The Do-Minor Effect

Stories and thoughts about music with an invisible academic touch

Category: Jazz

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

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.


Improvising in Rio

For 40 years now pianist Keith Jarrett is getting on the most prestigious stages of the world without knowing what would he play for the next couple of hours. He is alone on stage, just the piano and him, and he plays what comes up from the tip of his fingers. He improvises. This can last for forty minutes straight or just three. Last April Jarrett had a concert at Rio de Janeiro, which became the double album “Rio“, one of his most beautiful recordings in his piano solo albums series.

Jarrett, 67, started playing the piano when he was three years old. At the age of eight he already played full classic recital and ended it with a few original pieces of his own. In 1975 he preformed in Germany in a piano solo concert which become an album that he is most recognized with – The Köln Concert. Since then he preformed hundreds of times the same way – full concert of improvisation.

In a documentary film on his career, “The Art of Improvisation“, Jarrett says that his solo concert recordings are a collaborated work of him and Manfred Eicher, his producer at ECM records. The two of them work together since the 70’s and Eicher managed to record more than hundred piano solo concerts of Keith all these years. From this collection only a few have been published. In Rio the magic they’ve been looking for was found and the improvisation became a full independent musical piece.

Jarrett’s improvisation on stage is the essence of music – being in the current time and place. That’s where music lives, in the present time and only there. Recordings and musical notes are just the by-products.

Jarrett is not improvising on a specific theme over and over again. His playing leans forward, where it can fly or fall. Listening to his piano solo concert recordings is like mapping the possibilities of music creation. When he is getting close to a melody he can touch it and then walk away. He doesn’t tend to stick around it.

For example, at the piece attached, one of the softest in the album, there is a definite pick at 3:22. At this point, instead of repeating the melodic phrase, a thing that every musician would do gladly, he chooses to touch it and fade away from it. This is typical for him – a constant search for music possibilities, finding them and moving on.

There are 15 tracks in Rio, none of them exceeds nine minutes. Jarrett, that had concert albums where he played for 20 minutes and once even for 40 minutes (like in “The Vienna Concert“), had more than a decade ago CFS – Chronic fatigue syndrome – which forced him to stop playing for a while. After recovering, he started playing for short periods each time. According to Rio, it seems he fully recovered from the syndrome – he is at his best at the last half an hour of the concert, at the encores, where an hour of improvisation is behind him.

Jarrett’s totality made his improvisation being not just a raw material but a hi-end product. He devoted himself to the piano, mentally and physically. His body movements near the piano are one of his identifying marks. He tends to stand up, sing or hum during playing the piano. He played till his body didn’t let him continue and returned to the piano the moment he could. This totality accompanies his music to the stages, where he fully give himself and improvises in a way he can not repeat himself – the audience is already familiar with his recordings, and he himself can not let himself down by playing improvisation that has already been played before. That might be the secret of  how he goes for 40 years now mapping the endless possibilities of piano music.

The rhythm of Dave King

Two years ago I saw The Bad Plus trio in the winter jazz Festival in Eilat. One of the things that fascinated me at the concert occurred in between the songs. After every two or three songs the pianist stood up and said: “That was a piece by Dave. The next one is also by him”. As being pianocentric, I always thought that Ethan Iverson, the band’s pianist, write all the their music. Apparently, I was utterly wrong: great amount of the band’s material is written by Dave King – The Bad Plus’ Drummer.

King’s music is intense, and so is his career. His last few months included a documentary release about him, and two albums releases – one with The Bad Plus and one with his a new trio where he plays new versions of old jazz classics.

This standards album, named “I’ve Been Ringing You“, was recorded with a pianist (Bill Carrothers) and a bass player (Billy Peterson) in a four hours long session in a little church in Minnesota. The location had some influence on the musicians, if one can tell by the pleasant darkness sound of the album.

The first song at the album is actually a farewell song, named “Goodbye“, which is a Benny Goodman piece that was played at every concert ending of his orchestra. “Goodbye” was written by Gordon Jenkins in memory of his wife, who passed away while giving birth to their first child, who died as well. King transferred this old gloomy piece, with its lingering clarinet notes that are very rare to find these days, to the modern urban sadness without missing a thing. Goodman’s silent clarinet becomes an itch of drum sticks on the cymbals, on the verge of whisper and scratch.

 The album is a good example of what can become from the meeting of old classics and experimental musician. As he said in interviews, King’s music philosophy is being collaborative – he does not like the kind of playing when one takes the central role and emphasize his great skills while all the other on stage are just being a background stunts for him. He prefer collaboration of ideas on stage where the music is the central player, not the performers’ skills.

This philosophy can be seen in the “King for two days” documentary. For two nights at march 2010 King played in Minneapolis, his home town, with five different bands in diverse styles. The common factor of them all is the relationships between the players. King, 42, plays with some of them since the age of 14. Tough they are familiar with each other, every band has its own style. The Bad Plus are more harmony-lyrical, while King’s other dominant band, Happy Apple, is less harmonic and more experimental. One of the bands in the movie is Golden Valley Is Now. They haven’t released any official recording yet and from the short sample that can was revealed at that evening, it is very intriguing to see what would come up with them.

King is a man of ideas and he needs the right company to fulfill them with. He tried once to do it on his own. King started playing the piano when he was five years old and the drums at the age of nine. Two years ago he recorded a solo album where he plays the piano and the drums on his own. He got some good reviews but did not record anything solo since.

His solo album was an exception at his career and even of his idea of music: music belongs to the group who plays it and not solely to the composer. You can test it by blind-listening to the The Bad Plus. It is not so easy to identify who wrote each piece, even though they play very different instruments: piano, drums and bass. That is one of their greatness. They do not write in order to stress their personal skills. They scrape together their music till it’s a collaborative piece where the composer identity is vague.

Composing is a dominant part in Dave King’s art and it seems to me that this is what ignite him to starts all his musical groups. He doesn’t wait till his band members get used to his new ideas. He joins other people, and without giving up on anything, he fulfill with them all of his musical ideas.