Whilst many of the most famous jazz albums in history come from the golden age of 1950s and 1960s, there is one which holds its own despite arriving in the mid-1970s…
Join us for a look into the legendary solo piano album The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett.
Mention the name Keith Jarrett and ECM Records in the same sentence and most will instantly reply with “The Köln Concert”.
A remarkable recording that perhaps more than any other placed the Munich based ECM imprint firmly amongst the most important and influential of contemporary labels, but perhaps a recording that should never have been made, or at least not released.
The circumstances at the time dictated otherwise, and despite all the problems and difficulties on the day the decision made by Jarrett and producer have more than justified their decision.
Before discussing the recording perhaps a little background information is not a bad thing.
By the time of recording ECM had been operational as a label for six years having released highly acclaimed albums by Chick Corea, Jan Gabarek, Dave Holland, Paul Bley, Gary Burton, Terje Rypdal, and of course Keith Jarrett.
From his own perspective, Jarrett was also coming from a place of relative security.
A tenure with Miles Davis earlier in the decade had brought him to wide public attention and enabled him to perhaps follow his own muse thereafter. After leaving Miles, the pianist eschewed all electric keyboards in favour of the acoustic instrument and pursued a career that would straddle both jazz and classical worlds with equal success.
From a jazz stand point Jarrett already had a substantial discography to his name prior to recording The Köln Concert.
In the U.S. he had recorded for Atlantic Records, Columbia and Impulse! with his American quartet featuring Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (the band would also go on to record for ECM).
Already working in Europe with producer Manfred Eicher, Jarrett had been busy recording both in the studio and live. His first album for the label was a duet set, Rutya And Daitya with drummer, Jack DeJohnette in early 1971, and later the same year was the solo piano recording Facing You.
In addition, Jarrett was also leading his European Quartet, also known as the Belonging band after their stunning album under the same name recorded in April 1974, with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen.
It is apparent by this time that there is a pattern emerging: Jarrett as a group leader and his continuation of his solo piano explorations, with the two threads running concurrently side by side.
Focusing on the solo work, the 1971 album Facing You comprised eight compositions credited to Jarrett and recorded in the studio. This was followed a couple of years later by Solo Concerts featuring improvised performances recorded live in Bremen and Lausanne, and this would become the pianist’s preferred method of capturing his solo piano work.
Back to The Köln Concert
A planned recording at a concert at the Cologne Opera House during a European tour that had begun on the 17th January.
The concert was the fifth of the tour, and Jarrett and Manfred Eicher who had been travelling together by car arrived late to the venue.
Jarrett who was suffering from fatigue and chronic back pain to which he had been prone for a number of years, was then presented with a substandard piano when it was discovered that the stage crew had placed on the stage, not the grand piano that had been requested but instead, a battered baby grand had not been tuned and also had defective pedal and keys.
Faced with a full house and recording equipment and engineers ready to go, the pianist felt duty-bound to perform as planned.
Taking to the stage Jarrett must have felt some trepidation.
Steeling himself, he began to play and the resulting music has astonished and delighted not just the audience present on the day but also those who have encountered the album since it was released. The music has been released in four parts.
The opening ‘Köln Part I’ begins with a hesitant yet surprisingly confident introduction leading to some lyrical lines, before rhythmic ideas take precedence over melodic development.
A little after the fifteen minute mark, Jarrett appears to be battling with the piano with great clusters of notes and chords striving to be heard cleanly and with definition. However stubbornly the piano appears to behave, Jarrett’s persistence wins out and twenty minutes in the battle with the instrument is temporarily won as the pianist concludes his improvisation with a delightfully lyrical passage.
‘Köln Part II a’ uses an ostinato that sets up the improvisation for some exciting and dynamic right hand melodies. Building to a crescendo of crashing chords against the continuing rhythmic motif from the left hand to suddenly drop into a period of reflective, almost melancholy beauty while still fighting with the unruly temperament of the piano.
This use of ostinati is also the driving force behind ‘Köln Part II b, a slow ostinato in the left hand while the melodic interest and thematic development is left to the right hand. Jarrett’s clarity of thought and attention to detail again wins over the piano.
He has by now found the ‘good notes’ and seems better equipped to deal with both the tuning and mechanical difficulties of the instrument. The ostinato fades to be replaced by a full-blown two-handed development of the improvisation that is staggering in the breadth of invention displayed.
Concluding with ‘Köln Part II c’, Jarrett is all about melody.
The music flows effortlessly and seamlessly in a wondrous five minutes plus of pure lyricism. In future performances the pianist would end his concerts with the inevitable encore returning to the stage to conclude the evening’s music making with a standard.
Listening carefully to ‘Part II c’ it is perhaps possible to here the origins of how this tradition began, as whilst not listed on the album this part was in fact the concerts encore, and if some of the music sounds familiar it is because Jarrett improvises on some of his own previously written compositions as opposed to the entirely improvised music heard on the earlier pieces.
For all its flaws, in the piano not the performance I hasten to add, the decision to go ahead with the concert, recording and subsequent release has been more than justified.
The music has struck a chord with music lovers who are not necessarily jazz fans, and in turns also enhanced the development of the jazz vocabulary and the notion of freely improvised music. Since its release The Köln Concert has sold more than four million copies and to this day has the ability to overwhelm the listener with the sheer power and majesty of the music.
There are better solo concerts by Jarrett available, but few have the vitality, grit and determination in the face of adversity that make the music on this album so compelling.
The Köln Concert – Album Info
- Köln Part I
- Köln Part II a
- Köln Part II b
- Köln Part II c
- Keith Jarrett (piano)
Recorded January 24, 1975
Releases November 1975, ECM Records
Nick Lea is a British jazz writer who has been publishing articles, interviews and news about jazz for more than 20 years. He is editor and writer for Jazzviews.net