Pianist Keith Jarrett: The story of 'The Köln Concert'

GRAMMY-nominated pianist discusses overcoming adversity for the recording of his GRAMMY Hall Of Fame-inducted album in Germany
  • Keith Jarrett playing piano
    Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
    Keith Jarrett
January 07, 2014 -- 5:26 pm PST
By Keith Jarrett / GRAMMY.com

(Since its inception in 1973, the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame has enshrined nearly 1,000 recordings across all genres. The Making Of … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of the essential recordings of the 20th century. You can read more Making Of … accounts, and in-depth insight into the recordings and artists represented in the Hall, in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition book.)



The Köln Concert
Keith Jarrett
ECM (1975)
Inducted 2011

(As told to Don Heckman)

The story of how The Köln Concert recording was made begins with ECM Records founder Manfred Eicher and I doing a driving tour of solo concerts in Europe. Some of them were recorded, some of them were not. But the Cologne concert [in Germany] was one that was definitely scheduled to be recorded. However, for a 24-hour period before we got to Cologne we had not slept at all. When we arrived at the hotel, I tried to take a nap. But it was impossible to do so. 

The producer of the concert came to take us to the [Cologne Opera House] in his Rolls-Royce, a car that was so over the top that we could have eaten dinner in it, on the perfectly made wood panels. But we didn't really learn the problems we were facing until we arrived at the hall. I went onstage and realized, "Hey, I have a Bösendorfer [piano] here and it's not the right size and it sounds like a modified electric harpsichord." And then we found out that they couldn't get the right piano, even though it existed, because their rental truck was gone.

At that point, we probably said all kinds of curse words. And we started to tell the engineers, "Maybe you can just pack up." But then Manfred and I both sort of thought that was crazy. The recording equipment was already set up. So we decided to just make a tape of the performance, even it if was just for ourselves. So we went to dinner. It was already late, I was due to go onstage soon, we'd had so many hassles, and the piano was such a terrible instrument. And I hadn't slept anyway. So I was in almost hell. Then we went to this Italian restaurant where, for some perfectly symmetrical reason, we were served way last. Everyone else was eating, I was the one who was going to play in an hour, and I still didn't have any food. And then when they finally brought the food, I was still hungry, because I wasn't happy with the food they served.

All I remember after the restaurant fiasco is taking a peek at the engineers sitting, waiting with their equipment. They had everything ready. And I started thinking, "I'm going to do this." I remember putting my fist up in the air on the way out [from] backstage. I just looked at Manfred and [said], "Power!" or something. 

Someone told me that, in the very beginning of that performance, what I was playing was imitating the bells in the lobby — the little phrase they play to tell the audience when it's time to go in to the theater. To my knowledge, I have no idea [if] that was true. But then something interesting happened. It just seemed like everybody in the audience was there for a tremendous experience, and that made my job easy. What happened with this piano was that I was forced to play in what was — at the time — a new way. Somehow I felt I had to bring out whatever qualities this instrument had.

And that was it. My sense was, "I have to do this. I'm doing it. I don't care what the f*** the piano sounds like. I'm doing it." And I did.

(Don Heckman has been writing about jazz and other music for five decades in The New York Times,Los Angeles TimesJazz Times, Down BeatMetronomeHigh Fidelity, and his personal blog, the International Review of Music.)

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