A fresh listen to Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert

Keith Jarrett is one of the world’s most famous improvising pianists, and has inspired countless musicians over the years. His playing includes jazz, gospel, blues, rock and classical, and he generally performs either solo or with his trio. Let’s take a close look at his groundbreaking 1975 recording, The Köln Concert.

On January 24, 1975, Jarrett played a solo concert in Köln Germany. It was almost entirely improvised (except the encore, which was a previously composed tune), and he speaks of having considerable back pain that day. For whatever reasons, the music came out extraordinarily well and the resulting recording made Jarrett a musical superstar.

I listened to The Köln Concert many times as a teenager, but in the years since then I’ve focused on Jarrett’s other recordings. Recently, I thought it would be interesting to revisit this recording, and listen to it from my current perspective. It was fun to hear the familiar sounds again, and I heard many things in the music that escaped my ears back then. Whereas back then I heard a lot of “sameness,” I now realize that Jarrett creates a constantly shifting musical landscape, with compelling contrasts in mood and texture.

Let’s take a look at Part 1, which is 26 minutes long.

Start by listening to the recording, and just let the sound wash over you as you take it all in, without thinking too much about it. It’s a wonderful performance, and contains elements of many different musical styles. When you’re familiar with the recording, follow my description and analysis below while you listen to it again. These are just my thoughts and impressions upon hearing the music, and are by no means definitive. I learned a lot during the process of analyzing it, and I hope this will give you further insight into the music.

Jarrett starts with a texture similar to what I’ve used in the KeyboardImprov.com “Flowing Water” lessons. He’s basically playing open structures, gently arpeggiated in the LH, while his RH plays simple melodies in the corresponding scale. He’s leaving lots of space between phrases, and isn’t locking into a steady tempo yet. My sense is that he’s kind of splashing bits of color around, and seeing where this leads to. Even though Jarrett got his start by playing jazz, he’s using a musical language that reflects the pop music scene of the 1970’s. That’s probably one reason why his music was so well received at the time.

At 00:48, the music settles into a steady tempo. Note the hints of gospel that begin to appear. By 1:38. it already sounds like a different piece, but we the transition happened so gradually we didn’t notice!

After a little almost-country style flavorings, Jarrett moves into a hint of Middle Eastern trance music at 2:25 before getting more reflective again at 3:00.

However, a this now seems like a warm up, or perhaps a search, for what follows: Jarrett finds a simple chord progression which he essentially repeats and digs deeper into all the way until 8:43, when he suddenly calls it off and holds out a sustained chord. He then seems to revisit what he started 4 minutes earlier. My ears hear a Middle Eastern influence here as well: the RH spins out flurries of notes like a Turkish or North Indian flutist would.

For the next few minutes, Jarrett seems to be exploring various possibilities that this simple chord progression suggests. He touches on gospel rhythms, and sometimes even plays an old-fashioned chord sequence as a turnaround.

When repeating a short chord sequence so much, an improviser needs to have a radar detector for when the music needs to change. Even if it’s not boring yet, is the piece in danger of losing energy? Does the music that sounded so fresh a moment ago now sound stale? For whatever reason, at 12:59 Jarrett changes harmonic gears, playing a chord that sounds very different than what he had been using. The effect is immediate! Although the tempo remains constant, both performer and listener have moved on.

Jarrett now spends a few minutes exploring different melodic and harmonic possibilities. This section is refreshing and must have sounded very ‘new’ at the time. Some of it reminds me of other 70s music, and I hear a few phrases that are similar to “Brian’s Song”, by Michel Legrand. It seems that every time the music gets too pop-like, Jarrett ‘goes chromatic’, reminding us that this isn’t a James Taylor concert. (BTW, some of Jarrett’s 1070s music sounded so pop oriented, that he successfully sued the group Steely Dan for copyright infringement, after they publicly admitted to being influenced by him.)

After this, the tempo gradually slows down, and at 15:10 the music becomes hymn-like, in a kind of abstract, Coplandesque kind of way. Reflective. Even while he’s playing simply, Jarrett is a 2-handed pianist. Listen to the strands of counterpoint played by the LH in the piano’s middle register. The inner voices within the chords, keeping the motion going amidst the stillness.

Listen to the striking, bell-like chords at 16:35, and how they eventually grow into something much bigger. Reminds me of Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral.” Then another abrupt shift at 17:50, with a call and response sequence of octaves alternating with low chords. The music becomes majestic and expansive, until 19:44 when the wave subsides. At moments like these, it seems to me that Jarrett returns to an open kind of listening, without relying on the momentum of the music to tell him what to do next. Just like at the very beginning, he’s interested in seeing where the music will lead him. At 2:11, he finds it, with a series of zither-like downward rolls.

These downward rolls morph into a pop groove with a surprisingly rich texture at 21:10. There’s a lot more going on here than one might suspect upon first hearing. This section in particular is worth repeated listenings. At 23:22 Jarrett introduces new chords to change the mood somewhat, while keeping the basic groove going. He also brings back elements of the octave melodies he had played at 17:50, but now exclusively in the bass. And the gospel chords. And the fast, repeated notes. This section is in fact a summary of all that came before, much like the end of a great symphony! It all finishes with a brief ‘winding down,’ a dispersing of energy.

Well, this is only the beginning! There’s a lot more to the recording, and I invite you to explore it for yourself. Jarrett’s performance has been transcribed, note-for-note, and you can find the sheet music HERE:

If you have any further insights or observations about the music, please leave a comment below and we can compare notes.

You might also like:
The Art of Keith Jarrett
10 Ways to Improve Your Piano Improv Skills
10 Great Jazz Pianists For Beginning Jazz Musicians To Listen To

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