A 17 year-old promoter, a pianist who’d missed some serious sleep over a few days due to a chronic back problem, a gig that didn’t start until 11:30 at night and a very sub-standard piano without fully working pedals … an unlikely recipe for the highest selling solo jazz LP in history and the all-time top-selling piano LP ever. But at 1537 we* don’t deal in anything as mundane as facts and figures, we prefer to deal in the imponderables like love, enthusiastically. Which is just as well as Keith Jarrett The Köln Concert is made for enthusiastic lovin’.
I have no hesitation in letting others wiser, elderlyer and more erudite than I expound upon the harmonic pleasures contained within this double album, but bend your head close to mine and I will impart a very great secret to you. If you are 38 years old, then there is a 78.64% chance that you were conceived to the sound of the first side this LP, cunningly called ‘Part I’; I know you may shrink from envisaging such parental jollies but it is after all the thing that has led to your very existence, your ability to breathe, to dream, to forge your own destiny and to read my blog**. If you are one of the 21.36% who weren’t, umm, catapulted into being to the sound of ‘Part I’, then I am simply impressed that your dad made it all the way through to ‘Part II’ – what a stud muffin! If any of you out there were conceived to the sound of ‘Part IV’ then, from personal experience, I can only assume that one of your folks got a bit over-excited and put the wrong side on first. True story.
Recorded on 24 January 1975 The Köln Concert has been the make-out album of choice for generations of overly hairy pseudo-sensitive types, or even just genius background doodlings for legions of overly hairy stoned pseudo-sensitive types. Again trust me, I have it on good authority*^ that cosmic quantities of righteous herb has been consumed to the sound of Mr Jarrett’s German opus. I think as the Cosmusiconauts we are, we owe it to generations as yet unborn to review this phenomenon on the eve of this remarkable album’s 40th anniversary.
I first got my hands on The Köln Concert in 1992 when it was in amongst a bunch of records that my dad was looking after for a friend of his, there was some incredible stuff in there and one evening I put this LP on the turntable, from the cover I was fully expecting classical music rather than jazz, or if jazz then something painful that I’d have to try really hard to like^. Not a bit of it, what we get here is a soaring, lyrical flight of melodic invention from the first to the last, supremely easy on the soul. More importantly given that this is over 66 minutes of solo piano improvisation, Jarrett gives each piece^^ as well as the overarching whole, a sense of real progression – this is certainly not a supreme musician just showing off his tricks, flicks and ostinatos which would be tedious in the extreme. That’s the difference between a stallion and a trick pony.
Jarrett leads us through each piece by vamping on certain themes and chords, riffing on them, exploring variations but carrying us with him always. Technically of course a piano is a percussion instrument and it is always when it is played with that real sense of rhythm that it thrills me most, The Köln Concert is full of examples; it doesn’t rock, not even once, but it certainly rolls. Just like the best Liszt pieces and like my all-time favourite pianist Dollar Brand, it often sounds like there is more than one instrument at work here as melody, point and counterpoint are stacked up against each other, the resulting harmonics filling out the sound, often thrillingly. The more rhythmic ‘Part III’ is possibly the best example of this to me, as Jarrett sets up a repeated series of notes that pulse along underneath the melodies he plays on top, sometimes ostentatiously, often fading down until another idea, another angle, gains traction and he hares after that, all the while maintaining that pulse.
It is an album that is sometimes criticised for being easy listening, compared to more tonally challenging jazz, the whole no-pain-no-gain brigade. Utter nonsense, the beauty of The Köln Concert is just that, it is easy to listen to and by Crom’s hairy lower beard, there is nothing wrong with that. You ever tried making out to Albert Ayler? It’s like being sealed in a barrel rolling down a very long, very bumpy hill whilst reading Baudelaire in the original French and trying to keep two eggs from being broken – nauseating, difficult, liable to give you a headache and leave you with egg on your face. Trust me on that one, I’ve been there so you don’t have to.
But I digress, I don’t agree with equating the sheer number of notes and/or atonality with quality – it’s like all those metal guitar shredders who I shun, just play us a tune for Chrissakes! Keith Jarrett’s music is rather like watching anyone who is supremely good at something, an athlete, a craftsperson etc. they make it look deceptively, effortlessly easy; or sound deceptively easy in this case. To drive the whole performance forwards Jarrett does rely on that, predominantly serene, melodic progression and this sonic gliding is what appeals so much to the listener, it is virtually frictionless. He has had many imitators but what he also gives this concert is real feeling and soul and that cannot be imitated.
Whether it was the less than ideal situation, the (by concert pianist standards, anyway) shitty piano or just the magic of the night, we are witness to that strange musical alchemy on The Köln Concert when one man’s hands operate a percussive machine designed to create vibrations in the air which reverberate in your ear, but which resonate equally loudly in your heart too. I love the man’s occasional whoops and moans in ‘Part I’, you can hear just how much he is there, in those moments, how much of himself he is putting into his playing. Just check out that cover photo by, the implausibly named, Wolfgang Frankenstein^*, whether it was staged or not, just look at his face, his bent shoulders and his head closing the circuit with the piano, the photographer catching all that effort.
Which brings me back, obliquely, to affairs of the loins – my fully proven scientific theory about why The Köln Concert has been used so extensively in the mating rituals of generations of sweaty students is simply this, hearing it stimulates your pleasure centres to such a point that you wish to stimulate the pleasure centres of others. True story. But don’t just take my word for it, if you don’t own a copy buy one now, drop the needle/press play, waylay your significant other and make like the animals do; at the very worst you’ll have just bought a truly great jazz album.
Right: in an unprecedented act of Aussie-Welshian international co-operation this is a mal-co-ordinated joint posting with my friend Mr Vinyl Connection; he did his bit on time, I’m not so reliable. So if you want to read some proper words about this LP on it’s 40th anniversary, go here!
(PS: my characteristically very funny, yet incredibly clever post title only works if you know that the German name Köln is pronounced as ‘cologne’: now please just warm your hands on the blaze of my genius (and modesty)).
PPS: I have explored other Keith Jarrett LPs but nothing of his that I’ve heard touches this, very little solo instrumental music I’ve ever heard does in fact.
*oh yes, like all the best megalomaniacs 1537 is starting to refer to himself in the third person.
**in reverse order of galactic importance.
*^recently disclosed FBI documents confirm this, as do recent British cabinet papers from April 1976 disclosed last week following a Freedom of Information Act (2000) disclosure application.
^a friend having maliciously persuaded me to listen to Archie Shepp at his most challenging, repeatedly, loudly. I was not then ready for ‘Rufus (Swung His Face At Last To The Wind, Then His Neck Snapped)’, not sure I am yet in all honesty.
^^I appreciate that they are only separate pieces due to the diktats of slapping them down on vinyl, but it makes it a lot easier to discuss.
^*winner of best European Name, nine years running in the 1970’s until they retired the award.