Pianist Roney Draws Inspiration from Keith Jarrett’s ‘The Köln Concert’


John Roney will be channeling his inner Keith Jarrett, circa 1975, at three Canadian festivals this month. The Montreal-based pianist will perform his reimagining of Jarrett’s landmark album The Köln Concert June 13 at Jazz Regina in Saskatchewan, June 14 at Calgary, Alberta’s JazzYYC Summer Festival (where he will spend a week as artist-in-residence) and June 22 at the Medicine Hat Jazzfest in Alberta. He plans to present the program again in the fall at Stewart Hall in Pointe-Claire, Quebec.

The Köln Concert, originally released as a double LP on ECM, was a huge crossover success for Jarrett. The three-movement recording, captured live during a performance of improvised piano pieces at Köln Opera House in Cologne, Germany, on Jan. 24, 1975, presents him in top form despite many challenges he faced that night, including a substandard instrument. It has sold more than 3 million copies.

Recreating Jarrett’s masterpiece is a tall order to fill, but if anyone is up to the task, it’s Roney. An open-minded improviser and composer who’s thoroughly schooled in jazz and classical piano—he got his bachelor’s at University of Toronto and his master’s at McGill University in Montreal—Roney performs regularly with close to a dozen musical acts of widely varying styles, including his own jazz trio. He’s also a dedicated jazz educator who’s currently up for tenure at University of Montreal.

Roney moves freely from one genre to the next, from one ensemble to another. There’s the appropriately named duo Piano Chameleons, in which he and pianist Matt Herskowitz perform famous classical pieces with improvisational elements.

Another side of Roney is revealed on his enticing 2014 album Preludes (Effendi Records), which draws on repertoire he plays during solo classical performances. An in-demand accompanist, he works with the operatic soprano Natalie Choquette at venues across the globe, and he’s been known to back up local pop vocalists as well. His experience playing and writing for the Effendi Jazz Lab—a small big band populated by artists on the Montreal-based Effendi label who played each other’s original compositions—led to the recording of an inspired 2013 release titled World Colors. Roney has five albums as a leader (and several others where he appears as a sideman) available through Effendi.

Roney also has toured and recorded with the Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra, and he’s a regular member of a tribute trio called Les Legends, which celebrates the music of Chet Baker and Scott LaFaro.

Roney is known to countless jazz musicians who took part in the Montreal Jazz Festival’s famous after-hours jam sessions, which he eagerly hosted from behind the house piano for a decade. The festival stopped holding the nightly event in recent years, but Roney hopes he gets the nod if it ever returns to the program. “That’s my favorite gig,” he said of the jam. “You get to play every night, with different people from all over. You can explore and take chances, which is what the essence of jazz is. And people flock to it.”

DownBeat spoke with Roney at length about The Köln Concert after his invigorating performance of the program at the 2017 Montreal Jazz Festival, and again in advance of this summer’s events. Below are edited excerpts from both conversations.

What was your impression of The Köln Concert upon hearing the album for the first time?

I think when people listen to that record, everybody has the same response: that it’s really accessible, it’s really groovy and the energy is incredible. There’s this mystery behind it, that it shouldn’t have happened or shouldn’t have been released; it was improvised; it was all the wrong elements, the wrong piano, and he made great music with a modicum of equipment or energy or spirit. I’ve done a lot of research on the project just to try to get in his mindset. But you can’t get truly inside his mindset: He’s Keith—he’s still one of the still living legends of jazz. From 1917 to 2017, he’s one of, I’d say, a dozen artists who are responsible for changing the face of jazz and what’s possible. And that album is a big part of that.

That’s a long way of saying when I first heard it in high school, it gave me the permission to do that. Before, you would read the music or you would read your band chart; or you’d learn music and kind of digest music in a certain way and regurgitate it. But that album had no rules and still came out completely incredible and inspiring.

Keith was not the first [to do improvised piano concerts]. It was the 1970s; people were doing that. But Keith’s [performance] struck a chord in its accessibility, which I think is a really hard thing to do with freely improvised music. When it comes to free music, people will say it’s fun for the player and not as much fun for the audience. But it can be both, and I think a musician like Keith—although he has a kind of shroud of mystery around him—I think he does care about the quality of the music, meaning the quality of the communication. And you can’t have the communication without thinking of the other person.

What prompted or inspired you to recreate The Köln Concert for today’s audiences?

I was asked to do this project. [Esteemed Canadian orchestra conductor] Jean-Francois Rivest was the head of a music camp at the Orford Music Academy in Quebec, and he asked me to do a performance in his concert series in July of 2015. He said, “Here’s what I want you to do: I want you to play The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett, do you accept?” He called me on Jan. 16, 2015, almost exactly 40 years to the day after it was recorded. And I thought, the timing is too good, I’ve got to do it. He gave me a week to think about it.

