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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Keith Jarrett, "The Köln Concert"

Keith Jarrett
"The Köln Concert"
ECM (1975)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die + 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

A frequent theme found in great recordings is that the artists themselves don't enjoy the results whatsoever. Such is the case with jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and the recording of his live performance in Cologne, Germany, "The Köln Concert." The event was shoddily organized, and as a result, the piano requested by Jarrett did not arrive, and he was forced to make do with a smaller grand piano. Something must have clicked, because the resulting recording would become the best-selling solo jazz album of all time and even more impressively, the best-selling piano recording ever, with more than 3.5 million units moved to date.

The fact that the concert happened at all is wonder enough. Jarrett is notoriously irritable before and during a live performance, and a piano with incorrect specifications is far from the most minor thing to have driven him from the stage. The fact is somewhat ironic, considering that Jarrett is most renowned for his improvisatory ability (prior to touring solo as a pianist, he was a member of Miles Davis' group). His solo concerts involve Jarrett sitting down and playing from scratch, supposedly without any forethought and certainly without any precomposed starting points. One would think a change of plan on the piano would excite an improviser of Jarrett's status.

The performance is broken up into three parts (the album, four) and light observation provides a look into how a musician drafts an hourlong improvisation session. "Part I" is 26 minutes in length, and starts gently and features noticeable pauses between lines of playing. It seems that Jarrett is conscientiously thinking about where he's going to go next. Purists might suggest that the best improv has no room for thought, merely instinct, but the pauses are at longest around 2 seconds. Eight minutes in, Jarrett is rolling comfortably and punctuates his ease with vocal whoops, indicating that he's past thinking and simply feeling his work.

"Part II A" enters at quicker, yet still relaxed clip, with less time for pause. "Part II B" begins a new track 15 minutes later, which is appropriate because the mood has shifted. Jarrett rides a F# minor vamp for six minutes, creating a less upbeat feel than the prior half. Jarrett concludes the show with his first precomposed piece of the night, a play off of his own tune, "Memories of Tomorrow," as an encore (The album lists this as "Part II C," but it actually exists separately).

One thing to realize before listening to this record is that Jarrett does not fill the role of a "jazz pianist" in the more obvious way that an Art Tatum might. Many simply associate a jazz pianist as a player who just happens to have backing brass. Whereas Jarrett is playing alone, and muddying the water more is his history both writing and playing classical compositions. He understands the different moods for the different classifications; The minor-key intro to "Part II B" comes with feel that sympathizes with classical. What's the trick for identifying his performance as jazz then?

The improvisation is the obvious indicator. Classical historically has little wiggle room, whereas jazz is historically built on it. More technically, Jarrett uses melodic counterlines with his left hand, emulating the walking style of an upright bass, rather than laying solid chords. The melody on the right also possesses a tone more "jangly" (a term commonly used in jazz) than that of a typical classical performance. However, Jarrett's biggest complaint about the recording was his disapproval of the bright tone. The smaller grand he played was closer to a stand-up piano in nature than the grand he requested, resulting in more jangle, as with classic boogie-woogie recordings that employed such pianos. The results may have been bereft of the tone otherwise, although Jarrett's staccato would still have made it brighter than the tone of typical classical.

In the end, we got we got, and all was well. Those interested in hearing what Jarrett truly wanted can check out his performance on another live disc, "Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne." Odds are that the roadblock provided by the concert hall offhandedly propelled the natural improviser in Jarrett to greater heights.

INTERESTING FACT: Back to Jarrett being irritable. Jarrett is known to stop live performances because of background noise, as incidental as coughing. Therefore he has taken to providing venues with cough drops before winter shows to distribute at the doors.

"Part II B"

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