Roughly 10 months ago, Robin Williams conducted what he called a “convoluted stream of consciousness” on the social networking news aggregate Reddit (the actual name of the series is “Ask Me Anything”).
Somewhere amid the 9,645 comments on topics rainging from video games to backlot Mrs. Doubtfire gossip to, in a tragic twist of fate, Williams’s advice to someone going through depression (“Reach out to friends. They are out there. And know that you are loved,” he wrote), the conversation turned to music.
“To be honest, I’m kind of challenged in terms of new music,” Williams admitted. “I listen to a lot of Jazz, specifically Keith Jarrett piano solos. And for me, if you want just wonderful ballads and love songs, Tom Waits.”
If you listen closely to Williams’s talking-blues delivery on the Harry Nilsson-composed “Blow Me Down,” from his first starring role in Robert Altman’s Popeye, you can hear him channeling Asylum-era Waits gems like Closing Time and Nighthawks at the Diner. But it’s his love of jazz in general, and the work of a master improviser like Keith Jarrett in particular (of whom he also spoke during his appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast), that highlights the essence of who Robin Williams was as a comedian.
Jarrett’s genius lies in his uncanny ability to create rich, complex piano concertos on the spot, whether solo or backed by his longtime rhythm section of bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. His brain always seems 10 steps ahead of his hands. The same could be said for Williams’ standup, and his recorded output showcases the evolution of his comic chops in a manner similar to that of his favorite pianist. Williams jumped from character to character with ceaseless ease, inspiring James Lipton, as the veteran PBS host recounted on NBC’s Today Show this past Tuesday, to count the number of persona shifts he underwent in the span of a minute or two during his memorable appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio; he ballparked it at 56.
“His gift was the most mysterious of all gifts,” Lipton told Matt Lauer. “It was genius. Genius is inexplicable…You can teach craft. You can teach technique. You can’t teach genius.”
On Williams’s 1979 debut LP Reality…What a Concept, you can hear the quintessential portrait of the artist as a young man, honing the power of his craft; it’s similar to Jarrett’s early years as a band leader on albums like 1967′s Life Between the Exit Signs and 1968′s Somewhere Before. The way Williams shifts from a riff on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to a reading of “The Three Bears” in the persona of William F. Buckley to a hilariously odd “kindergarten of the stars” skit starring Truman Capote, Jr. is stunning. Like Jarrett on his version of Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love” in ’67, you can hear Williams taking his time with each character, letting them resonate with the audience before moving on.
By the time of his legendary 1986 performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, which produced his Grammy Award-winning comedy classic A Night at the Met, Williams was firing on all cylinders. Much like Jarrett’s playing on his 1975 solo masterpiece The Köln Concert, Williams’ improv came in a single, seamless flow of spontaneous energy. Jarrett allowed the room’s impeccable acoustics to accentuate his tremendous growth as a pianist, endlessly vamping to create layer upon layer of notes; on A Night at the Met, Williams morphs from drunken Nobel Prize physicist to a Montauk wine snob to a ghetto cat seeing vapor trails from the bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 in 60 seconds flat. It was a deceptively mature performance, one that showed the how in control of his own creative chaos Williams was.
By the time of his 2009 HBO special, Weapons of Self Destruction, he had arrived at a kind of relaxed mastery of his art. His rapid-fire musings on his then-recent heart surgery and his scathing attacks on the Bush Administration and the sociopolitical debris left in its wake were second nature to him. Jarrett displayed a similar level of intuitiveness on his pair of duo recordings with his longtime friend, the late Charlie Haden, on bass. The depth of knowledge exhibited by the two men for the material they were working with — like Joe Sample’s “One Day I’ll Fly Away” from 2010′s Jasmine and Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels” off this year’s excellent Last Dance — grants them level of comfort, reigning in their focus as improvisers without compromising the soul of the performances themselves.
When it came to his film work, which ranged from high-fructose family corn like Aladdin and Patch Adams to more cerebral performances in cult favorites like The Fisher King and Insomnia, Williams’ propensity to work without a net came in spurts.
“Years ago I was doing The World According to Garp and I improvised,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross during a 2006 interview. “I started off just improvising like crazy. And [director] George Roy Hill made a face like a weasel in a wind tunnel and I then I went, ‘Not good?’ And he went [breathes deep and whispers], ‘Just say the words.’ And it really helped [me] focus and also be freed up with that and find the behavior with it. And occasionally you can improvise, use that as a base and go off, but if a script is well-written, you realize you don’t have to. There was very little riffing there because it was such a precise piece that you didn’t need to.”
Jarrett said a similar thing when he spoke to veteran jazz journalist Art Lange for Downbeat in 1984. When asked about the difference between playing classical concertos as opposed to his improvisational gigs, Jarrett replied:
“It’s important for any player to know a lot about that composer, not just look at the notes. That’s another parallel to knowing your instrument: knowing about the composer. ‘We don’t want to worry about the composer, let’s just play these notes.’ Well, that doesn’t work…The way I relate to it is that improvisation is really the deepest way to deal with moment-to-moment reality in music. There is no deeper way, personally deeper. But there is not less depth in working with someone else’s music—having found his depth becomes exactly the same. People who think the two things are different are going to lose out when they come to listen to on or the other.”
In his later performances — both his film work as well as his shows for troops overseas fighting wars he was vehemently against — Williams opted to focus in the frenzy of his act; but it’s impossible deny the hard bop ethos that guided every word during his freewheeling years. It is a tragedy that the pain behind that manic magnificence was too much for him to endure. Thankfully, however, the brilliance of the body of work he left behind is an invincible force.