[JPL] A Jazz Night to Remember The unique magic of Keith Jarrett's 'The K ö ln Concert'

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Sat Oct 11 17:29:43 EDT 2008


A Jazz Night to Remember
The unique magic of Keith Jarrett's 'The Köln Concert'

It is the most successful solo jazz album of all time, but Keith Jarrett
wants to see each of the 3.5 million copies of "The Köln Concert" stomped
into the ground. Recorded on Jan. 24, 1975, in front of a live audience in
the Cologne opera house, the hauntingly lyrical free improvisation became as
much a part of '70s ambiance as the scent of pot and patchouli. In an
interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in 1992, Mr. Jarrett
complained that the album had become nothing more than a soundtrack. "We
also have to learn to forget music," he added. "Otherwise we become addicted
to the past."

But much as his admirers might like to honor Mr. Jarrett's wishes, his "Köln
Concert" is not likely to be forgotten any time soon. In fact, what makes
the album extraordinary is that the music, created out of nothing over the
space of an evening decades ago, has stood the test of time as a lasting
work of art. Far from being a memorial monument, the record gives the
listener the opportunity to witness the act of creation itself, to
participate in the making of art.

The concert was part of a European solo tour begun in 1973. Previously, Mr.
Jarrett had played in trios and quartets, then joined the ensemble around
Miles Davis, helping him push jazz beyond its limits. At Davis's request, he
abandoned the acoustic piano in favor of the electronic organ and electric
piano. He hated it. The solo tour was like a detox program, a return to his
artistic core to the point where it was just Mr. Jarrett, the piano, and

"When I think of improvising," Mr. Jarrett says in Mike Dibbs's 2005
documentary "On Improvisation," "I think of going from zero to zero -- or
wherever it goes. I'm not connecting one thing to another." Each concert was
a blank, silent space waiting for Mr. Jarrett to fill it with music.

"Köln was different, because there were just so many negative things in a
row," Mr. Jarrett recalls in the documentary. He had not slept in two
nights. The piano he had ordered did not arrive in time for the concert. The
one in the hall was substandard, sounding tinny and thin in the outer
registers. Mr. Jarrett nearly refused to play, changing his mind at the last
minute. Almost as an afterthought, the sound technicians decided to place
the mikes and record the concert, even if only for the house archive. Later,
longtime friend and record producer Manfred Eicher said: "Probably he played
it the way he did because it was not a good piano. Because he could not fall
in love with it he found another way to get the most out of it."

When Mr. Jarrett played the first four notes, a low ripple of laughter went
through the auditorium: He was quoting the opera house's intermission bell.
But just as quickly, the reaction turned into awed silence as Mr. Jarrett
turned the banal and familiar into something gorgeous and mysterious. On the
LP, the concert would be cut into four segments, but that night he played
two separate "movements" lasting about half an hour each, plus a six-minute

The first movement is lyrical, pensive. Mr. Jarrett uses the suspension
pedal to create a liquid, suspended soundscape out of which melodies emerge
gently, even reluctantly. Part II is all rhythm to begin with, with a choppy
short motif in the left hand repeated over and over while scales break out
in the right hand as if released by a spring. With minute harmonic
variations, Mr. Jarrett conjures up different genres: rock 'n' roll,
hoedown, minimalist music. A sudden silence gives way to a broody passage,
and then there is a melody again, this time modal, somewhat Oriental,
entirely distinct. The encore is simple and sweet like a familiar song.

In the jazz world of 1975, the sheer beauty of the program was
revolutionary. It also helped make it accessible to a public that otherwise
felt alienated from jazz, leading to the immense success of the album. But
the popularity of "The Köln Concert" also made it suspect to many critics --
including Mr. Jarrett himself. Countless imitations -- composed, of course,
not improvised -- sought to recreate the lyricism of Mr. Jarrett's music
without bothering with the rhythmic rigor or harmonic invention. Devoted
fans attempted to transcribe what they heard on the concert album, trying to
express one evening's inspiration in paper and ink. A guitar version was
even published.

But without the live, improvised element, the magic is lost. Unlike a piece
of classical music, "The Köln Concert" is a masterpiece only in its recorded
format. And it requires an audience that participates in the unfolding act
of creation each time anew.

Thus the listener becomes involved in the search for a theme's development,
shares in the elation when Mr. Jarrett finds a beautiful new tune,
experiences the joy of hearing him play with it. When he pauses on a chord,
unsure of where to go next, it seems as if much more than the immediate
future of this music hangs in the balance. When he shifts to a new key, it
feels as if a door has been pushed open, inviting the listener to explore
new rooms and hallways.

This spatial sense is an important feature of much of Mr. Jarrett's solo
work: His music offers room in which to breathe. But, like abstract art at
its best, it can also present opaque surfaces that challenge the audience.
Part II has long passages in which the sustained, hammering ostinato -- a
small motif repeated over and over again -- becomes grating and
uncomfortable. When Mr. Jarrett resolves the tension with yet another
exquisitely phrased melody, the relief is physical.

In the 19th century, the great music critic and writer Eduard Hanslick
described free improvisation as "the highest degree of immediacy in the
musical revelation of mental states." In "The Köln Concert," the creative
process is as much a part of the aesthetic experience as the resulting music
is. The album is not so much masterpiece as masterwork: art as a process
that forever remains in the present.

Ms. da Fonseca-Wollheim is a writer living in New York.

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