Kristjan Järvi was born in Tallinn, Estonia, then a part of the Soviet Union. The Järvi family immigrated to the United States in 1980, and Kristjan was raised and educated in Manhattan. He studied piano at the Manhattan School of Music, where his teachers included Nina Svetlanova. Further piano instruction came from master classes he attended at the Salzburg Mozarteum conducted by Tatiana Nikolayeva, and in Israel by Arie Vardi and Viktor Derevyanko.
Järvi's exposure during his youth to various musical styles in New York led to his establishment of the Absolute Ensemble in 1993, an eclectic group since praised for its performances of both Baroque and rock compositions. Based in New York, the ensemble has regularly made tours of the United States and Europe, and received a German Record Critics Award in 2000 for its disc Absolute Mix, issued on the Ccn'c label.
In 1998 Järvi was appointed assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and held the post through 2000. The year he left Los Angeles he was given a principal conducting post in Sweden, at the Norrlands Opera and Symphony Orchestra of Umeå. Meanwhile, he continued concertizing and recording with the Absolute Ensemble, and appeared ubiquitously as guest conductor of numerous orchestras, including those in Gothenburg, Detroit, and Bamberg, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and Russian National orchestras, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, and many others. It was with the Tallinn ensemble that Järvi made a recording of flute music with his sister Maarika. The 2001 CD, also on the Ccn'c label, featured works by Peter Vähi and Urmas Sisask.
In 2004 Järvi left his post at Umeå to accept the appointment of principal conductor of the Vienna-based Tonkünstler Orchestra. Absolute Ensemble's 2005 release Arcanum, which contains a selection of chamber and vocal pieces by Messiaen protégée Ezequiel Viñao, has also garnered much praise. In 2010, Järvi became an exclusive Sony artist, and his first release for the label, Cantique, included the premiere recording of Arvo Pärt's Stabat Mater.