Brad Mehldau: After Bach
It was Keith Jarrett who first took on Bach among today’s popular jazz pianists with recordings of Bach’s WTC and Goldberg Variations, before turning to Handel. His approach, performing both on piano and harpsichord, was to play the music “straight.” In this new recording by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, he produces a program of original pieces with pieces by Bach from the WTC that seem to inspire his own. Among the twelve tracks are five pieces by J.S. Bach and six by Mehldau.
I like the concept of the album. Taking the pieces by Bach in context, then using one’s improvisatory skills (not in a historical way, but in a way that truly crosses over between the idioms of jazz and classical for a modern audience) is a smart way to juxtapose old and new, and at the same time, paying respect to a composer who has touched so many musicians.
Not all of the Mehldau pieces, I thought, were of equal interest. The most successful pairing, I thought, was between the Fugue in G minor, BWV 885 and After Bach: Ostinato. The so-called ostinato is a repetitive note in the bass, upon which Mehldau deftly builds both harmonic interest and carries a theme that seems an echo of the one presented earlier by Bach in his fugue. The piece is also Mehldau’s longest piece on the recording. At six and a half minutes in, the piece takes on more energy with a busier motif that introduces chromatic touches. It’s nice.
The Pastorale by Mehldau after the C major prelude, BWV 870, is also interesting. The theme Mehldau begins with could almost have been a fugue subject from a Bach in a parallel universe. The counterpoint then builds, the lines complete with baroque ornaments. It’s leaves Bach’s sound world tonally, but still carries enough of a Bachian gist.
The piece entitled After Bach: Dream was the most difficult piece to appreciate on the album for me. The meandering theme that opens is easily transferrable to us as a dreamlike theme; I just wish it had taken a more interesting direction sooner. It goes to show, I think, that transferring from a piece by Bach, with rhythmic vitality and a pretty regular harmony, makes the following piece somewhat challenging when either the rhythmic variety or harmonic tempo slows down. The ending of the “Dream” however is pretty cool; it ends with a statement of a fugue subject by Bach. Clever.
Which leads to my least favorite piece, the ending Prayer for Healing. Timo Andres’s liner notes for the album had this to say about the piece:
[The last piece is] a well-deserved rest from the contrapuntal activity that animates much of the album. Gently chiming chords trace the outline of a wistful melody, direct and unembellished. It is here that we realize Mehldau’s project has gone far beyond improvising on Bach, or even in the style of Bach; it’s “before” and “after” but it’s also why and because.
The piece does open with solid chords; not like a chorale by Bach, but more like a melody with a hymn-like feel. It is satisfyingly tonal, but not following Bach’s harmonic rules. The harmonies reveal Mehldau’s background in jazz.
While the piece has some nice moments, like the Dream, I felt the piece could have been condensed in time. Despite this being my least favorite track, it’s got some monster-rich chords with bold, saturated color.
This album captured the piano’s sound in full clarity.
I will be honest. Jarrett’s Bach is not my favorite. And if I’m listening to a jazz standard, I favor Jarrett over Mehldau. But with this album Mehldau steps out front in marrying the old with the new and gives what I believe is probably a significant heart-felt effort at trying to play tribute to Bach in the way he knows best. It’s a rewarding listen, one that I imagine you will best enjoy with time set aside to savor what’s inside.