I once got into an argument with someone about a certain record—I think it was possibly one of the early Merzbow discs, believe it or not—because he didn’t believe that I would really want to listen to such rubbish, let alone savor it or enjoy it. He seemed to be of the opinion that most of the records people say they like are simply records that they want to impress other people with having known about, and that their own enjoyment comes second. I found that paranoid in the extreme, and I know that in my case I don’t believe that for a second. Sure, there are many records that are important and influential and name-droppable that I could toss around as being among my favorites, but I don’t listen to them. I have better things to do, like listen to things I enjoy and enjoy them.
Maybe it’s a matter of mere taste, and taste can often be impenetrable—which is why I wouldn’t try to explain why I would listen to any Merzbow disc instead of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Sure, the latter album may have been the “original,” and it may have been “influential” and “important”, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth more than a casual survey of a listen because it consists of one idea beaten to death for four sides. One theory was that Reed recorded it to get out of his RCA contract, and only after other people (like Lester Bangs, who [insanely enough] loved the record) started championing it did he go back and claim that he had had importance and artistic integrity in mind all along. Right. As far as Merzbow goes, you could pick any dozen of his records that are as minimally assembled as MMM, and any one of them would be more interesting.
I’m citing all of this to lay the groundwork for discussing what has to be one of the most simultaneously loved and reviled albums around—Keith Jarrett’s 1974 Köln Concert. Loved, because there are few people who do not own it that do not find it transcendent; and reviled, both because of the hordes of wretched imitators that followed in its wake and because of the way it has been dismissed by its own performer and by fans of same. It is important music, not in the abstract, but in the concrete: it is important because it is beautiful and transcendent, and I would number it among the few records I would take with me to the moon if I had to leave tomorrow. You don’t need a theory to defend a record like that. And yet there appears to be a whole cadre of folks who spit on the record because of what it represents to them: the birth of wretched musical noodling disguised as high profundity.
Keith Jarrett has been described, without exaggeration, as the single greatest improvisational musician alive today. He may well be the greatest that ever lived, but we have only the hundred or so years of recorded music to go on as our most accurate guide for that. Not many people reading this might understand that at the time (1974) it was virtually unheard of for someone to improvise for the length of a concert on any instrument—even the piano—record it, and sell it as a finished work of any kind. But that was precisely what he did: he sat down with no foreknowledge of what he was going to do, opened the lid to the piano, began to play, and this is what emerged.
The concert shouldn’t have been anywhere nearly this good. Jarrett was allegedly already quite tired by the time he sat down to perform, and the piano he had been given was in poor condition; its high notes were rather plunky and strident. To get around this, he stayed near the piano’s midrange, but there are many occasions when he simply can’t hold himself back and he dives into the high notes, exuberantly, and then dances back out again. The first section is for me the most complete and compelling, a 26-minute performance that moves through various moods and themes and somehow finds precisely the right way to end. Even when it stumbles (there’s a moment early on, at around 1:20, that sounds confused, and a couple of the other transitions are about as awkward), it’s still compelling because Jarrett quickly picks himself up and finds another direction to move in. The sheer range of mood and color covered in this one piece is more than many other players show in their lifetime.
Part IIB has been widely cited as many other people’s favorite; many people have called this the most challenging part of the record. To me there’s something curiously sad and desperate about it, especially the long middle section where Jarrett plays many minor variations on a fiercely reiterated motif. He sounds trapped, and only after what seems like a terrible amount of effort on his part does he break away and find freedom. The concert also does not end with a big symphonic denoument. Instead, Jarrett reiterates and sums up some of the motifs of the preceding sections—quietly, as if putting the whole thing to bed and turning out the light. A bombastic door-slamming ending would have been wholly false and totally out of step with the mood he’d summoned up for the past forty-five-plus minutes.
Music critics seem to go out of their way to not deal with the emotional implications of music on themselves. Not long ago, while at a convention, I tried an experiment. I loaded both Köln and Miles Davis’s On the Corner into my digital music player, donned headphones, left my hotel room, sat in the hotel lobby and watched the people flow by. When Köln played, I looked upon everyone that walked by with a kind of fondness; the music seemed to be celebrating them. When I played On the Corner, the people passing by felt as impersonal and distant as blips on a radar monitor. I would not argue that Köln is somehow inherently “better” than On the Corner, but I would be lying if I said their emotional impacts were entirely different—and the fact that they had emotional impact was in itself paramount. If they don’t like either of those discs because they just don’t like them, they could at least be honest about that.
One of the dumbest criticisms of the disc (and of Jarrett’s playing in general) is his potentially disconcerting habit of writhing on the piano stool or crying out or moaning aloud while playing. This alarms (or disgusts) some people, and from what I can tell it seems to alarm them because they are frightened by the possibility that music can have such thrall over someone. Not long ago I watched a solo keyboard concert by a young man—a virtuoso in his own right—who’d made a name for himself by performing arrangements of many of the Final Fantasy themes. This isn’t trivial work: the FF music is rich and stirring stuff, on a par with the best film scores and in many ways as emotionally compelling. The music was fine, but what struck me most was how, like Jarrett, his face would tighten in a rictus of ecstasy and then relax in a dreamy smile as he played: when they talk of “a man possessed” or “channeling the music”, this is what they mean, I thought. If Jarrett was so wholly in thrall to his own playing, I suspect it was only because otherwise what would come out wouldn’t have been him at his most sincere. I’m more offended by someone who sits at the keys and plinks away coldly and doesn’t twitch a cheek-muscle, as if he’s nothing more than a machine that grinds out performances, than I am by Jarrett’s “self-indulgent” behavior.
Köln has been critically lambasted in some circles, partly I suspect because its sheer popularity has made it hard to hear without also thinking of all the earnest and horrible music that followed from it; the All-Music Guide says it is unfairly blamed for being responsible for George Winston and most of the wretched excess of the Windham Hill catalogue in general. Jarrett’s own responses to it are surprisingly dismissive. It is not even Jarrett’s favorite improvised-piano performance (for him, that’s Vienna); he doesn’t even name it among his top ten—and even for a man who has a massive recorded and live-concert pedigree that’s startling, since Köln became one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. For years Jarrett would not even allow its performance to be transcribed despite many requests for same, and he only allowed it with a notation that the recording itself was to be considered the final word on the subject.
Beyond anything else, though what brings people back to Köln again and again—even over other Jarrett albums which are “better” in his own eyes—is the sheer humanity and the warmth of the playing. He may have made more technically proficient albums, or more musically accomplished ones, but he never made anything else that sounded quite this loving and accepting. Köln is like an old friend whose company you would never turn down any day of the week, and one whose reappearance is always cause for celebration.
Postscript: I have linked to the import edition of the CD, which as far as I can tell was remastered a good deal more carefully than the domestic pressing. If you find that too rich for your blood, the domestic edition is also available at Amazon.com.