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Improvisation: Keith Jarrett - The Koln Concert

Keith Jarrett: The Koln Concert.jpgThere are certain musical performances that bring us into close proximity to the precise center of improvisation. Keith Jarrett's 1975 performance in Koln Germany is one of these rare performances [The Koln Concert: MP3 | CD]. The entire concert is a solo piano performance completely improvised in the moment. We often think of musical improvisation as an extemporaneous performance based on an underlying chord and/or rhythmic progression. In other words, there is a basic underlying ground or form present. In the case of The Koln Concert, Jarrett took the stage without any predetermined conceptions about what he would play. The only underlying ground on the stage was the immediate expression of the moment...

Improvisation: Retrieving the Mystery

It is hard to imagine any musician taking the stage and performing live without having some kind of plan, except to simply play whatever the moment brings. But this is precisely what Jarrett did. Some reviewers have indicated that at the time of the performance Jarrett was exhausted from touring, and was uncomfortable with the piano he was to use for the performance. I have listened to the performance many times and can detect no sense of exhaustion or discomfort with the instrument. Perhaps it was exhaustion that allowed him to open up completely; perhaps discomfort with his instrument served as inspiration. If he was exhausted and at odds with the piano provided then his performance is an incredible demonstration of creative resilience.

Listening to Jarrett's performance in Koln places us into close proximity with the idea of mythological transformation:

The first function [of myth] is awakening in the individual a sense of awe and mystery and gratitude for the ultimate mystery of being.
- Campbell, Joseph. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

The listener cannot help but feel the awe, mystery and gratitude that this performance retrieves. This is one of the most important dimensions of musical improvisation - to retrieve the ultimate mystery of being.

This essential connection to mystery, it seems to me, is one of the most important aspects of improvisation. The idea of improvisation invites mystery; it asks us to embrace the unknown.

Improvisation Confused

In the realm of education there is a phrase that has no apparent meaning. That phrase is learning by doing. If we need to learn by something called doing, then what precisely were we doing before this new innovation? Not doing? If so, not doing what? And what precisely is it we should be doing now? Is it possible we also learn by not doing? The whole proposition is senseless.

In the realm of music education, or musicology, it is not surprising that Jarrett's Koln performance has been the victim of transcription (i.e. - the translation of the performance into musical notation). Musical notation retrieves McLuhan's typopgraphic man and biases an aural experience with visual experience. This is one of the most basic reasons why improvisation has not occupied the position it should in music education. The education system is a direct extension of the eye; musical improvisation is a direct extension of the ear. The two sensibilities are dramatically different, yet we continue to "teach" improvisation in manner more closely aligned with literacy than musical creativity.

As a graduate student in ethnomusicology one of the most valuable lessons I acquired was understanding how weak and misleading the translation of various kinds of folk music into musical notation could be. Musical notation amputates music from its context, from the culture it was born into, and from the authentic experiences of the individual that created it. Ethnomusicology, it seems to me, is an attempt to out the whole picture back together again.

There was a great deal more lost than found in such an exercise. I have looked at the musical notation of Jarrett's performance and cannot think of a reason why I would have any interest in it. What would one really do with it? Learn to 'perform' Jarrett's improvisations? To what end? And why would any of us be interested in hearing a repetition of the Koln Concert played by someone else?

No one can "perform" Jarrett's improvisations again - not even Keith Jarrett - nor would he want to. Musical creativity demands that he constantly move forward, not live in the past. Improvisation in the world of music:

  • Belongs to the ear, not the eye;
  • Is not intended for repetition or interpretation;
  • Is not meant to be captured via musical notation;
  • Exists in that precise moment and no other;
  • Reveals the transcendent qualities of the performer;
  • Brings the listener into the closest possible proximity to musical creativity.

In my own experience as a piano teacher I have found that young children have a natural and uninhibited relationship with improvisation. Part of my teaching focused on free improvisation. I recall one five-year old student talking about monkeys during one session, so I said, "If you could play these monkeys on the piano, what do they sound like?" There was no hesitation and the child immediately started playing "monkeys" on the piano. What caught me by surprise was the intensity and duration of the performance - the child was literally immersed in her own imagination and "speaking" through the instrument. As we get older and become educated this natural relationship with the freedom of improvisation declines. Older students are often inhibited and sometimes even embarrassed at the thought of performing free improvisations. They have been taught scales, chords and how to read music, and in the process have been removed from the essential connection to musical creativity. However, the underlying force of creativity can never be completely destroyed, and listening to a performance like Jarrett's immediately refreshes our sensibilities and retrieves music as a form of highly individualized and personal expression.

It is also interesting to note that the notes to the CD state, "All composed by Keith Jarrett." This creates the impression that Jarrett prepared the performance ahead of time. Prior to the performance he had undoubtedly explored many kinds of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic textures that may have been woven into the moment, however, this is not really composition.

What seems to get confused in the whole matter is the essence of improvisation itself. Transcribe Jarrett's performance into notation in order to "learn" how to perform it, and we remove the vital presence of improvisation. We also remove the opportunity to face our own individual sense of awe and mystery and gratitude for the ultimate mystery of being. Unfortunately, many educational interpretations treat improvisation as theoretical analysis and interpretation - not creation. If we are really interested in learning how to perform like Keith Jarrett then we must do as he has done - use our own instrument of choice to create live improvisations that originate only in that moment of time, not attempting to repeat his own unique performance.

