The Köln Concert
Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded January 24, 1975 at the Opera in Köln, Germany
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
I have a confession to make. One that borders on blasphemy for a professed ECM fanatic such as myself: before writing this review I had never heard The Köln Concert. What is perhaps the most highly revered, and certainly the best-selling, album in the ECM catalog has managed to escape my ears all these years. Part of me wanted to save the experience for the right moment, while another had possibly been afraid that I might not like the album. Whatever the reason, I am happy to say that the wait is over…and it has been more than worth it.
The story behind this recording has, of course, already become the stuff of legend. On a dreary January day in 1975, Jarrett arrived at the Köln (Cologne) Opera House fatigued and malnourished and was bid to play on an inferior piano designed for rehearsals and not for live performance. As a result, the concert was almost never recorded. One can read about Köln lore ad nauseum elsewhere, not least in the album’s liner notes, so let’s have nothing more to do with it. The Köln Concert deserves to be listened to as it was created: without borders and without assumptions. And so, last night, as I lay awake in bed unable to sleep, I decided that it was time to fill this gaping hole in my listening life. With the lights already off, I put on the album and let the music take me wherever it wanted to take me. All I can offer in return is the following “travel diary” in honor of Jarrett’s achievement.
The opening chords of Part I set us upon an almost otherworldly path, providing gospelly signposts along the way to remind us of home. The music brims with the need for release, but Jarrett seems to want to hold onto it for as long as he can before its messages are lost forever. There is a persistence to his playing that speaks of countless internal dialogues all vying for attention. Delicate phrasing is suddenly punctured by a rhythmic depressing of the sustain pedal before flowering into an open exposition of higher energy. The music cascades as Jarrett’s voice careens off its towering contours when, just as suddenly, the majesty is swapped for an intimate chamber within its walls. Shadows of a former empire loom large, tethered by ecstatic cries.
Jarrett picks up the pace during the second act, moving from the elegiac to the frantic. Everything “fits,” joined by the same threads: a patchwork in which every seam is uniformly sewn. The progression is as lush as can be. It is as dense as a forest, and just as ordered in its own way. Jarrett brings us to a clearing, only to make us aware of the silence we left behind. So we turn around and jump right back into the thick of things as he expands his architecture to greater depths, carving out a subterranean labyrinth of cavernous sound that will never be charted again. The encore (labeled “Part IIc”) is both a montage of what came before and a preview for that which has yet to arrive.
It might seem clichéd to write this, but sometimes there are moments in one’s musical life that are simply magical. Clearly, Jarrett experienced over an hour’s worth of such moments here, and we are fortunate enough to be able to experience them ourselves, if only vicariously through the mediation of technology. Jarrett seems to know the piano’s vocabulary as well as his own speech, which might very well explain the involuntary vocalizations for which he is so often criticized. Structurally, the album could hardly be simpler: a series of vamps provide ample ground for floating improvised lines that stick primarily to the piano’s middle range. And yet, the scope of his vision is staggering in its implications. Jazz is Jarrett’s anchor, even if the voyage does carry him far beyond its generic boundaries. The applause only heightens the spell, reminding us that what we have just heard is indeed of this world, and was shared spontaneously with a crowd of our peers.
Despite what some might have you believe, by no means should this be anyone’s only Keith Jarrett experience. It needn’t even be one’s introduction. As sublime as it is, it is but one of many formative and breathtaking examples of his prolific output. This album is a lullaby for anyone who has no need for slumber, and Jarrett’s heartfelt voice explicitly conveys the rapture of living in the moment, his vocal interjections enhancing the “live” feel considerably and making for an even more visceral document.