Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert – ECM 

Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert – ECM Records ECM 1064/65 ST 272 7888 (1975/2018) 180-gram stereo double vinyl [distr. by Universal] 67:33 *****:

(Keith Jarrett – piano)

Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert is the best-selling solo album in jazz history. It is also the best-selling piano album. Recorded on January 24, 1975 at the Opera House In Cologne, the double vinyl (ECM Records) consisted of four pieces of entirely improvised material that lasted over 67 minutes. Part of the backstory is that Jarrett (who was physically exhausted and suffering from back pain) was expecting to perform on a Bosendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano. By mistake, a baby grand Bosendorfer with significantly inferior sound was provided. Jarrett was able to manipulate his piano technique, concentrating on the middle keys, as the upper and lower registers were tinny and the pedal did not function optimally. In a further complication, the concert (the first ever jazz performance at the Köln Opera House) was scheduled for 11:30 P.M.  And that may be the essential quality of a committed, passionate musician; he somehow made this work. Engineer Martin Weiland used a pair of Neumann U-67 vacuum-tube powered condenser microphones and a Telefunken M-5 portable tape machine. The rest is jazz history.

ECM Records has released a 180-gram re-mastered vinyl of The Köln Concert. More then 40 years later, the exhilarating performance still resonates. “Part I” establishes the outlines of complex improvisation over a couple of chord vamps. It begins with a melodic, ethereal touch, influenced by some gospel flair. There are ruminative explorations that are followed by punctuated rhythmic accents. It is an interesting flow as scintillating classical flourishes lead into low-keyed muscular shading. With pulsating intensity and delicate interludes (and yes, some enthusiastic yells), Jarrett manages to convey both restraint and sustained intensity. The aspirational “big finish” is spine-tingling. “Part II a” (a “shorter” 15:00 track) feels like a two-section suite. Jarrett opens with pulsating, hypnotic bass chords. There is a relentless undercurrent. The gospel inflection is more palpable and there are right hand counter melodies and bluesy riffs. At about the halfway point, there is a transition to a wistful, gorgeous flow. With elegiac resonance (but still enough left-hand emphasis), Jarrett caresses the melody with hushed reverence and dramatic intonation. The progression of this jam from basic vamp to expanded airiness glows with eloquence.

“Part II b” also starts with the simple bass chord (s) fueled by unabating energy. Some regard this style as a precursor to later contemporary solo jazz piano. In particular, Jarrett’s commitment to establish a steady repeat of a chord while embellishing it with right hand notation was unheard of, and in some cases criticized among jazz purists. But the theatrical coherence enables the pianist to introduce a number of improvisational additions, including progressive chord modulation. The repeat offers a sprightly counterpoint to pensive gossamer textures. Eventually, there is a shift to a classical-infused elegiac movement. The soothing turn has a hymnal essence that underscores Jarrett’s keen ear for harmonic imagery. The combination of driving rhythm and suppleness is amiable and complex. Side 4 is a brief (under 7 minutes) encore. This track (“Part II c”) embraces elements of compositional structure. The achingly beautiful melody begins joyously with some tempo. The rolling left hand maintains the pace, and the right hand statements are colorful. Jarrett is aware of timed silences. There are moments when notes seem to hang in thin air. He morphs to a slower cadence, and there is an Americana vibe to this part of the arrangement.

ECM’s re-mastered vinyl of The Köln Concert captures the bravado and concert acoustics with amazing precision and vibrancy. The “less than optimal” sharp tonality of the baby grand is rendered as is, without any studio gimmicky. The listener is drawn into the hypnotic, improvisational flows that characterize Jarrett’s style and artistic vision. The black & white cover photo (Wolfgang Frankenstein) is a simple reflection of the meditative visage of this legendary performer. Each additional listen to this concert brings a new-found appreciation for various nuances and innovation.

Keith Jarrett The Köln Concert should be part of any music aficionado’s collection, especially this vinyl reissue!                   

TrackList:
Side 1: Köln January 24, 1975 Part I
Side 2: Köln January 24, 1975 Part II a
Side 3: Köln January 24, 1975 Part II b
Side 4: Koln January 24, 1975 Part II c

—Robbie Gerson

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