The Köln Concert

The Köln Concert

This is the first in a series of posts about essential keyboard recordings that every serious pianist should know.

Imagine improvising an entire solo piano concert in front of a live audience. I’m not talking improvisation based on the chord progression of an old standard. I’m talking about nearly every note made up on the spot.

Keith Jarrett became justifiably famous starting in the 1970s for a series of audacious concerts in which he did just this. The Köln Concert is the most famous (though arguably not the best) of these concerts. It was completely improvised except for the brief encore, which was based on an already-composed melody. The recording of the concert is the best-selling solo piano album of all time. Interestingly, this led Jarrett to eventually complain that the album had “become a soundtrack”:  “We also have to learn to forget music. Otherwise we become addicted to the past.”

Which is what you might imagine a good improviser would say.

Jarrett’s music is very hard to categorize, and you may recognize many different musical influences while listening to The Köln Concert, including jazz, blues, gospel and even “New Age” (though the New Age musical style had not really gotten off the ground when this concert took place).

Incredibly, Jarrett did not sleep at all the night before the concert:

“I remember going out on stage and … I was falling asleep. All I had to do was sit down and I’d be, not really falling asleep, but I was nodding and spacing out and [before going on stage] I was pretending I was boxing with the engineer in order to keep moving around. When I finally had to go out on stage to play it was a relief because there was nothing more of this story to tell. It was: I am now going out here with this piano – and the hell with everything else!”

The piano waiting on stage for Jarrett was not the best. The high notes sounded thin and the low notes weak. So for the hour-long concert Jarrett kept mostly to the middle section of the keyboard.

The Köln Concert is available on CD. And though the original version is not to be found on YouTube (though covers of it are), it is available on iTunes.

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