On a cold January night in Koln, Germany, 1975, jazz pianist Keith Jarrett sat alone on stage before a baby grand piano, with a rapt audience filling the Koln Opera House seats. Non-classical music had rarely been played within the Opera House's utilitarian walls, but this wasn't the only ground-breaking the pianist would accomplish this evening. What became The Koln Concert was the beginning of something much greater.
Jazz-rock fusion had taken over the jazz scene in the '70s after the success of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and the popular Weather Report albums. Jarrett himself was a part of Miles' fusion bands, but after leaving the band, he began forging a new sound, which was more closely tied to the acoustic and melodic roots of jazz, and this concert signaled the re-birth of that sound. Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, and other contemporary jazz performers owe much to Jarrett's return to melody to allow for their success.
Jarrett entered this performance with a few chord progressions in mind, but everything else was improvised. You can hear him playing one melody, then reshaping it, inverting it, and refining it into a line so beautiful you'd swear he spent years writing it. The styles he mines here flow from swing to pop to bebop so effortlessly that it's as much an homage to jazz as it is an original piece.
The album is broken into three parts: Part I, Part II, and encore. Throughout, you can hear Jarrett humming along with the melodies as he invents them, vocally expressing his excitement amidst a line, and pounding out the rhythms on the frame of the piano, all of which add to the sheer joy of this recording. As the bestselling solo jazz recording of all time, this is no secret, but for those who haven't heard it yet, it's an amazing experience. And it's one of my favorite album covers.