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Jazz rebel Chris Jarrett concert to benefit Solebury School


He is a rebel with a riff.

This piano man is far from the mainstream, but Chris Jarrett sets the tone for what Solebury School knows will be a signature soiree when the composer/pianist returns to his alma mater, Class of ‘74, on Friday for a benefit concert reflecting Jarrett’s jarful of international accolades and accomplishments.

The Allentown native, now 68, has been ensconced in Germany for decades, finding a home there for his musical gems — jarring distillations of jazz, classical, avant-garde, ethnic and erudite music that have made him instrumental on the world sound stage.

The onetime Bucks County pre-college kid has bucked the banal that other performers/composers occasionally encounter over long careers.

What is common to Jarrett’s compositions is a qualitative commotion of feelings, intellect and smart syncopation of style and emotional stamina.

However, when he reflects on his past, Jarrett portrays a pastiche of pans, pains and pluses that were not always a joyful noise:

“I was going to a private school in the Poconos, which had actually been closed down by the FBI because of illicit anti-war activities,” he remembers. “That school, however, took us to various other private schools they thought we could like. I liked Solebury. It wasn’t easy because my family was quite poor.”

But the Jarretts found a pocket of empathy there, “and I received a scholarship.”

It was, he recalls, an enriching experience.

“I was very active at Solebury — the place, the teachers and many of the students combined to grant me my first positive collective experience,” he said. “I had, ‘till then, always been academically interested; music, literature, languages, history and mathematics as well — just not so much up the natural sciences road, and the teachers (especially in English literature and Latin) were unforgettable characters and great pedagogues.”

But even before then, music was his muse. At age 8, “I already loved Stockhausen, Henze and Penderecki along with Coleman Hawkins and Peter, Paul and Mary. I decided at a very young age to look into music and literature with a critical and societally valid bent. This was perhaps also due to the fact that I had already, at a young age, lived through some domestic tragedies related to our family’s disagreement with the Vietnam War, and had, myself, had a lot of experience as the scapegoat of the family.

“Thank God, I have always had the strength to pull out of difficult situations, and music is one of those ways out — at the same time I feel it is important to communicate (my) reality through music.”

What is real is an oeuvre of honors and applause for such compositions as “For Anne Frank,” a ballet in 1985.

Six years ago, he married home life and harmony in concert with his longtime wife, Martina Cokrov Jarret, performing as a duo piano dynamic.

And, now, this weekend, it all hits home in a related way, with Solebury part of Jarrett’s sense of soul music: What does it mean to come back home and do this benefit?

“It means a lot,” he said. “It is a wonderful opportunity to express my feelings to my old friends through the means in which I do it best — music. I also definitely want to show my solidarity and support for the high standards Solebury has set and is setting as a school.” (The concert benefits the school’s music department.)

Music is no stranger to the Jarrett family legacy. He and brother Keith — one of the true living legends of jazz — had instrumental parts to play in their own individual musical developments.

“Well, Keith influenced me and — believe it or not — I, him as well,” he said of his decade older sibling. “I listened often to his practicing (Schumann, Beethoven, etc.) as a child, and we even discussed this music when I was very small. I never liked his jazzier stuff and was one of a few people who tried to get him to perform more solo — which he famously did.”

The younger Jarrett sang the praises of those who taught him at Solebury. The late “David Leshan was one of the best teachers I ever had, and Peter Brodie was an inspiration in many ways — I have actually written an opera about the English poet John Donne, which may never have come to pass without his early influence.”

Michael Elkin is a playwright, theater critic and novelist who lives in Abington. He writes columns about theater and the arts.

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