Nobody swings like Johann Sebastian Bach.
At least that's what the Classical Jazz Quartet and arranger-producer Bob Belden presupposes on Plays Bach, a new album on Vertical Jazz Records. Using a half-dozen of the 17th century baroque composer's eminent creations as a springboard for jazz invention and improvisation, the musical artists here transcend genre and context in these performances and together forge an aesthetic experience that is both entertaining and sublime.
With a moniker like the Classical Jazz Quartet and a lineup of instrumentalists that mirrors the pioneering Modern Jazz Quartet, comparisons are inevitable. Led by Ron Carter, perhaps the greatest jazz bassist of his generation, and renowned pianist Kenny Barron, the Classical Jazz Quartet also boasts two other superb talents, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and drummer Lewis Nash--all masterful bandleaders in their own right who represent the creme de la creme of jazz today. In terms of distinctions, it's interesting to note that whereas the MJQ under the direction of John Lewis brought the influence of classical music and chamber groups to jazz structurings, the foursome of Plays Bach are charged with bringing a swing and bop vibe to some of the most beautiful melodies ever written--a task completed to much acclaim already with the group's maiden effort in 2000, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.
Bob Belden, the mastermind behind Plays Bach, is long acquainted with the practice of re-imagining works outside the jazz idiom for practitioners of the improviser's art, having completed similar projects using the music of Sting, Prince and Puccini in the past. A tenor saxophonist whose lush orchestral work, Black Dahlia, reaffirmed his vast gifts as an arranger, Belden seems to revel in the innate challenges of the many musical projects he becomes involved in.
Bach's music has always appealed to jazz musicians," Belden remarks in the Plays Bach liner notes. Bach created chord patterns and melodic phrases that were incorporated by jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, whose own fluid lines and inner beauty betrayed the grace and form that is a signature of Bach. But rather than focus on playing Bach with some respect to the original piece (as is the traditional way of interpreting Bach and other classical composers), I have arranged the music to highlight the cool nature of this incredible music, to find the warmth and charm of a music that had been wrapped up in formality, and to let the music breathe with a life that relates to the musicians themselves."
Plays Bach commences, fittingly so, with Ron Carter's bass limning the familiar melody of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" before the rest of the quartet's alchemy recasts the chorale into jazz du jour, with Stefon Harris and Kenny Barron delivering brilliant, imaginative solos. The rhythm section quickens the tempo on the Oboe Concerto in A major, 2nd Movement, and thus frames the canvas for more colorful improvisations. This leads into the first two movements of the Brandenburg Concerto #2 in F major, which bookend Belden's dreamy remolding on Invention #4 in D minor, a tour de force that Harris carries with a spiraling display on the marimba. Nash's stick work shines throughout but deserves special notice in the 2nd Brandenburg movement, where swing rules. Then, on Air," the album's finale, Carter again announces the melody before his quartet mates ride through the song in exquisite fashion.
The Classical Jazz Quartet is one of those rare instances where like-minded and wholly enthusiastic musicians are matched perfectly to the music. Indeed, if there is one abiding characteristic in the playing of the members of this quartet, it is elegance. While many jazz musicians are classically trained, being able to bring both technique and spirit to arrangements that call out for flexibility is not just a matter of reading the charts. Through their accumulated work with jazz giants like Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Betty Carter, Tommy Flanagan and Wynton Marsalis, the dynamic members of the Classical Jazz Quartet and arranger Bob Belden proved their musical prowess and empathic powers long ago. Now, their contemporary take on J. S. Bach is one for the ages.