The Wisdom of The Koln Concert

For the audience members who attended Jarrett's live performance their experience will be significantly more vibrant than those of us who can only access it via sound recording. Our senses are more intensively immersed in the moment when we are literally there. But that is not to say that we cannot experience the transcendent qualities of Jarrett's performance.

While I have not counted the number of times I have listened to The Koln Concert [The Koln Concert: MP3 | CD], I can say it is well into the hundreds. Like reading a book that has a close connection to our own mystery, we can never return to the performance in exactly the same way, and we never hear exactly the same thing. More importantly, we never feel the performance in exactly the same way.

The nonsense of music critics is often well rehearsed. Some music critics have commented that Jarrett sometimes gets "stuck" in the performance. While there are moments when we can hear him momentarily resting on a particular riff in order to figure out where to go next, the idea of him getting stuck is nonsense. If his performance were a pre-planned composition this might make sense, but it has nothing to do with musical composition. Another criticism I have heard is that the performance isnew age. I have no idea what this means, nor I suspect does the music critic. The Koln Concert has also been classed as a jazz performance, yet I see no direct connection with that genre. The fact that Jarrett is a well-known and accomplished jazz musician, or that he improvises, does not mean that Koln is a jazz performance. The Koln Concert is simply The Koln Concert, and as such, it defies our menial attempts at classification.

It’s important to live life with the experience, and therefore the knowledge, of its mystery and your own mystery… The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth

Why not apply this to the experience of music and improvisation: It’s important to live music with the experience, and therefore the knowledge, of its mystery and your own mystery… The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.

There is a sense of wisdom in Jarrett's performance that easily transcends his technical dexterity on the piano. It is well known that merely being technically proficient on an instrument in no way implies that something creative let alone transcendent will result. The music industry is rife with technically proficient musicians who still seem to be searching for an original voice. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that they have not embraced the experience of mystery in their expression.

The idea of improvisation means that we confront ourselves with our own individual creativity. Anyone who has not sat down at a musical instrument and attempted to freely improvise in the moment will not fully appreciate this, and therefore cannot fully appreciate the experience of improvisation itself. However, as Jarrett reminds us, it is never too late to embrace the mystery.


  • The Koln Concert: MP3 | CD
  • Wikipedia: Keith Jarrett
  • Wikipedia: The Koln Concert

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Hi Pearl - I've got the documentary on my wish list. Thanks:-)

I agree with the getting stuck. It's got a wierd framing as if watching people converse and keeping a clipboard of how many seconds pause someone talks between thoughts.

Keith Jarrett sounds interesting.

If you enjoyed the music improv, you'd enjoy the documentary, Touch the Sound on perception, improv, learning.

Right on Brian.
reminds me of an earlier post:
by S.S. Curry, "The Smile", 1915

"He must have his instrument rightly attuned and have command of the technique of his art. As has already been said the technique must not be despised...One of the great difficulties with art schools has been that they give merely to technique. They say that is all they can do for the student. If he has art in his soul he will succeed. They do nothing to awaken the artistic or the spiritual instincts, or a love of nature and beauty. At times they even repress it. A student is compelled for months to draw from a cast. He is rarely sent out face to face with Nature to sketch, but the work of drawing should be combined with wider studies, to awaken interest and the artistic nature, otherwise the work will become drudgery. The art school kill more than they make."

I've observed while teaching improv to theatre arts students that they yearn for a more natural way to express themselves. It takes a while to undo the knots of constraint and dogma even these young people have already layered upon them. But once they find the magic moment(s) they are on their way.

Another great post Brian.

Hi Jeremy,

Although I didn't smoke pot, I can say that I was quite frequently a dazed and confused kid - a personality trait that is well in tact today.

I was introduced to the album (yes- album) by one of my piano students. I was 18 or 19 years old at that time, so we're talking late seventies (oops - there's my age). My student was older, I would guess in his late 20's. We were talking about improvisation. The first thing he mentioned was The Köln Concert and was kind enough to bring it in the next session. Listening to it permanently changed my understanding of musical creativity.

As I recall, I was in the midst of shedding my classical training (Royal Conservatory) and had recently started playing in jazz and rock bands. I was also the principal pianist at a dance school, and quite frequently the dance instructor would demand music on the spot. Improvisation was an assumption. At first the transition from playing music from notation to improvisation was challenging.

More importantly, I never could understand, and still don't, why improvisation wasn't the first and most important part of my musical training. This is one of the most serious and damaging legacies of formalized music pedagogy. Learning any instrument in the absence of improvisation is one of the surest ways to completely stifle creative expression.

This became a passion and is one of the basic reasons I decided to explore ethnomusicology. Very simply - there had to be something else out there. And there was.

Right on -- it's working now. From the iTunes review: "Every pot-smoking and dazed and confusesd college kid -- and a few of the more sophisticated ones in high school -- owned this as one of the truly classic jazz records..." Was this you in 1975, or did you come to discover it later?

Fascinating post, btw...your writing is on fire again. My brain can barely keep up with the intellectual onslaught.

Looks like the mp3 link is broken -- did you find it available online?

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