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Bach was recognised in his day as a great improviser. His jazz affinities were celebrated by Alec Templeton’s Bach Goes To Town, while Lennie Tristano’s students warmed up with Bach Inventions; Bud Powell recorded CPE Bach’s Solfeggietto. Now the jazz potential of Bach’s music is explored by Brad Mehldau in a new album. After Bach features four preludes and one fugue from Well- Tempered Clavier, plus five compositions indebted to them. It opens with the occasionally polymetric and fugato ‘Before Bach: Benediction’. This is followed by alternating works actually by Bach with improvisations inspired by them. The subject of Prelude No 3 in C-sharp is re-cast in a dotted rhythm in the wide-ranging ‘After Bach: Rondo’. But the highlight for me is the reincarnation of Fugue No 16 in G minor as the magical ‘After Bach: Ostinato’. The album ends with ‘Prayer for Healing’, an 11-minute contemplation.

Not all Bach-lovers will appreciate Mehldau’s playing of the real thing: a colleague describes it as ‘scrappy – gabbling through without charm, nuance, or dynamic’. Among thoughtful attempts to ‘jazz the classics’, Enrico Pieranunzi’s stand out. Along with Keith Jarrett, he is superior to Mehldau as a Bach performer. Jazz and classical musicians have different priorities, however, and Mehldau clearly gets inspiration for jazz improvisations from his (however imperfectly realised) performances of Bach. Conceptually, the album has striking virtues. ‘Ostinato’, at 12 minutes, is one of the most remarkable thematic improvisations on classical material that I know – developing Bach’s subject with imaginative power, and sustaining its ostinato feel, into a world of jazz harmonies in piquant contrast with the Baroque. The more I listen, the more I am amazed.

ANDY HAMILTON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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