How a Frenchman found the key to Bach's inner swing
Bach's Goldberg Variations, Jacques Loussier (Telarc)
The year 2000 marks the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death in 1750. While jazz musicians like John Lewis, Dave Brubeck, and Ron Carter, have adapted Bach's fugues, cannons, and inventions into their own musical conceptions, the French pianist Jacques Loussier, with his groundbreaking Play Bach Trio, adapted Bach to jazz for most of his career. His new release, Bach's Goldberg Variations, featuring bassist Benoit Dunover De Segonzac and drummer Andre Arpino, is the latest addition to his Bach reworkings of The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Brandenburg Concertos.
Because Bach was an incredible improviser in his day, albeit on organ and harpsichord, the jump from 18th-century classical music to 20th-century jazz isn't that much of a leap. The 30 Goldberg Variations were composed by Bach in the 1740s for his pupil J.G.T. Goldberg to play for the Count Keyserling as a cure for his insomnia. In a manner as unique as Wanda Landowska's, Glenn Gould's, and Andras Schiff's celebrated versions, Loussier makes this music sing and swing in a variety of jazz moods and grooves. The opening and closing Arias rise and fall with the pianistic delicacy of Bill Evans, whereas many of the tracks including Variations 3, 5, 14 and 24 feature Bud Powell-flavored waltz, Oscar Peterson-style, straight-ahead runs tempo, Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian samba rhythms and Art Tatum-style contrapuntal lines.
Loussier's jazz-style Bach emerged after his studies at the Paris Conservatoire with Yves Nat, and his work as a sideman with vocalist Charles Aznavour. At about the same time, John Lewis was hitting full stride with the Modern Jazz Quartet in the late '50s, Loussier hit upon the idea to reorder Bach's music into the jazz idiom. He teamed up with renowned French bassist Pierre Michelot and drummer Christian Garros to form the original Play Bach Trio in 1959. Their seminal Decca records, which all went by the name Play Bach, were released between 1960 and 1963, and they worked for 15 years before disbanding. Loussier, who also played organ, reunited with Michelot to perform with new versions of the trio, and record for Telarc label in the late '90s, where, along with his Bach projects, he also recorded his interpretations of Vivaldi and Ravel.
As Jacques Loussier's fine work proves, the so-called gulf between jazz and classical forms is more perceptual than practical. In an age where artists like Keith Jarrett, the Kronos Quartet, Wynton Marsalis, and Kathleen Battle are routinely crossing those barriers, Mr. Loussier is a pioneer in connecting two musical worlds.