February 25, 2016
An audience filled Barrister Winery to its very visible rafters on Wednesday night at the opening concert of the 2016 season of the Northwest Bach Festival. The festival’s popular artistic director Zuill Bailey – who is not only a charming host, but one of the world’s finest cellists – joined the Matt Herskowitz Jazz Trio in an evening of jazz arrangements of works by J.S. Bach. It proved both pleasurable and provocative.
To demonstrate how not to arrange a masterpiece by Bach, the program began with a performance by Herskowitz and Bailey of an arrangement by Robert Schumann of the master’s Third Suite for Solo Cello in C major. Bailey himself admitted in prefatory remarks that Schumann’s arrangement, long believed to be lost, actually weakened the original. Schumann, suffering severe mental illness, added an unimaginative accompaniment in which the pianist plays simple chords at the start of every phrase, telling the listener exactly what harmony to expect. The problem is that this piece, like virtually all of Bach’s music, derives much of its power from keeping harmonies ambiguous, uncertain or surprising. Schumann relieves much of the tension from the music, and thus weakens the hold it has on us.
Herskowitz understands that, as was made clear as soon as Bailey joined him and his trio partners, Mat Fieldes, bass, and David Rozenblatt, percussion, in Herskowitz’s arrangement of the second movement, larghetto, from Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in F minor. Herskowitz’s piece shines Bach’s light through a new prism, revealing colors and fragrances that had always been there but had remained hidden until he revealed them.
As with all the remaining pieces on the program, this is not a free jazz improvisation but a finished arrangement, in which the architecture of the piece, and most of its details, are known to the players from the beginning. Although Herskowitz often provides spaces for improvisation, the dimensions of those spaces are fixed. This allows the composer to create and maintain the specific sound world he envisions for each work. Thus, the arrangement of the F minor Concerto achieved a rich, almost symphonic texture, due in great measure to the incredibly resourceful work of drummer Rozenblatt, who drew an astounding variety of sound from a simple set of cymbals. Rozenblatt’s riff/cadenza at the end of the arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” (wittily re-titled “Sheep May Safely Groove”) showed how lyrical a trap set can be in the hands of a master.
Despite Bailey’s starry contribution, for most of the evening the musical spotlight stayed steadily on Herskowitz, whose work at the piano demonstrated a complete fusion of jazz idioms and classical keyboard technique. Most jazz pianists approach the piano as a percussion instrument, striking all of its 88 keys in pretty much the same way, while the classical pianist attempts to overcome the percussive nature of the instrument through myriad tricks and techniques designed to let the performer suggest the instruments of an orchestra, or the human voice itself.
The most outstanding example we heard was Herskowitz’s arrangement of the “Air on the G String,” performed in memory of his friend and mentor, the great trumpeter Lew Soloff. Beginning quietly, the pianist explored the famous melody by using Bachian techniques of counterpoint, mixed with bluesy embellishments, building steadily until, at the conclusion, he had reached a Romantic cyclone of sound that recalled the pianists of the early 20th century, such as Harold Bauer and Ferruccio Busoni, who took a special interest in the music of Bach.
Recalled to the stage for several encores, Herskowitz concluded with a teasing look forward to Friday’s program: a boogie-woogie arrangement for solo piano of Chopin’s Etude in C major Op. 10 No. 1, featuring digital pyrotechnics that outshone the stage lights.
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