Bach, Brubeck and the Bridge

To my generation of budding musicologists, ardently perusing the heavily footnoted scholarly literature on Bach and Before, Dave Brubeck was the bridge to What Lay Beyond, the first jazz performer we could listen to and still preserve our self-respect. Himself a composer with serious credentials, a prize student of the formidable Darius Milhaud in the 1940s at Oakland’s Mills College, Brubeck composed and proposed a new kind of jazz, respectable as none of the popular arts had been hitherto. It had -- for God‘s sake! -- counterpoint. It snaked along in rhythms and meters that only the most abstruse masters had practiced. It even Took Five, and bragged about it in its title. Milhaud himself, decades before, when jazz was the latest thing on the block, had broached the notion of dolling up the new arrival in matching socks and escorting it over the bridge to the “serious” side; his jazz-infused “ballet negre,” La Creation du Monde, remains one of the 20th century’s seminal works, as much for its quality as for the alliance across the bridge that it implied.

One year Milhaud‘s composition seminar consisted of eight students; they first called themselves the Jazz Workshop Ensemble, but in 1949 they recorded on the Fantasy label as the Dave Brubeck Octet. By the mid-’50s, out beyond the walls of academe, the Octet had shrunk to its enduring classical shape, as the Dave Brubeck Quartet -- Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto, drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright; they played college towns for the most part, and on most nights you couldn‘t get near the place. When Brubeck came to the Hollywood Bowl a couple of weeks ago with his latest quartet, Eugene Wright also sat in on a couple of numbers, and the years just fell away.

Never mind that the very smartness of Brubeck’s music (much of it actually Desmond‘s music) raised suspicious eyebrows in the realm of “pure” jazz; he also carried the curse of West Coast--ness, while the East Coast nurtured its own jazz intelligentsia -- the MJQ. Gary Giddins’ recent Visions of Jazz, the best jazz overview I know, brackets Brubeck with the “popularizers” Wynton Marsalis and Paul Whiteman -- thereby also handing out lumps to Gunther Schuller‘s scholarly Early Jazz, whose hero by and large seems to be Whiteman. Giddens may be right; I only write about what I like.

All I know is that Brubeck’s half of that Hollywood Bowl program, with the old boy just a few months short of 80, was more than just beautiful; it had the kind of inventive freedom and vitality that had hooked me on his music nearly half a century ago. Its strength was all the more appealing after the program‘s first half, in which the Bowl’s resident Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra delivered tidy, dead musical packages that even the trick virtuosity of guest trumpetertrombonist flugelhornist (sometimes all at once) James Morrison couldn‘t bring to life. Brubeck’s current group -- with drummer Randy Jones, bassist Alec Dankworth (John and Cleo‘s kid), Bobby Militello on winds -- offered a fine, varied program, including a couple of new pieces not yet named and, at the end, a great zoom through Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” with Eugene Wright also onboard. One of my vivid memories from that night, however, was the simple, elegant beauty of Brubeck‘s piano in a sentimental old standard called “All My Love,” floating, floating under a full moon, conquering the noise-afflicted air of Cahuenga Pass not with noise but with near silence.

New on the job, Esa-Pekka Salonen confessed to me several years ago, on these very pages, that the music of J.S. Bach was still for him a dark area awaiting discovery. A new Sony CD with the Los Angeles Philharmonic suggests that he has entered this territory, but along a strange and tortuous path: via the orchestral transcriptions inflicted upon several of Bach’s works -- for keyboard or chamber ensemble -- by self-proclaimed if misguided Bachmeisters of generations past. Salonen‘s program, some of which figured in a Bowl concert a year or so ago, includes the inevitable orchestral bacchanale -- Leopold Stokowski’s version of the D-minor Toccata and Fugue (of Fantasia fame) -- along with Arnold Schoenberg‘s well-intentioned but ponderous take on the “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue, Anton Webern’s dissection of the Ricercar from the Musical Offering, and a curious hodgepodge of movements from two of the Orchestral Suites, rescored and cobbled together by Gustav Mahler as a single work. One further travesty that‘s missing, but which I hope somebody digs out someday, is Sir Henry J. Wood’s version of the D-minor T&F, with full percussion section -- which that other dedicated Bachian, Arturo Toscanini, used to perform but which needs recording of the quality that Sony‘s engineers have accorded Salonen on his new disc.

As a documentation of Bach envisioned by bygone musicians, Salonen’s disc has its value, and his performances are clear and properly robust. Surely we are inundated these days with Bach-anniversary recordings from all imaginable points along the authenticity spectrum. My latest favorite, by the way, is John Eliot Gardiner‘s Archiv disc of two cantatas for Easter, Nos. 6 and 66, performed by Gardiner’s own group the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. There is an astounding moment in the opening chorus of No. 66, a chromatic, twisting setting of the words “mourning, fear and timorous hesitation,” that‘ll knock your socks off; an equally strange duet later on, for countertenor and tenor, gives the ultimate lie to the image of stodgy old Bach in his dusty organ loft. I’m not always fond of Gardiner‘s slick, dancing phrasing, but this new disc is close to heavenly.

Sony has also been kibbling, remastering and reissuing its own particular Bach treasure, the legacy of Glenn Gould performances recorded over the span from the 1955 “Goldberg” Variations to the same work 26 years later. The latest issue, a two-disc “best of” collection consisting mostly of kibbles and bits, would be unworthy of notice except that the second disc also contains about half an hour of CD-ROM (Mac or PC) featuring Gould at work on several sections of The Art of the Fugue not included on the previous laserdisc release. This is truly fascinating: the fingers, the massive, troubled countenance and, of course, the groaning accompaniment from deep inside, drawing out of the uncomplaining piano a full range of wisdom and fantasy, surging upward from both the music and the musician.


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