Written by Sam Mondros
No Hang-Ups is a weekly segment where you can find recommendations for jazz music of all kinds! This weeks album:
The Köln Concert took place on January 24th, 1975, and is eighty minutes in length containing two improvised pieces (the second of which is split into three parts). It has since become the stuff of legends being both the best-selling jazz solo album of all time as well as the best-selling piano album.
What can be said about a musician like Keith Jarrett? Can words really describe the otherworldly properties that his music conveys? His album, The Köln Concert, is a piece that transcends music and what the accomplished human is capable of when stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The album carries a legend comparable to those heard from intense fans of the Grateful Dead. Ascribing little details for every reason something sounds the way it does. You know that one friend who insists on playing the entirety of some obscure Dead show because of some measly trivia? “Oh, that was the show Bob Weir had to use a size nine-string instead of a ten because he broke the high E on some bad mescaline and that’s why the accompaniment at minute 27 of Dark Star sounds like that.” Yeah…right…Well, The Köln Concert has a similar kind of history except it must be heard to be believed and its events truly did have a massive impact on his playing on the record.
In the 24 hours leading up to the show, Jarrett had apparently not gotten a blink of sleep and had not eaten properly. All this aside when he showed up a few hours before the gig the piano he had requested, a Bosendorfer 290 Imperial, was not there due to moving complications. Instead, a different Bosendorfer, one with half-broken pedals and an overall weak high and low register was supplied to the pianist. This meant that the middle of the piano would be where Jarret could find most of his flow throughout the show.
This forced Jarrett to play in a manner he was not used to. Ostinatos (repeating a phrase or motif) would be an integral part of this performance in order to reinforce a theme that might fall short given the poor register of the keys. This would inadvertently bring out Jarrett’s pop sensibilities in an array of different styles. Throughout the album, most notably in Part One, Jarrett can be heard howling, laughing, moaning, and groaning in response to his musical decisions. It is a feature that is small but oddly comforting.
I actually found this album about a year ago after revisiting Atom Heart Mother by Pink Floyd, a band known for stretching genres with the help of their jazz pianist/keyboardist Richard Wright. If you’re a fan of Wright’s phrasing, expression, and the kind of ideas Floyd were doing pre Dark Side of the Moon, Part One will hopefully more than satisfy you. It’s got enough classical, pop, and droney rubato stints to appease any casual jazz listener. The psychedelic drone vamp of Part One would take pause midway through the song for a key change and return in Part Two B to trance the listener with another ostinato reminiscent of Keith Emerson’s work in Take a Pebble with its stern repetition and almost medieval feel. Jarrett really begins to venture out rhythmically around minute eleven of Part Two B.
Jarret’s performance in Köln on this winter evening in 1975 can most accurately portray him as a reckless hedonist and improviser extraordinaire to the Nth degree. The Köln concert gives a reel of emotions. It is also a wonderful introduction to both classical and jazz music.