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.

Andrew Reyes

Andrew Reyes

Andrew Reyes. All that is, 2004, The Balcony, Toronto

By Rosemary Heather

Art is the great provider of context, which is the primary feature of its contemporary practice. Anything can be art, provided certain conventions of its presentation are observed. This makes art practice like a sport in which participants test the limits of what its context can absorb. James Carl’s Balcony project in Toronto’s Kensington Market offers precisely this kind of opportunity for a gamesmanship of artistic ingenuity. An improvised billboard space, Carl shows work screenprinted on Coreplast, attached to the exterior of his second floor balcony, a site that overlooks a small park in the city’s downtown.  Because it must adhere to no commercial imperative, the Balcony offers artists a relatively unfettered occasion for public address. Judging by past efforts, most artists chose to speak to their de facto audience in only the most oblique fashion, referencing instead trends in contemporary art in a way that resonates with the context and speaks to the interests of the informed art viewer.

By contrast, for his Balcony project Andrew Reyes devised a way to push further against the limits of the art context that at the same time quite possibly obliterates it. Silver letters on a chocolate brown background present a new-agey exhortation that begins with the sentence: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate/ our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…” According to Reyes, the quotation is commonly attributed to Nelson Mandela, but was in fact written by the Californian new age writer Marianne Williamson. A popular author of spiritual self-help books, Williamson has built a saleable life philosophy around the idea that happiness appears when we “let go of fear”. This Manichean idea – recognize that fear is in battle with love in your heart and you too can be a victor in life – seems a plausible, if somewhat general, analysis of what’s wrong with the world. Widely distributed on the net, the quote’s misattribution to Mandela speaks of a popular consensus about the import of the sentiment it expresses and the inspirational values the figure of Mandela represents – although it is doubtful that Mandela would speak about one’s duty to be “gorgeous, talented and fabulous”, as Williamson does.

The 16th Balcony project since its start in 2002, Reyes use of a quotation is, in the context of what Carl has previously shown, a novel strategy, prior projects that used text choosing to employ either slogans, like Ross Sinclair’s “I Love Real Life”, or in the case of the Icelandic artist Hlynur Hallsson, a single word: “Yes”. Reyes states that his intention was to present something “instantly recognizable and accessible”. A most common-sense use of the site, the text is also self-explanatory, dispensing handily with the need for the interpretive framework known as art. Preserving a smidgen of ambiguity that tethers the project back to its art provenance, the quote appears on the balcony without note of its authorship. Reyes does this presumably in reference to the history of its confused origin, but also because it doesn’t need it. The statement is sufficient in itself: What the world needs now is love. By using Williamson’s text, and quoting her in full, Reyes crosses over from the vagaries of art into the realm of readily intelligible meaning. In the process, he risks appearing sincere, not a known tendency in the artworld. But then maybe that is his point? When he says that he “liked the idea of bringing unusual content to an unsuspecting audience” you have to wonder who he thought would be unsuspecting? Surely not the guy Carl saw standing in the street last week, copying the text down into his notebook.

This text orginally published in Canadian Art, Summer 2005.