying with the stereo on, especially listening to Jarrett

Published February 1, 2009

SOMETIMES I PRAY with the stereo on.  I suspect many readers might imagine that I’m referring either to sacred music or to that peculiar genre of ambient “music for meditation” so popular with massage therapists.  I’m referring to neither.  

No, when I say that I pray with the stereo on, I mean that a few years back I began to have these surprising experiences of feeling a piece of music quite unexpectedly move me into prayer; into a space of openness and of surrender to God.  And it wasn’t music from the established canon of sacred music that did it to me.  It was jazz.

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that something clicked, and overnight I connected with jazz.  I quickly learned what I liked and what I didn’t.  I quickly learned, for instance, that the genre known as “smooth jazz” did not work for me, and I was equally quick to find that the music of Keith Jarrett did.  In fact, it was while listening to a piece by Jarrett that I realized, much to my surprise, that his music was calling me into prayer.  

To make this all the stranger, at the time of my discovery I was running laps at an indoor track.  Running outdoors, I seldom use my MP3 player, since I’d rather be attentive to the sights and sounds and smells around me.  Running on an indoor track, on the other hand, is deadly dull.  I’d added the final disc from Jarrett’s six CD set, At the Blue Note, to my playlist and, as I started my run, the 28-minute piece “Desert Sun” came on.  

The piece opens with Jarrett’s solo piano, soon joined by the bass of Gary Peacock and drums of Jack DeJohnette.  Over 28 minutes the song builds and moves and expands in a hauntingly meditative way. After a section in which DeJohnette’s drumming is the sole voice heard – not as a conventional “drum solo,” but instead in a rhythmic and contemplative exploration of the song’s themes – the piece resolves… well, peacefully.  In the midst of it all, as I ran what were normally mind-numbing laps, I was lifted beyond my thoughts and into a space of openness to the creative Spirit of God.  On a track, listening to a musician who, while raised in a devout Christian Science home, confesses no religious faith.  

In Theology, Music and Time, Jeremy Begbie reflects at length on how music has the potential to “advance theology” and to “enact theological wisdom.” It is the enacting of theological wisdom – prayerful, open, contemplative wisdom – that I heard that morning in Jarrett’s “Desert Sun.”  

Now to be sure, this music will not resonate with everyone.  Jarrett has a habit of vocalizing as he plays, which jazz writer Alyn Shipton characterizes as “neither quite singing or grunting.” As the music moves him, Jarrett laughs or moans or sighs, and this is particularly so on his freely improvised works.  Thing is, I have come to realize that I always understand why at these particular moments in these particular songs he lets loose with the vocalization that he does.  Sometimes it is all I can do to keep myself from laughing or sighing right along with him.

But this is not an apology to Keith Jarrett, but rather a plea to return to actually listening to music.  Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggests that “we need annually to hear the Allegri Miserere or the St. Matthew Passion so as to be reacquainted with our own solitude and pain.”  To this I would add the work of Jarrett or of John Coltrane; music that moves me the same way Allegri moves Williams, yet none of these can enact or advance anything if all we do is play them in the background.  Find the time and the space, though, in which you might stand a chance of actually hearing such recordings, and of being open to the claim that music can place on a listener?

That is what I mean when I say that sometimes I pray with the stereo on.

Jamie Howison, the priest-missioner of saint benedict’s table in Winnipeg, suggests that if you want to give Keith Jarrett a try, you should start with the Koln Concert, released on ECM.


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