Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert

Classic jazz. The term makes me shiver. There are a few recordings that don’t – Kind of Blue and pretty much anything by Coltrane. But for me, the best of them all and one that deserves that you leave any preconceptions about jazz (nice) at the door is a live recording of a concert that the performer didn’t even want to play. And yet, when he did, something miraculous happened.

Keith Jarrett arrived in Cologne tired and exhausted and suffering from chronic back pain to play a solo piano concert at the city’s main opera house. When he arrived he found that the piano wasn’t the concert grand he expected but a substandard, ill-tuned baby grand meant only for rehearsals. There was no substitute. Initially he refused to play but 1,400 people were coming to see him perform only a few hours after his arrival. It was too late to cancel. So, at 11.30pm (an unusually late hour because the only time the house could give him was after that evening’s regular opera performance) he took to the stage. And, against all reasonable expectations, created a masterpiece.

His concert, broken down into four sections on the album and performed in two acts, was almost entirely improvised. Improvisational jazz can be a thing of squirm-inducing horror – self-indulgent noodling and interminable scales that go on for hour after mind-breaking hour. But not here. This was almost revolutionary improvisation at the time (1975) – quiet, lyrical spontaneity with breathtaking harmonic invention. His whoops and sighs which accompany his extraordinary playing only add to the sheer brilliance of the recording. It is an extraordinary record and one of the few concerts I dearly wish I could have experienced firsthand.

Here is Act I:

Play track: Keith Jarrett – Köln Concert Act I

It is well worth seeking out your own copy to hear the concert in its entirety. Jazz will never seem quite the same again…

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