Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

November/December 2010: Anat Cohen

Keith Jarrett ( b. 1945):
The Köln Concert

Written by:

The piano has played a pivotal role in the development of jazz, and pianists have created many of the genre’s major innovations. Keith Jarrett is one such player. He started playing at age three and studied the classical repertoire until his late teens, when he turned to jazz. He started out playing bebop, first with the Charles Lloyd Quartet, and in 1970-71, he played electric piano with Miles Davis. He then formed a trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, which became a quartet in 1972, when tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman joined. The group disbanded in 1976. From then until 1983, he played only solo and only acoustic. Today, he suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and rarely performs.

Jarrett is a giant of what is called post-bop and a musical genius who takes substantial risks. Many of his most celebrated recordings are his solo piano efforts, where he has played without the safety net of sidemen. Don Heckman, the jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times, put is aptly when he wrote, “Keith Jarrett’s piano playing is based upon one fundamental tenet: no fear.”

The no-fear factor played a role in The Köln Concert [ECM #1064], the most celebrated of all the recordings Keith Jarrett has made. The night before the concert, Jarrett played in Lausanne then found that he couldn’t sleep. Despite his weariness, early the next morning he made the long drive to Köln.

When Jarrett arrived at his hotel he was exhausted. He checked in but still couldn’t sleep. He went to the sound check, only to find an inadequate piano and, to make matters worse, there was not enough time to replace it with one that met Jarrett’s specifications. He returned to his hotel to relax, but still couldn’t fall asleep. Jarrett and his producer from the ECM label, Manfred Eicher, with whom he was travelling, went to an Italian restaurant for dinner. Jarrett started sweating profusely from the excessive heat in the crowded restaurant. The service was extremely slow and their meal arrived just fifteen minutes before Jarrett had to be at the venue.

Given the day’s events, Jarrett and Eicher wondered if it was pointless to record the concert that night. But, with such short notice, they’d still have to pay for the engineer and gear, so they decided to proceed with the recording. They figured that at least they would have a document of the event to analyze.

As Jarrett slowly walked out on stage that night he started to fall asleep, but the moment he sat down at the piano his fatigue disappeared. He played one extended improvised song that he composed on the spot.

As Jarrett and Eicher finished the remainder of the tour, they listened to the cassette in the car. They had some reservations about the quality of the recording, but they both recognized that Jarrett’s playing was inspired. The music he made that night is one of the great pleasures of jazz. It covered a wide range of emotion: sometimes sombre and meditative, sometimes frantic, and always elegant. He did a masterful job of adapting to the piano’s limitations and played with warmth and friendliness. You can hear him coming up with ideas, marking time until inspiration hits. His performance took piano improvisation to new heights.

The Köln Concert, which has sold more than three million copies since its release, is one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.

© Ross Porter (2006)

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