I said yes. And for the next six months I worked my ass off to get it to performance level. I had another gig the following year, in October 2016, where I did it again [at Montreal’s Théâtre Paradoxe]. I took more liberties with it. And then [at the 2017 Montreal Jazz Festival], I did the opposite: I did a lot more research into the piece itself and tried not so much to memorize the licks, but try to think of what the arc of the piece is, and also to try to streamline that. There are moments where, because Keith is improvising, it can’t be streamlined. You hear him swimming, you hear him treading water, you hear when he doesn’t know what to do next, and he kind of changes his mind and then changes back quickly.

There’s part of the second movement where he’s in D, and then he’s in C for like two bars, and then he goes back to D. He kinda said, “Well, that’s not gonna work.” Which is part of the beauty of the piece. So, the project came to me as a challenge, and I accepted the challenge. I want to stay close to the spirit of what Keith did, and at the same time I want to do something unique. And the more I work on it, the more I get out of it.

How did you prepare for that first performance?

I’m an improviser, I kind of have to do things my own way, so the way I learned the piece by listening to it over and over. Some lines were really hard to learn or reproduce stylistically, because every finger is a different nuance. Keith doesn’t play long lines like Oscar Peterson that are fluid and consistent from the beginning to the end. There’s a shape in every single note, and that made it really challenging. That’s the kind of stuff I really had to listen for. When I was at Orford, I had the whole week living in a chalet they put me up in, and I practiced it every night after they had the orchestra concert. I would get in there at 11 p.m. and just play. So I did the whole program back-to-back four or five times in the same hall where I performed it, which helped a lot. You don’t have the luxury of doing something like that on tour.

As you head into a series of festival performances later this month, do you feel this project is gaining momentum?

With the amount of work and consideration I’ve put into this, it’s definitely built some momentum up in me. Everything else that I play is so much more informed. It’s a great tool to build one’s musicality. As far as the project itself having any momentum, it’s kind of like a natural momentum. I think I got what I needed artistically out of it. But as far as making a business out of it and building future tours around it, I don’t think I’m going to explore that any further.

What kind of listening experience can audiences expect for upcoming performances of The Köln Concert?

My philosophy behind this project is, it has to be me, it has to be my fingerprint, it has to be my expression, it has to be me improvising in and out of this music. I use it as a vehicle, but I have to put my own stamp on it. I could go crazy trying to play every single nuance that Keith did; I want to get the vibe and the energy of it.

The vibe is really everything. The music itself is relatively simple—it’s a lot of vamps and a lot of very common hand configurations, so it’s relatively easy to figure out. But, as they say, the devil is in the details, so really getting into the vibe of something and speaking in the same kind of language that Keith used is a big goal. The way that he plays on the record sounds to me like the 1970s. I don’t know how else to describe it. The folk inflections he does, something about the articulations, something about it that today it almost sounds like a completely different language. People don’t play that way anymore. It’s a cool thing to re-explore. It’s not bebop; it’s not hard-bop like the ’60s; it’s not what’s going on today. It’s definitely a slice of the 1970s.

Last year, you released a well-received duo album with Israeli alto saxophonist Tevet Sela called The River (Effendi), and you continue to perform with him regularly. A Montreal Jazz Festival concert is scheduled for July 7, and the two of you will give several performances in Western Canada later this fall.

Tevet is a unique alto saxophone player. His influences are klezmer, classical and jazz, but he’s not like a Charlie Parker player, as many alto players are. His palette is very wide. He writes tunes that are exotic-sounding, folkloric—and then he plays jazz on top of it. I also wrote some of the music for that project—it’s half of his and half mine.

It’s fun to play duo. The lines are very blurred with Tevet, because he doesn’t really accompany, but at the same time he will still play—he’ll have an accompanying sound. It’s fun to play duo with a different instrument because there’s much more color and the balance of the two instruments is always changing.

Now we’re talking about doing a second album. We’re looking at exploring the tradition of some lullabies and folk music from Israel. That’s right up his alley, and I’m going to take the pen and go to town rearranging and reharmonizing.

What else is on the horizon for you?

I still have the Piano Chameleons project, which is going strong. We finally pierced through into the United States and had a gig in Twin Falls, Idaho, and before that in Florence, Oregon. It’s still picking up steam, and we’re working on our next record, which is all Beethoven.

With so many projects and ensembles happening all at once, do you ever find that it’s hard to maintain focus as an artist?

I have a friend who says I’m not a musical purist; I’m a musical tourist. I think that’s a beautiful way to put it. I love all of this stuff and more. If I could be good at everything, I would be the happiest man alive. I’m a guy who’s really interested in music who’s made it his passion to work really hard. So I just follow my ears.

Every jazz artist wants to find his voice. I haven’t found mine yet, but I’m having a great time experimenting and putting different voices out there. The musical mosaic—I’m interested in that, and if it becomes what people conceive of me, then I’m fine with that. DB

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