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 Oaklands Mills College, Brubeck composed and proposed a new kind of jazz, respectable as none of the popular arts had been hitherto. It had -- for Gods 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 centurys seminal works, as much for its quality as for the alliance across the bridge that it implied.
One year Milhauds 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 couldnt 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 Brubecks music (much of it actually Desmonds 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 Schullers 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 Brubecks 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 programs first half, in which the Bowls 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 couldnt bring to life. Brubecks current group -- with drummer Randy Jones, bassist Alec Dankworth (John and Cleos 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 Desmonds Take Five with Eugene Wright also onboard. One of my vivid memories from that night, however, was the simple, elegant beauty of Brubecks 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 Bachs works -- for keyboard or chamber ensemble -- by self-proclaimed if misguided Bachmeisters of generations past. Salonens program, some of which figured in a Bowl concert a year or so ago, includes the inevitable orchestral bacchanale -- Leopold Stokowskis version of the D-minor Toccata and Fugue (of Fantasia fame) -- along with Arnold Schoenbergs well-intentioned but ponderous take on the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue, Anton Weberns 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 thats missing, but which I hope somebody digs out someday, is Sir Henry J. Woods 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 Sonys engineers have accorded Salonen on his new disc.
As a documentation of Bach envisioned by bygone musicians, Salonens 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 Gardiners Archiv disc of two cantatas for Easter, Nos. 6 and 66, performed by Gardiners 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, thatll 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. Im not always fond of Gardiners 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.