Hot Bach

It seems like the Red Hot discs have been around forever, dutifully, as their longtime motto proclaims, “Fighting AIDS Through Popular Culture.” The shtick has always been simple and appealing: choose a songwriter like Cole Porter, a genre like country music or a personage like Fela, and have performers record their take, no matter how radical, on that music. Twenty-five years ago, the Red Hot Organization released Red, Hot + Blue, a compilation of Cole Porter tunes sung by the likes of Tom Waits and U2. It was a hit and now, thirteen Red Hot albums later, after collections featuring dance music, New Orleans music and music “inspired by Portugal,” the company has belatedly gotten around to classical music, specifically the baroque oeuvre of J.S. Bach in Red Hot + Bach.

After raising money for charity, the mission with most of the Red Hot compilations is to create new tracks rather than merely record covers or versions faithful to the originals. If this sounds like a prescription for indulgence or brilliant new music, it is. The theme here of Bach is only a guideline to the music being written, composed or jammed up. In most cases, listening for specific bits of Bach’s Concert in D Minor BWV 974, which was the piece that Julianna Barwick was supposedly thinking of when she composed, the ghostly “Very Own,” is a fruitless exercise and ultimately not the point. Fortunately, the sound quality of this compilation made up of tracks sent in from all over the world, is fairly consistent, presumably due to the labors of producers John Carlin and Melody Rabe.

This is experimental music, and so the pendulum between success and puzzlement swings back and forth. Bach lovers are apt to be sorely disappointed by a piece like “Arioso” by Miguel Atwood Ferguson, who according to the liner notes used Bach’s BVW 921 and BWV 1018 and his own songs as inspiration for his lush, completely unBach-like piece of fluff. And yet, Bach’s justly famous Air from Suite No. 3 in D BWV 1068, has been given a violin and double bass jazz interpretation by Daniel Hope and Georg Breinschmid that's a fabulous success. Saxophonist Gary Bartz and Bassist Ron Carter repeat the duo format in the next track, upping the tempos and with a brassy flourish capturing something of the spirit of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major BWV 1007. Philly DJ and producer King Britt turns “Ave Maria,” as inspired by Bach and Charles Gounod, into huge electronica. In “Ludepre,” classical pianist Francesco Tristano, who also dabbles in electronics and has one foot in Baroque music and one in contemporary classical music, uses Bach’s Prelude No. 2 in C Minor BWV 847 for a piece that combines repeated piano figures, a single note melody and a wide variety of percussive electronics.

Two short tracks by the always dependable Kronos Quartet, both titled “Contrapunctus II,” were inspired by the element of the same name in Art of Fugue. The first version blends futuristic electronica and a number of string parts that were recorded on wax cylinder at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey into a swirling, pulsing, wheezing, not entirely successful mélange of acoustic—electronic mushery. The second version is much more straightforward rendition of the same piece, beautifully recorded on acoustic instruments at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound. And for those really itching to test their open–mindedness or scrape their nails down the walls of their listening room, there’s singer songwriter Gabriel Kahane, who has turned the Goldberg Variations into a perky, bass heavy pop tune, “Dear Goldberg,” that comes complete with Kahane’s undistinguished singing, a vaguely harpsichord–sounding electronic keyboard bleeping away in the background, and a steaming pile of chutzpah. But then again, that’s the point: go crazy musically, experiment and have no fear of failure, all for the good of AIDS research. For listeners, it’s also about the cause, because as is usual for this series, the ratio between striking and mundane is about even.