In January 1975 Keith Jarrett sat down at the Cologne Opera House’s Bösendorfer piano and spontaneously improvised a seamless stream of music that seemed to absorb everything from French impressionism to gospel. The recording, The Köln Concert, has gone on to sell 3.5 million copies, marks a classic milestone in 70s jazz and indeed has been responsible for many years for providing an accessible path for curious listeners towards more adventurous free music. Köln was the first jazz recording that I listened to, and through its production via the excellent ECM label, opened up a wealth of strange and wonderful listening for me. Whether or not they’re to your taste, most of Jarrett’s improvised solo concerts since the 70s have been landmark events within contemporary music. So where do we find Jarrett in 2011?

Bearing in mind the neutral, minimalist ECM-art covers that have adorned Jarrett recordings since Köln, the raw splashes of colour on the sleeve-art of this year’s Rio presented something of a surprise when it landed on my desk. And of course musically Rio and Köln couldn’t be further apart. Recorded live in Rio earlier in the year, this recording marks further solo concert experimentation within a particular path adopted by Jarrett over the last few years. Stemming from 2005’s Radiance, Jarrett has rejected the hour-long marathons that so distinguished his recordings since the 70s, in favour of a more compact, episodic approach.

Rio is stretched over 15 improvisational sketches, springing out in ‘Part I’ with loose, uncertain lines set over stuttering chords, before settling in ‘Part II’ into typically glowing textures, all underpinned by a kaleidoscopic harmonic sense. It is an experience that runs the full gamut of Jarrett’s sound world, from bursts of free jazz through to extended passages of impressionistic, textural play. It owes as much to the ill-documented free playing scene that Jarrett was involved in throughout clubs in Paris and New York in the 60s, as it does to his early solo concerts. Interestingly Jarrett has always named saxophonists, rather than pianists, as his inspiration. And indeed his cascading runs of notes, never once percussive, are all on display here. Moments of pure glory come with the beautiful points of emergence that Jarrett sets up, shifting from twisted melody and nervously pulsating chords in ‘Part V’ into unabashed lyricism.

Jarrett has described the unpremeditated solo performance process in the past as being a fusion of ‘spontaneous composition’ and ‘free improvisation’. It’s an approach that clearly explains much of the knowing classical references that litter his recordings from the 70s through to the 90s. And I must confess that I have not maintained complete affection for that body of work – with 1988’s Paris Concert’s descent into half an hour of crossover remaining a memorably excruciating moment. The taut variations he has worked to since 2005 has conversely allowed for freer playing – ‘letting go’ musically while also maintaining a stronger sense of structure over the whole concert. Of course I still find the idea of listening to and reviewing recordings of pure improvisation slightly problematic, given that so much of the beauty comes in the elusive music of the moment. Nevertheless, Rio is one of Jarrett’s most coherent recordings and is highly recommended listening.