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Keith Jarrett: The Koln Concert

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 12, 2010
Category: Jazz

This is a CD that inspires extreme reactions.

Those who love it believe it to be a certified work of genius — and far from the only one of Keith Jarrett’s 75-or-so CDs to merit that exalted rank. They say it redefines jazz, and jazz piano in particular. That it both makes us tap our feet and takes us someplace holy. That it teaches us yet again how the spaces between notes aren’t just silences, but music. That it is, finally, that rarest of events — sustained beauty, captured in the moment.

Those who like it less say it’s a brilliant trick masquerading as jazz. That Jarrett is a great showman — sincere in his music, but deluded about its quality. That this is the kind of music very smart college boys use to impress (and seduce) their dates. That, like mediocre Chinese food, it’s better when you’re high — and soon leaves you hungry. That it spawned George Winston and hundreds of artistically empty ‘New Age’ CDs.

Why such a schism? Because ‘The Koln Concert’ is, for 66 legendary minutes, completely improvised. [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. To download the MP3 from Amazon, click here. To download from iTunes, click here.] Jarrett takes a simple figure and explores it, then starts again, a strategy that requires enormous courage and thinking at super-computer speed if the pianist hopes to avoid cliche — and Jarrett, astonishingly, does avoid every cliche. For another, it involves so much more than piano. Jarrett is really playing duets with himself; he hums, taps his foot and sighs, and the microphone gets it all.

For me, ‘The Koln Concerto’ is a great relief from the music of its period. Jarrett recorded it when ‘fusion’ was all the rage. That loud, aggressive jazz-rock has its fans, but I am not among them. In contrast, I find ‘The Koln Concerto’ refreshingly quiet and lyrical. And subtle. It touches all the tender places, but it keeps veering toward optimism and radiance. For that reason alone, it works as dinner music and 9 PM ‘deep thought’ music and late-at-night, go-to-bed music.

Who is Keith Jarrett? A prodigy. Before he was 3, his parents saw he had perfect pitch; at 3, he started taking piano lessons. At 6, an IQ test confirmed he was off the charts; he began school in the third grade. As a teenager, he was playing professionally. Soon enough, he was in Charles Lloyd’s band. And then came Miles Davis.

In the early 1970s, Jarrett started playing concerts of solo improvisations. There’s no greater high-wire act for a musician; Jarrett’s done it for thousand of concerts and dozens of CDs without ever losing his edge. The key factor is, perhaps, less about genius and more about attentiveness.

The irony here is that Jarrett wasn’t attentive in Koln — not, anyway, in his terms. He didn’t sleep for two nights before the concert. The piano was a Bosendorfer, not his favorite. He’d had a bad Italian meal. He was, he felt, so unprepared to play that he almost sent the engineers home.

And all of that contributed mightily to the great performance he gave that night in 1975.

I say this because I find Jarrett’s music to be about process, about this note and this note and this note. Jarrett doesn’t pay rapt attention, he is rapt attention; he’s so into the music that he merges with it. If there’s a greater argument for mindfulness — being in the moment — I don’t know it.

That kind of consciousness also tunes the listener’s consciousness. An artist takes a technique — improvisation, in this case — far beyond its old borders. Inevitably, this pulls his audience to a new place.

Generally, this experience is accompanied by a lot of moaning and an ever-shrinking audience. Not in Keith Jarrett’s case. ‘The Koln Concert’ was a huge seller when it was released. It has sold hundreds of thousands of CDs over three decades. It’s now a certified classic. It deserves to be — this is very accessible music. You don’t have to know anything about jazz to love it.