CD REVIEW Hear and Hear Again

Jacques Loussier Revisits the Works of a Master

Jacques Loussier Trio

Jacques Loussier Plays Bach: the 50th Anniversary Recording


May 26, 2009

Loussier’s Bach is an idiot.

Stripped of his keyboard virtuosity, encyclopedic knowledge of counterpoint, psalm tones, and Lutheran chorale tunes, this Bach is an imbecile, tripping on his rhythms like some winsome puppy whose ears are too big. Reducing themes to a recitation of scales in octaves on the keyboard, Bach becomes Hanon for the beginner piano student, stuttering at the arrivals we all expect and love, fragmenting their theses without bringing a single musical idea to a satisfying resolution. This is confusing — to hear something like Bach become something different.

This is something different that is worth thinking about. Idiot though Bach may become, Jacques Loussier proves he is not one. There is a long-standing curiosity between Baroque music and jazz. It is not as ridiculous as it sounds: The Baroque era of music culminated in the embellishment and formalization of a history of improvisation — accompaniment for recit sections of early Baroque opera is often left unmarked, save a few numbers for the harpsichord suggesting chord progressions to help narrate the drama. Vivaldi introduces the cadenza to the concerto form, in which the solo instrumentalist is asked to freely improvise a closing cadence, often minutes long, on the theme of the movement just prior to the close of the piece. Even in Bach: Entire movements of his keyboard Partiten of Suites demand rigorous improvisation.

Loussier exacerbates the situation, but it is hard to explain how: This isn’t a reading of Bach in the traditional sense. Certainly, the works are there — Invention No. 8, the one your piano teacher made you play ad nauseam, floats on a soft bed of drum set and double bass, the dizzying whorl of the Prelude No. 2 in the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier weaves its way between through a fog of improvisation. There are counter-melodies that Bach implies but clearly does not have enough fingers to implement. Even in the twenty-first century Loussier performs with the same limitations.

It is incredibly interesting to follow this thread and play the game that Loussier plays with Bach’s work, in the same manner, Bach himself played with the work of Buxtehude, Luther, Pope Gregor, and countless other composers.

For the most part, the results are successful. Maybe there is a difference in opinion on aesthetics, but some works hit a sour note: Some passages sound like Bach played to the beat-box of a synthesizer. In other places, the accompaniment becomes too dramatic, too maudlin. But they are all always fascinating.

I would like very much to say that I understand jazz. Every piece of music has its narrative — a story that it means to express. I can approach an understanding of how much of Western classical music goes about conveying its narrative; how themes and melodies morph into mere tropes of their previous selves and hold some sort of meaning.

Jazz uses a different language that is distinct from, but not unrelated to, the one I know and have come to appreciate. Sure: it bothers me very much that “Chorale No. 1 ‘Sleepers Awake’” finds space to incorporate the Blue Danube but forgets all about Luther’s eponymous cantus firmus. In a way, to hear the piece without the stolid Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme in the base is to miss the point of Bach’s masterwork. But understand: to demand melody is to miss the point of Loussier’s reading of Bach’s work.

This is all hopelessly confusing and maybe that is the attraction. But this is a non-debate. And even though this lack of discourse belies the heart of my angst about musical forms, syntax, and narrative, it does not really matter on any fundamental level, at least in listening to Loussier play Bach.

To be sure, here is Bach and jazz — or maybe the other way around. I get confused — and although this fusion may not be expected, perhaps it is worth considering.