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The Best of Play Bach by Jacques Loussier

Combining jazz and "classical" or "serious" or whatever we call European Art music these days is by no means a new idea. Indeed, when I set out to document the phenomenon I was astonished at how pervasive it has been, and the number of jazz artists who have employed it, (in spite of which there is still no satisfactory category for the genre-this is not "Third Stream"music.) From the time of Paul Whiteman and Joe Venuti, through Ellington's revamping of the Nutcracker to Miles Davis' and Gil Evans' explorations of Rodrigo, Paul Desmond's appropriation of large chunks of Prokofiev, Fred Hersch's fine recordings of French and Russian Romantic music--The French Collection and Red Square Blue (Angel/EMI)--Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Eddie Daniels, Hubert Laws, Victor Feldman . . . the list goes on and on. I will probably publish an essay on the subject at some point. For now, suffice to say that it makes a lot of sense. There is a wealth of wonderful material available from great composers which is already harmonically compatible and requires just the slightest shift of rhythmic emphasis to work perfectly as jazz. What sets French pianist Jacques Loussier apart is that this is virtually all he does. And he has been doing it since 1959. Now, for his 70th birthday, Telarc has released a Super Audio tribute album, The Best of Play Bach.

On the face of it making jazz versions of J.S. Bach compositions seems like a bad idea. But Loussier makes it work beautifully. He began experimenting with the idea as a conservatory student, but it was some years later that he finally recorded the first Play Bach album with Pierre Michelot and Christian Garros. It was an instant success and Loussier never looked back, concertizing extensively and recording numerous albums between 1959 and 1978, initially for Decca in the early 1960s, when, having sold over six million records, he retired to concentrate on his own compositions. The tercentenary of Bach's birth in 1985 tempted Loussier to reform his trio, again focusing exclusively on Bach until recently, when he branched out and began to explore other composer's work, recording albums of Beethoven, Handel, Debussy, Ravel and Satie, all with the same approach. Reviewing each score, he determines which sections lend themselves to a straight classical reading, which ones to jazz interpretation, which to out and out improvisation and so forth. With subtle support from Vincent Charbonnier on bass and drummer André Arpino, he works his magic on several well-known Bach works, with the three-movement Italian Concerto as the centerpiece.

Again, it shouldn't work-swinging Bach could be a cornball disaster. But Loussier and his trio approach it with such taste, and unfailing technique, that the effect is consistently satisfying. Most important, the transitions from section to section, from straight rendition to jazz improvisation and back again is handled with great skill so that we forget categories and just enjoy the music as presented. If there is room for one jazz-meets-classical recording in your collection, this is it.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Jacques Loussier
  • CD Title: The Best of Play Bach
  • Genre: Other
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: Telarc
  • Rating: Five Stars
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