Friday, December 11, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Keith Jarrett's The Köln Concert (1975)

I read in the little booklet that accompanies PUNK 45: KILL THE HIPPIES! KILL YOURSELF! THE AMERICAN NATION DESTROYS ITS YOUNG, UNDERGROUND PUNK IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, VOL. 1. 1973-1980 that no wave grew out of the void left when the major labels snatched up the CBGB bands like Television, Patti Smith Group, the Ramones and Talking Heads and sent them out on the road to promote albums. This got me thinking that I should devote a post to Theoretical Girls, the Glenn Branca and Jeff Lohn no wave group extraordinaire. The tie-in being that my friend and co-worker Tony, who I mentioned in last week's post in connection with a live performance by Lee Ranaldo, suggested that I acquire the definitive album, Theoretical Girls: Theoretical Record (2002), one afternoon when we were in a record store that has been closed now for several years.

But I couldn't stomach an immersion in a lo-fi sonic assault. Instead, I have been listening all week to my collection of Keith Jarrett solo recordings. From quiet electronica to the acoustic piano, that is all I have been able to muster for myself in December.

Then the other day, after working my way through Hamburg '72,  Concerts and The Impulse Years: 1973-1974, The Köln Concert (1975) came over my speakers, and it was as if the spirit of the post-revolutionary Hippie appeared before me fully formed.

I had no idea that The Köln Concert is by far Keith Jarrett's most successful record, not to mention the most successful solo jazz album of all time. The Köln Concert is right up there -- which is hard for me to believe -- with Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (1959).

The story of the The Köln Concert is well known. Jarrett had just driven from Switzerland. His back was killing him; he was wearing a brace. When he arrived at the opera house in Cologne where the gig was he learned that the piano he requested was not there; instead, a smaller, out of tune practice piano was found backstage and frantic attempts were made to make it listenable. The upper and lower keys were hard to hear. This molded the performance that Jarrett was to deliver because it forced him to play predominantly with the middle keys; also, the spacey, wafting New Age sound was partly a result of using a double mic, which one reviewer commented made the piano sound like it was made out of five stories of glass.

What we have is a faithful mirror of the Zeitgeist 1975. Improvised before a packed house of Hippies at midnight, The Köln Concert would create a whole new genre, New Age. It reminds me of the Windam Hill Records sound so prevalent in the late '70s and into the mid-'80s. It is the sound of the Hippie turning her back on revolution and settling down to a solidly bourgeois lifestyle.

This is not to say it is bad record. I think it is an amazing document, particularly "Part IIb," the third segment of the double LP. There was a space of time in the middle '70s when the Hippies and Punks were incredibly creative. And there is some really good writing online about The Köln Concert. Kind Of Weird: How The Köln Concert Made Keith Jarrett A Pop Star by John Lingan manages in the last two paragraphs to conjure up the spirit of Jarrett's January 1975 Cologne improv:
But what a marvelous, bizarre thing that an artist like this can become so popular, even for a moment, embraced by people, like my dad, who barely messed with jazz besides. I first discovered Köln in our basement, among Dad's old LPs, sandwiched among Ten Years After, Grin, and Mountain. I was a young teenager, intrigued by the spare album art and curious as to how Dad could like something so New-Agey. When I listen to it now, I get the same feeling I had the first time: I feel stronger, smarter, more inspired. It works when I'm sad, when I'm joyful, when I'm driving or falling asleep. 
In David Foster Wallace's 1989 story "Girl With Curious Hair," the unnamed sociopathic narrator goes with his dirtbag friends to a solo Keith Jarrett concert in the early '80s. The friends drop acid, and one explains that the improvisation "smelled like old velvet in a trunk in an attic, or like vitamins, or medicine, or morning … [It] resembled weak sunlight through ice." That's true enough, but I prefer the brevity of the awful narrator, who's never heard Jarrett's music before and who, sober, declares with great enthusiasm that the show is "punkrock." The Köln Concert will remain ever so.
If it is Punk, it is a quiet kind of Punk, which is the Punk that I prefer to listen to as another year winds down. Walking to work yesterday in the dark, I decided to leave my iPod in my jacket pocket and trek the two miles to the office listening to the unusually calm sounds of the morning traffic. It made me realize, a la Gertrude Stein, that there is no there there. Maybe that is the point of quiet, to remind us that everything is empty; or, if there is a there there it is not the there that we think is there. The realization is that the there we thought was there is not there and either nothing is there or something so different it might as well be nothing is there.

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