Keith Jarret: The Köln Concert (1975)

Keith Jarret, The Köln concert, 1975

If you want to make a German laugh, tell them you have been listening to Keith Jarret’s The Köln Concert (1975). This very pretty recording of the artist’s live solo piano improvisation in Cologne is one of the biggest selling jazz albums of all time. The laughter will be out of slight embarrassment for you. Not because of the unadulterated pleasure this album offers the listener, although somehow that is embarassing too, but because it was at one time a cultural behemoth that has few referent points in the present. The Köln Concert is my musical guilty pleasure, because listening to it always makes me cry.

Like few other albums, the Köln Concert holds special significance for me. At certain times in my life I have become fixated on it, listening to it repeatedly. I have this relationship with only two other records, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, and Substance, the Joy Division singles compilation. Each elicits from me a specific brand of melancholy, one that risks being ‘worn out’ through overindulgence. And just as easily as these private episodes begin they will be over, the music to be forgotten for sometimes years on end.

If the virtuosity of Jarret’s improvisations is in some sense his music’s content, I suspect that at one time in Germany the Köln Concert represented a welcome freedom from the past. Today, however, it can sound more like solipsism, a self-absorption of the man into the realms of his exceptional musical technique. Like the New Age spirituality with which The Köln Concert shares a 70s provenance, Jarret’s music works hard to free itself of its inheritances, which makes it ecumenical at best; at its worst it sounds dangerously like musical kitsch.

For the jazz enthusiast, I am sure there is nothing embarrassing about liking Keith Jarret. But save for the work of Thelonious Monk –who no coincidence is also a virtuosic pianist– I don’t listen to jazz. I came to the record through Nanni Moretti’s 1993 film Caro Diario (Dear Diary). In it, music from The Köln Concert accompanies a sequence where the camera follows the director on his moped, riding through the scraggy outskirts of Rome on a late summer day. Arriving at the site where Passolini was murdered, the camera gazes through a wire fence. Marking the spot is a weathered concrete sculpture, and beyond it lays a disused overgrown football field. Overall, the effect is devastating. Jarret’s music redeems the desolation of the landscape, at the same time as the film sequence brings out the tragic dimension of its beauty. I am not alone in feeling this way; I originally went to see Caro Diario because a friend told me it made her cry, which in art is a high recommendation. Today you can watch the clip on YouTube. Most of the comments are in Italian, but a certain gentlemen, dariobr83, echoes this emotion when he says, “every time I watch it I feel shattered…”

Rosemary Heather

This text was commissioned for Song-Ming Ang’s Book of Guilty Pleasures, a collection of 100 contributions from different artists, curators, musicians, and writers on their aural guilty pleasures, co-edited with Kim Cascone. It can be purchased here.