Hoang-Chuong Ngo

Feb 28, 2021

3 min read

The Köln Concert

On the night of January 24, 1975, in Cologne, the famed pianist Keith Jarett was supposed to perform a solo concert. The concert organizer — named Vera Brandes, 17 at the time — was bracing herself for largest event she has ever organized: a sold-out jazz concert in the 1300-seat opera house of Cologne. All seemed well until the opera house staff rolled out the piano. The piano was absolutely shit.

To give you a bit more context, Keith Jarett was a purist. He was known for that as an artist. He wanted that exact piano, tuned with perfect pitch, otherwise he cannot perform — his sound will be tainted. He very specifically requested a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano, yet somehow a much smaller Bösendorfer baby grand was provided. To make matters worse, it was a piano used for opera rehearsals and was in abject condition and badly out of tune. The pedals did not work. Several keys could not be pressed, the high notes were jarring, and the low notes fell flat. Jarett, as expected, refused to perform.

All would be solved if the right piano could be transported to the opera house right then. But it was only a few hours until showtime (11:30PM !), and necessary services were not likely available. There was also a rainstorm that threatened to permanently damage any improperly transported piano. Getting the Bösendorfer was out of the question.

And if that was not enough, Jarett was not in good shape. He had been suffering from excruciating back pain for several days, a result of which was a run of sleepless nights. To cap it all, his condition was exacerbated by the exhausting five-hour, 350-mile drive he made to Cologne from a concert he’d given in Zurich. Faced with this abomination of an instrument, it did not seem unreasonable for the artist to quit. He walked out into the rain and got into his car.

Yet Vera Brandes ran after him and yanked open the car door. She pleaded the exhausted pianist to come back in and try. She could not let down 1300 people. Looking at the 17-year-old girl in the middle of the rainstorm, bent on going through with her mission of spreading jazz music, Jarett replied:

“Just for you.”

The show went on. Technicians tuned the piano to the best of their ability — it got better but not much. Jarett put on a back brace to push back the pain, and learned the instrument’s flaws. Concert goers filled the seats. Then 11:30. The artist was in the spotlight, and the recording team pressed Record.

The Köln Concert begins with a 26-minute improvised piece — which filled up Side One of the original vinyl album — that begins in a meditative mood characterized by lucid, singing right-hand lines that glisten with a crystalline beauty (at certain points in the performance, Jarrett can be heard singing the melodies while playing). Besides jazz, the piece draws on folk, classical, Latin, gospel hymnals, and even country music, all bound together seamlessly in what could be described as the musical equivalent of a stream-of-consciousness outpouring.

The second piece of the evening (“Part II”) is even longer: a 48-minute improvisation that is spread over Sides Two, Three, and Four of the original release. It’s more urgent than “Part I,” driven by propulsive left-hand chords. In fact, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Jarrett’s performance during this part of the record is his reliance on ostinato rhythms played by his left hand, which provided a pulsing, sometimes percussive and contrapuntal accompaniment through most of the piece. According to the record’s producer, ECM boss Manfred Eicher, Jarrett’s reason for taking this approach was to compensate for the piano’s perceived shortcomings: “Probably [Jarrett] played it the way he did because it was not a good piano. Because he could not fall in love with the sound of it, he found another way to get the most out of it.”

The concert recording was released later that year, and went on to become regarded as a classic and amassed sales of four million. To date, it’s still the best-selling piano album of all time.

The Köln Concert: Keith Jarrett Defied The Odds To Record A Masterpiece (udiscovermusic.com)