Staying Power

Keith Jarrett's Immortal ‘Koln Concert’ Turns 40

How did a solo piano album shake up the music world during the age of disco, fusion and rock? And what makes it sound as fresh today as it did 40 years ago?

01.31.15 11:50 AM ET

I still remember my first encounter with Keith Jarrett’s album The Köln Concert, recorded 40 years ago this week.

I was a teenager browsing the jazz bins at a record store on El Camino Real in Palo Alto late one evening, when a store clerk put the new Jarrett record on the turntable. As the opening notes began reverberating through the aisles, I could immediately sense a change in the ambiance of the store. Customers looked up from the merchandise, and gradually focused their attention on the ethereal piano music coming out of the speakers.

Then something unexpected happened. Within a couple of minutes of the album going on the turntable, a customer walked up to the front desk to ask the name of the record. He immediately bought a copy. Soon a second customer did the same. Then a third. And a fourth.

Within ten minutes, the store’s entire stock of The Köln Concert had sold out.

Frankly, I was as surprised as the store clerk. I was very familiar with Jarrett’s work, and had just seen him perform a few months earlier with his quartet at an Oakland concert. I considered myself an admirer, and had recently devoured—that is not too extreme a word to use, given my enthusiasm—his two previous solo piano albums, Facing You and Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne. I knew his music inside and out, had studied it with the goal of unlocking its essence. But I was a jazz piano player who spent three hours per day in the practice room; latching on to a new Jarrett album was a natural thing for me to do. The real mystery was why all these other customers, who had been browsing through the rock and pop bins, were responding with so much enthusiasm.

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One thing, however, was absolutely clear to all of us. Jarrett’s album didn’t sound like anything else in the music world in the mid-’70s. I was a college student at the time, and the most widely-played albums on campus were Frampton Comes Alive, Fleetwood Mac, and Songs in the Key of Life. Disco was still intensely popular and, in a few months, The Sex Pistols would record their first album. The Köln Concert, a shimmering and rhapsodic solo piano album, was nothing like any of those records.

Even when compared to jazz albums, Jarrett’s new sound was an outlier—this was, after all, the age of jazz-rock fusion, and the biggest-selling bands in the field were plugged-in electric groups. The hot jazz acts of the day were Weather Report, George Benson, and the high-octane fusion bands led by Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.

The Köln Concert was the opposite of all that. Jarrett not only played the grand piano (increasingly referred to as the acoustic piano, at that juncture, to differentiate it from the electric keyboards of the era), but he played it with a degree of sensitivity and nuance that you couldn’t find elsewhere in commercial music. He even risked gentleness and sentimentality, with a heart-on-sleeve emotional directness that many jazz artists would have been embarrassed to emulate—especially in the mid-’70s, when irony was in the ascendancy as a cultural attitude.

Yet, in the coming months, I watched with amazement as The Köln Concert entered the mainstream culture, reaching an audience that I might have thought immune to the appeal of jazz piano. It eventually sold more than 3 million copies, and for a time ranked as the top-selling solo piano album in history.

And Jarrett did this by violating almost every rule of commercial music. The tracks on The Köln Concert were free-flowing spontaneous improvisations recorded live in concert in Germany. They lacked a holistic structure. Even worse, they were much too long for radio airplay. The opening cut was 26 minutes in duration, and the next two tracks were 15 minutes and 18 minutes long. Only the seven minute encore followed something resembling a song form, but even this sounded a world apart from the hit singles of the day.

You might think that jazz radio deejays would embrace this music. But even they were skeptical. The Köln Concert avoided most of the familiar syncopations and phraseology that permeated the other jazz albums in heavy rotation. Programming directors feared that they might alienate their core audience if they played music of this sort that, after all, didn’t really sound jazzy.

Yet somehow Jarrett bypassed radio, and managed to go viral via the oldest method of all, word of mouth and person-to-person contact with friends who already owned the record. These were people who didn’t listen to jazz radio anyway.

Huge sales are not always greeted with enthusiasm in the jazz community, and a backlash was inevitable in the case of The Köln Concert. But the emotional directness of the music, and its unabashed melodicism made this album especially open to critique from those who felt the jazz art form required something more abrasive and challenging to move forward. When the New Age music scene blossomed a few years later, with numerous imitators of lesser talent mimicking (and diluting) the aesthetic vision of the Köln improvisations, perhaps even Jarrett himself wondered at what he had wrought.

I understand these criticisms, but don’t agree with them. Jarrett tapped into something fresh and honest at that concert. He created a visionary work that still rivets the attention of first-time listeners today—much as it did on that day in the mid-’70s when I first heard it in a retail outlet. The music has held up, indeed much better than many of the irony-laden projects that seemed so much more progressive at the time.

My only regret is that most of the audience that discovered Keith Jarrett with The Köln Concert never embraced the rest of his oeuvre. I would have been delighted to see Facing You or the Bremen concert or the Jarrett quartet albums of the period—and those of other deserving jazz artists—also find a crossover audience. From that perspective, the promise of The Köln Concert was never fulfilled.

But I don’t blame Keith Jarrett for any of this. And he certainly can’t be faulted for his banal imitators, or chided for his sales. For his part, he hadn’t been aiming for a hit record, and (unlike many of his contemporaries on the jazz scene) never made the slightest attempt to jump on trends, or even embrace the accepted formulas of commercial records. Moreover, he never tried to recreate the special ambiance of the Köln performance. He viewed this concert as a one-time event. He simply trusted in his music, in his preparation and talent, and then bravely thrust himself into the inspiration of the moment. And, after all, isn’t that what jazz is all about?