Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert

The recent post on Cecil Taylor's solo masterpiece, Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within), is a nice (!) comparison and contrast to this one on another pianist whose solo work has been acclaimed.  Keith Jarrett has, however, had a far larger audience than Taylor because his music has not been perceived to have been near as adventurous (though, at times, Jarrett has alienated some of his longtime followers by excursions into freer, more atonal material, though nothing near as "out" as Taylor at his most accessible.)

While it might be easy for devotees of one to suggest that their favorite is superior to the other, YHB enjoys the music of both for different reasons, not the least of which is whatever mood happens to suggest listening to one as opposed to the other.  Taylor and Jarrett, different as they may be, are both possessed of protean talents, able to improvise entire solo concerts with prodigious technical abilities, and, as importantly, throw themselves completely into what they do.  It is this latter quality which seems most impressive to this blogger, because there are many excellent pianists who can improvise with imagination and precision, but these two inhabit a plane that is elevated because of their total commitment and immersion in the power of the moment when they dazzle in that solo concert setting.

Jarrett, born in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1946, was a child prodigy on his instrument and made his first splash in the jazz world as a member of the popular Charles Lloyd Quartet in the mid-1960s.  He started his solo career about 1967, though was a member of the electric Miles Davis group in 1970, despite his public dislike of electric pianos and organs, and appeared on such recordings as Live-Evil.  In the earl 1970s, he agreed to record for a brand new German label, ECM, ran by Manfred Eicher, and the partnership has been a 40-year success for both.  Of the dozens of Jarrett released on the label, his solo works and the "standards trio" he has worked with for over 30 years, including bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack deJohnette, have been his most successful endeavors.

Jarrett's 1975 recording, The Köln Concert, is generally acclaimed as perhaps his greatest work.  For an hour and ten minutes, the pianist takes the listener on an exploration of many melodic and rhythmic concepts that, to some, preface the coming of "new age" music, though, to this listener, the recording has no relation to so-called "new age."  All that comes to mind is that the wildly experimental work of Taylor or the heavier and denser, but also highly melodic, work of McCoy Tyner might leave the impression that, comparatively speaking, Jarrett's lighter touch and use of silence and space appear to be a precursor to, say, George Winston.

Really, though, Jarrett's playing is beautiful, hypnotic, inventive and brimming with passion, exemplified by the grunts, groans, shouts and other manifestations of emotion that are highly annoying to some, as are the visual representations in which Jarrett writhes, wriggles and otherwise contorts himself as he channels the spirit of the moment.  It doesn't appear in any way to YHB that any of this is contrived, but these aspects of his performances, as well as some of his interview and liner note statements lead some to conclude that Jarrett falls prey to a form of self-indulgence that detracts from the experience of listening.  Without disputing anyone's right to feel that way, obviously, YHB can only say that these aspects of the musician seem totally honest and deeply-held and do not take away from the enjoyment of this incredible musician's work.

In fact, for all of the exciting playing on The Köln Concert, it may be as equally impressive that Jarrett did this under very difficult conditions.  He had a long, draining drive to the German city after playing a show a few days before in Switzerland.  Jarrett also had a serious back injury that required him to wear a brace, yet the pain was still so intense that he had very little sleep during the trip and he very nearly cancelled the show, which took place on 24 January. 

Moreover, his request for a particular type of Bosendorfer piano was followed by the obtaining of the wrong instrument, which was so poor, that Jarrett had to find ways to make up for deficiencies in the bass range by playing ostinatos and rolling rhythms with the left hand.  He also used vamps of a single chord or two for long periods of time, the repetitiveness of which often draws criticism, but which, to this listener, are part of establishing a deep, solid groove against which the derive his beautiful sweeping melodies.  In fact, his melodies often seem folk-like or have a tinge of country or rock in them and his classical training also appears to take much of the playing away from the syncopated rhythms associated with jazz (in quite a different way, Cecil Taylor's classical training leads him to play in ways that seem removed from most jazz piano, as well.)

This may account for Jarrett's unusual popularity--this recording, the best selling of any solo piano work period, much less that of jazz, has sold nearly 4 million units--in the fact that his playing is more "accessible" than that of other jazz pianists.  Those long repetitive chords in rhythm and his sprightly melodic sense have, some jazz lovers complained, been more pop or rock than jazz should be.  As if jazz has ever had a fixed set of criteria for pianists to follow.  One can run the gamut from Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner to untold others and then figure out whether there is a standard approach to how to play "jazz piano" and apply that to Jarrett (or, for that matter, to Brad Mehldau, who does just fine working with pop and rock songs in innovative and exciting ways, too.)

There are many other remarkable Keith Jarrett solo recordings out there (Vienna, Sun Bear, Radiance and the recent Sol come to mind), but the Köln is the one that has the biggest impact on fans (and, perhaps, the most resistance from critics.)  To this listener, it is one of the signal jazz recordings of any type and testament to the talent of one of the most imaginative and inspired musicians anywhere.

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