The Köln Concert: Learn how (not) to Forget Music

by DoMinorEffect

If you’ll raise the volume very high, you can hear at the very first moments of the Köln Concert a burst of laughter from the audience. That’s a strange response for the beautiful musical sentence that opened the concert. The common assumption today is that the five first notes Keith Jarrett played in his successful concert were imitation of the opera house’s bell that calls the audience to take their places.

The improvisation on the bell’s sounds is another evidence of Jarrett’s improvisation. The pianist heard a moment earlier the bell and from this vague sentence started a tremendous 26 minutes of clear improvisation. A new book by the musicologist Peter Elsdon, which is called simply by the name “Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert” is trying to frame the improvisation idea at this concert in a wider way of thinking.

Elsdon get to first sentence of the concert and to the music analysis only after half book. Just before he starts dealing with that, he apologize over two pages and explains why is it wrong to examine with theoretical views music that was totally improvised on stage.

The main thesis in the book is that the improvisation concept is not the idea which is in common use. improvisation is indeed playing with no future planning, but there are a few conditions to that. The myth of the Köln Concert is that the concert was improvised from beginning to end – a myth that rose from the crowd and fans of Jarrett, and wasn’t encouraged by him.

Peter Elsdon - Keith Jarrett the koln concert

One of the elements that helped creating the myth was led by the part’s names. They were named simply by the order they were played. The encore was named “Part IIc” as for – second half, third movement. But the encore was different from the previous parts. It wasn’t improvised. Jarrett wrote the part probably earlier that year. Some students from Boston published in 1975 a music booklet with the notes of a piece similar to the encore by the name “Memories of Tomorrow” with credit to Jarrett. Comparing the notes of the encore and what’s written in the booklet shows that the two pieces are very similar, even tough Jarrett’s still improvise in the concert on the melody.

Playing a prepared encore wasn’t unusual in Jarrett’s tour that days. He used to end his concerts with ready encores, composed pieces, sometimes even cover songs. It wasn’t a secret that the piece was composed earlier but naming it in the album just as “Part IIc” covered that fact and did not differentiate it from the three other pieces. Elsdon wonders what can happen to the listening of the piece knowing it wasn’t improvised. Do we appreciate the music less in regarding that information?

But the encore was just a short moment in an hour of music. Was the rest of the concert pure improvisation? Well, the answer is complicated. The Köln Concert was held during a European tour, in which Jarrett played almost every second night. In an interview he once said that while he was touring he listened to the recording of the Köln Concert. That is to say, Jarrett examined his playing while he was on tour and could ave been “influenced” by his own playing or maybe trying to take an idea from one concert and to develop it in another concert. Elsdon reviewed some concerts from that tour and found several parts where there are rhythms similarities, but they are different in their harmonies.

Improvisation is not chaotic. There is order, structure, form and strategy of playing. These characteristics does not eliminate the idea of improvisation as an unplanned method, but sets its boundaries. Elsdon shows that there are patters that Jarrett uses when he is getting stuck. The improvisation is an unplanned act held in a long time periods (weeks, months), and not just the time period where the musician played. Jarrett is improvising, but he is not playing in an empty space as one might think. He has some rescue maneuvers that help him ignite himself when he is in trouble and keep him going on to new undiscovered places.

Köln Opera House

Köln Opera House

The album records the whole concert as it was at that day in 1975. There was nothing left behind. There is no video footage of the concert but from testimonies of several people, who witnessed the concert, Jarrett was moving and dancing by the piano with his well-known body movements. One of the people who was at the concert told that Jarrett’s body language was very distracting. Another one told that he was so overwhelmed by the music that he didn’t dare buying the album – he didn’t want the recording to interfere with his memory of the event. Elsdon is talking about the recording in his book and says that maybe we hear something that nobody heard that day. The concert was recorded with two microphones on stage, but the recording quality was improved at studio (just like any recording). That is to say, sound-wise, we hear nothing identical to what happened on stage that day.

The Köln Concert was received by the public not only for the music but for the idea of improvisation that was being part of it. Elsdon stresses that there is a feeling when listening to the album that the listener and Jarrett are both “in the moment”. The time of playing and listening is the same one. The creation and listening happen at the same time (unlike writing a text and reading it). This feeling encourage sympathy of the listener to Jarrett. The long duration of the playing and its complication arouse an awe by the listeners, an awe that only gets bigger in the next listening when more details are being revealed.


Jarrett wasn’t interviewed to the book, and it doesn’t seem like Elsdon was trying to get any comment from him. Jarrett fed up dealing with that album and is not talking about it much. In an interview he once said that “we also have to learn to forget music. Otherwise we become addicted to the past”.

The option of being forgotten has left the Köln Concert. Even knowing that the concert that starts clearly from an improvisation ends with a written encore, won’t weaken the myth of the album today. From the many official recordings of Jarrett, this album from his early career is still the most known. This recording is not only pure beauty, but a symbol of an idea. It was once said that while a symphony is the aspiration to infinity, variation is the aspiration to discover the tiniest fragments possible. Jarrett live a symphonic life, full of solo-piano concerts like the Köln Concert. I have listened to this album hundreds of times and every few times I discover another fragment I didn’t notice before, another variation of beauty that deepens the addiction to the past.