January 24, 1975
The Cologne Opera House was an imposing modernist space and typically hosted polyphonic, formal epics by Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and other masters of libretto and coloratura. On this cool winter evening, however, the casually dressed jazz freaks from Westphalia experienced a legendary solo improvisation by piano titan Keith Jarrett. But it was probably a miracle that it happened at all.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1945, Jarrett was a classical piano prodigy with perfect hearing. As a teenager, jazz also grabbed him. After graduating from Berklee to become the Village Vanguard, he had played with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis. A steady name since 1967, he led groups on albums for Atlantic, Columbia and, from 1973, Impulse! and from 1971 recorded solo piano works for Munich’s indie ECM. A lone keyboardist, Jarrett was in Europe in January 1975, accompanied by ECM founder Manfred Eicher.
17-year-old promoter Vera Brandes, the precocious force behind the New Jazz In Cologne concert series, contacted ECM live agent Thomas Stöwsand and booked the opera house from 11pm this winter Friday. When it became known that Jarrett was playing, the four D-Mark tickets were quickly sold out.
But the event faced obstacles. Jarrett had played at the Salle des Spectacles in Epalinges, Switzerland the day before his engagement in Cologne and had made the 400-mile journey by car overnight without sleeping. He also suffered from back pain. Upon his arrival, another cosmic trick was played on him. When he accepted the commission, he specified an Imperial Bösendorfer, an eight-octave grand piano nearly 10 feet tall. The opera house assured Brandes they had one on hand. When Jarrett and Eicher arrived in the dimly lit hall earlier that day, the promoter recalled, they each played a few notes on the provided instrument. “After a long silence, Manfred came to me,” she told the BBC in 2011, “and said if you don’t get another piano, Keith can’t play tonight.”
“The piano tuner saved our lives.”
Due to a mix-up, Jarrett had been gifted a Bösendorfer baby grand to use for rehearsals – one that was out of tune, with stuck pedals and some keys that didn’t work. Another Imperial was procured when an unnamed piano tuner banned the potentially disastrous plan to roll the replacement instrument around town in the rain. Instead, he set to work making the baby grand playable. “The piano tuner saved our lives,” said Brandes, who asked Jarrett to sign up for the gig as he sat in a car headed back to his hotel. He agreed. Then the Italian restaurant they went to before the show messed up his order and he didn’t even get anything to eat.
I don’t care how the hell the piano sounds…
After the decision was made to record the concert, ECM engineer Martin Weiland was on site with a mobile studio and two Neumann U 67 microphones. Jarrett recalled in 2011 how this plan fueled his resolve. He told jazz writer Don Heckman that he raised his fist in salute to Eicher as he walked onto the stage, adding, “I was forced to play in a way that was new at the time. Somehow I felt like I had to highlight all the qualities of this instrument…my feeling was, “I have to do this. I do it. I don’t care how the hell the piano sounds.’”
Tired, hungry, with a back brace, and alone with a subpar instrument and a crowd of 1,300, he abandoned preconceptions, trusted himself, and dug as deep as any musician. Composed of four parts over an hour, this pianistic journey into a transcendent afterlife is built on shifting melodies and repetitive patterns, punctuated by moans and vocalizations as he stood and sat as he pleased. In a place where jazz, folk, blues and contemporary classical merge in a boundless ecstatic fusion, it was released in November as The Koln Concert. According to ECM estimates, three and a half million copies have been sold to date.
The next day Jarrett was gone to play in Baden. In the following decades and more than a hundred albums with his trio, quartet and alone, he never stopped exploring his art. But in October he confirmed that two shots in 2018 left him unfit to play. Speaking to The New York Times, he revealed that he couldn’t even do it in his dreams.
In his 1991 preface to the transcription of The Köln Concert, Jarrett explained his longstanding reluctance to put the music down, writing, “This was an entirely impromptu concert on a given night and should go as quickly as it comes.” If only it would be easy. 46 years later, The Köln Concert is still here and makes every moment new.