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'Higher than human': Brad Mehldau explores Bach's jazz genius

Robert Rowat

For somebody who lived 200 years before jazz even existed, J.S. Bach has had more than his share of influence on some major practitioners of the genre: Keith Jarrett, Nina Simone, Chick Corea and the Modern Jazz Quartet (plus its 21st-century successor, the Classical Jazz Quartet) have all imported elements of Bach's music.

One of the more recent jazz musicians to have fallen under Bach's spell is pianist Brad Mehldau.

"Perhaps because [Bach] simultaneously is the apotheosis of a grand earlier tradition and a great guiding light for the modern one which we inherit," Mehldau answered via email, when asked why. "He's sitting on the mountaintop, all alone, smiling," he added.

Bach's musical atmosphere is certainly rarified, as anybody who has spent time studying or listening to his music can attest. It's not long before one realizes there's something scarily perfect and humbling about Bach's structural use of harmony and melody.

"We can hear Bach’s fugues horizontally as intertwining melodies or vertically as harmonic progressions," writes Mehldau. "There are no weak links, and melody and harmony melt into each other seamlessly. This is surely why the fugue held Bach’s obsessive imagination to the end and yielded some of his most personal music. It represented the resolution of a duality, perfection — something higher than human."

Three Pieces After Bach

Bach's fugal writing is the inspiration behind Mehldau's latest project, Three Pieces After Bach, which he brings to Toronto's Koerner Hall on May 26 as part of the Royal Conservatory of Music's 21C Festival. The concert will be live streamed here.

For his performance, Mehldau plays two preludes and a fugue from books 1 and 2 of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Each is followed by a newly composed piece by Mehldau, directly inspired by the Bach original.

Mehldau's interest in Bach is no passing fancy. Bach's music entered the jazz pianist's life at an early age. "Bach was assigned to me by my piano teacher, Ms. Hurwitz, when I was 10. It was his first Prelude and Fugue in C major from book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. We had just moved to West Hartford, Conn., and it was my first lesson with her. I found the prelude easy and beautiful, and the fugue hard," he explains. "Nothing has changed!"

Later, Mehldau recognized — perhaps subconsciously — a similarity between Bach's inventiveness and that of the jazz masters. "Harmonic implication within a strong melody is something you hear in the jazz genius, Charlie Parker, or one of his descendants, Sonny Rollins. The harmonic accompaniment is already in their lines; the rhythm section is almost extraneous."

'He blows great lines!'

For Mehldau, the clarity of Bach's music is a big part of its appeal. "Jazz musicians are often making melodies 'over' a fixed harmonic grid, and with Bach, he gives you a strong grid and strong corresponding melodies," he explains. "He blows great lines!"

"Bach also is the guy [who] fuses together melody and harmony so that they are inseparable in his fugal writing, which is something that jazz does not usually achieve."

While Mehldau's Three Pieces After Bach focuses on the preludes and fugues, his interest in Bach's music goes beyond The 48. "I'm very inspired by a few of the keyboard partitas I've studied, and in the concert I will probably play a snippet of one. Certainly all his keyboard music, including the two concertos, some of the cantatas, of course St. Matthew's Passion and the chorales, are other inspirations."

Classical music lovers often talk of the spiritual nature of Bach's music, whether it was composed for the church or not. Mehldau concurs: "In much of Bach's music, there is a sense of repose — the battle has already been won. The aria that begins the Goldberg Variations is already perfect — everything after that is just joyful play in the light of its Godliness. He's not the only composer or musician who reaches that, but he lives there a lot."

Mahldau's Three Pieces After Bach was co-commissioned by the Royal Conservatory of Music, Carnegie Hall, Dublin National Concert Hall and Wigmore Hall. Catch him at Toronto's Koerner Hall on Thursday, May 26, at 8 p.m. For details, consult the web page of the 21C Music Festival, which runs May 25 to 29.


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