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Review: In “Köln Concert”, dance like everyone is watching

In 1975, American jazz pianist Keith Jarrett gave a solo concert in Cologne, Germany, improvising without a predefined structure. The recording of that performance, “The Köln Concert,” became one of the best-selling solo jazz albums of all time, its free-spirited one-man, jam-band exploration of sounds one could associating with Rachmaninov, gospel and country-folk proving to be appreciated by fans of the Grateful Dead as well as jazz aficionados.

We can imagine the appeal of the album for Trajal Harrell, an American choreographer who found his place biggest success in Europe. Since 2019, Harrell has been house director of the Schauspielhaus Zürich and leads his own dance ensemble. The sound of an adoring European audience, as can be heard on Jarrett’s recording, must be familiar.

But Harrell’s “The Köln Concert,” which made its New York debut Thursday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, doesn’t begin with Jarrett. It begins with Harrell, already on stage as the audience arrives. Over a shirt and pants, he wears a dress like a blouse. He stands and looks at his audience as if he were a modern-day royal, trying to look casual while holding court.

And when the music comes in, it’s not Jarrett but Joni Mitchell. On “My Old Man,” Harrell begins to sway, melting, sweeping through the air, his fingers quivering as Mitchell sings the lonesome blues. It looks like a karaoke dance or someone dancing alone in a room, except for Harrell’s signature facial expressions, like Joan Crawford in pain. The vulnerability is armored in assignment.

As new Mitchell songs are played, mostly from the album “Blue” other dancers join Harrell. Sitting on piano benches, they capture the rocking motion, their arms swinging back and forth as if through water to Mitchell’s “river.” It culminates with “Both Sides Now” – the 2000 version, with a deep-voiced Mitchell on the strings – and another Harrell trademark: a fashion show, with the dancers taking turns parading in various outfits extravagant. They do it very well.

Finally, Jarrett’s recording begins (we never hear everything), and everyone returns in sleeveless black dresses for a succession of solos. These also give the feeling of being alone in the room, as if an elegant woman, a little tipsy and feeling sorry for herself, had donned the Jarrett for a few trips. It is a style of dance that resembles that of a dance that no one is watching, except that these performers are intensely aware of being watched.

Part of the problem here is structural. Made in 2021, Harrell’s dance is clearly a pandemic product, with its carefully spaced benches and solo after solo. The solos have a little variation to distinguish them: Titilayo Adebayo swings her long braids like helicopter blades; the statuesque Thibault Lac, Harrell’s longtime collaborator, responds to Jarrett’s rapid runs with jerky instability. But they are all too close to Harrell’s copies, and the repetition is deafening.

The deeper problem, however, is the near-total lack of spontaneity. Much of the joy in recording Jarrett comes from not knowing where he’s going next and being surprised at how he gets there. In Harrell’s “Köln Concert,” there are no surprises.

Where Jarrett sometimes sits in a groove, his left hand repeating a simple figure while his right hand moves freely, the combination building momentum, Harrell simply seems stuck in his routine. He’s good at conceptual pairings – his signature pieces combined vogue with 1960s postmodern dance – and his pairing of Mitchell and Jarrett helps us hear an affinity between them, a sound of the 1970s. But the “Köln Concert” by Harrell is not really about these artists or the music of its title. It is about his identification with both. It’s mostly about himself.

Trajal Harrell

Until Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; bam.org.

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