Here’s a clip featuring an excerpt of jazz pianist and improvisational virtuoso Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, recorded in January 1975. The concert was recorded in three segments, with a fourth track edited for the album. It’s this fourth track you’re hearing here – my favourite part of the record.
By the 1970s, after playing in various jazz groups with Miles Davis and Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett wanted to explore the range of his own improvisational excursions as a soloist. In trying to to go beyond traditional improvising around an established musical theme in an ensemble setting, Jarrett decided that he’d improvise everything, going onstage without any idea of what he’d play until it was just him, the piano, and a (very quiet!!) audience. So, what you hear on the record is what came into his head as it was recorded; a second by second process of improv and execution. He made a number of albums this way, not to mention scores of unrecorded concert appearances. The Köln Concert is arguably the best example of this approach, and certainly his most popular recording.
According to the Mojo Collection: The Greatest Albums of All Time, the concert has an interesting back story, although I can’t seem to find a corroborating article or site that backs it up [ED: May 29, 2013 – see this article]. Still it’s a pretty cool tale of artistry over adversity, true or not. Here it is. It seems that while on tour, Jarrett was suffering from fatigue that was due to insomnia. As such, his physical condition was not at its best, trying to catch cat naps while traveling to make up for his lack of sleep at night with not much success. The problem reached its height when arriving in the city of Cologne, Germany where he was scheduled to play a concert. Jarrett had been awake for 24 hours by then.
Further to this, a Bösendorfer piano, Jarrett’s piano of choice, had been rented for the date from a local firm. There were only two instruments available and one was severely out of tune in the upper two octaves. And of course, the rental company had shipped the wrong one to the hall. The movers had left and there was no time to tune it. So, Jarrett was severely sleep deprived, had no music prepared as it was an improvisational show, and the piano he had to work with was unreliable in the upper octaves. They almost canceled the recording of the show, the decision to record also being made previously, and with an engineer waiting to do the job. Jarrett decided to do the show, and to go ahead with the recording anyway. Maybe if he’d been well-rested, he would have chosen a different path – who knows? If the results of the recording are breathtaking, think of the conditions under which it is reported to have been recorded! Yet, there again, maybe those less than ideal conditions and the limitations they put on Jarrett is actually a big part of what made this performance so special. It’s hard to know for sure. But, it’s not an unreasonable theory.
The music Jarrett came up with comes out of a simple structure of only a few chords, growing outward in melodic complexity and mixing traditional jazz, a smattering of classical influences, and not just a little bit of gospel and blues references too. The music is generally classified as jazz, yet it’s breadth seems to go beyond jazz. It sort of becomes it’s own thing as it goes, with a sort of hypnotic quality in places, and lots of contrasting harmonic structures that give it a pretty rich spectrum of effects, both sonic and emotional. And as is his custom when in concert, you can hear Jarrett himself responding to what he’s creating; the vocal whoops and sighs as he himself gets pulled into to where the music is going. A lot of people find this kind of distracting. I find it to be another example of how passionate the guy is about what he’s doing.
There’s a lot of music out there that was an attempt to do the same thing as this music does – basically a lot of limp new age solo piano designed to be ‘soothing’. But, Jarrett manages to put real heart into this, real warmth, and sometimes real aggression too. This is not background music, or music meant to serve some other purpose beyond itself. This is among the best examples of artistic spontaneity ever recorded for posterity, quite simply. As such, every note demands attention. This is not passive music in any sense, and I think that’s part of the reason I find it so compelling, and so far removed from tinkly, nothing, new age fodder to which it is erroneously compared by hack critics. Back story or no, this music is as raw as it comes, pure artistry in action. It is like a living creature, different every time you hear it. I wish I could have seen it live.
For more about Keith Jarrett and more music, check out the Keith Jarrett Allmusic entry.