Recording of June 2018: After Bach

Brad Mehldau: After Bach
Brad Mehldau, piano
Nonesuch 7559-79318-0 (CD). 2018. Robert Hurwitz, exec. prod.; Tom Korkidis, prod. coord.; Tom Lazarus, eng., mix, mastering; Brad Montgomery, mix. ADD? TT: 69:24
Performance *****
Sonics *****

That American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has made a recording of J.S. Bach's music should come as no great surprise to anyone who's followed his extraordinarily varied career. In many ways, it seems a natural progression.

Having become one of the most important jazz pianists of this century, and dabbled in classical-flavored music, film scores, and even performances of popular music (by Oasis Soundgarden and Nick Drake, to name just a few of the artists he's covered), Mehldau has finally gotten around to recording this album of five pieces by one of the greatest keyboard improvisers in history. Mehldau's method here is to play a more or less straight version of a Bach prelude or fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893, followed by his own "After Bach" reimagining of the same piece. All five Bach compositions are played surprisingly well by a pianist clearly intent on showing he's got the chops, and the understanding of Bach, to excel at this ambitious project. He puts his stamp on the album by opening and closing it with two originals inspired by Bach: "Before Bach: Benediction" and "Prayer for Healing."

The music of J.S. Bach has, of course, been connected to jazz music and players many times before. In the mid-1980s, John Lewis, of the Modern Jazz Quartet, recorded three albums based on Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. While the first of those records features straight renditions of the works, the following two contained looser improvisations based on Bach's epic work. French pianist Jacques Loussier has made a career of playing Bach in an idiosyncratic style. Mehldau's straight readings on this album are highly reminiscent of Keith Jarrett on his 1988 recording of WTC Book I (ECM). Going further back in jazz history, Charlie Parker's torrent of improvisational ideas seems to mirror Bach at his most unleashed. And over time, more than a few critics have found parallels between Bach's playing and the work of John Coltrane—most recently in a review of After Bach in the UK newspaper The Guardian.

After Bach fits neatly into a career that has never been circumscribed by simple definitions. Much to Mehldau's credit, he's always been more interested in forward momentum and remaining curious and active, rather than in working within any single musical genre or tradition. In 2002, for instance, he released Largo, an album produced by Los Angeles–based power-pop guitarist and film composer Jon Brion. On Love Sublime (2006), soprano Renée Fleming sang Mehldau's settings of poems by such musical writers as Rainer Maria Rilke. In the past decade alone he's toured with jazz guitarist John Scofield, and formed a drums'n'bass–influenced duo with drummer Mark Guiliana.

In 2015, Mehldau received a commission—underwritten by Carnegie Hall, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the National Concert Hall, and Wigmore Hall—to compose new pieces based on Bach's music improvisations based on Bach, called Three Pieces After Bach, which he subsequently began performing and which formed the basis for this album.

In terms of spirituality, as well as the skill and savvy of his playing, Mehldau clearly understands what makes Bach's music tick. The pianist's exacting contrapuntal technique, harmonic density, and often muted but still potent emotionality mirror those of the man he pays tribute to in this recording. The pianist Timo Andres, a Nonesuch label mate, may have summed it up best in his liner note: "There have always been elements of Mehldau's style that recall Bach, especially his densely woven voicing—but he's not striving to imitate or play dress-up. Rather, After Bach surveys their shared ground as keyboardists, improvisers and composers, making implicit parallels explicit."

Mehldau is also one of the many inheritors of Bach's nearly infallible sense of how musical improvisation can enhance rather than destroy an ordered sense of musical architecture. And while Mehldau's improvisations on After Bach may be a bit too loose and jazzy for classical-music purists, these ruminations—a trend in all of Mehldau's playing that may indeed be his strongest suit as a pianist —seem to be trying to work off whatever emotional contrail this modern pianist senses in the original composition.

Nowhere in this recording does that work better than in "After Bach: Ostinato," which follows a solemn reading of Fugue 16 in g, from WTC Book II, in which a grand and sweeping rhythmic sense takes over, and between repetitions of one note Mehldau uses the sustain pedal as he draws out emotions swirling behind the scenes of the original piece. As he spirals downward in an ever-slowing rhythm, the spaces between notes growing, "Ostinato" is finally enveloped in a silence that serves as a thrilling segue to Mehldau's "Prayer for Healing," a short melodic piece in the gray-and-sepia hues he prefers that nevertheless projects guarded hopefulness. Another highlight, this time more upbeat, vibrant, and jaunty, is "After Bach: Rondo," which follows Prelude 3 in C#, from Book I. Yet another track that drew me back again and again was Mehldau's beautiful reading of the Prelude 1 in C (Book II), in which a lighter touch on the keys, and a slightly more relaxed sense of rhythm than is present in most recordings of the original, give the music a previously unheard poignance. Throughout this recording, Mehldau's playing is moving and deeply inspired.

It's always surprising how few engineers know how to properly place microphones around and inside an acoustic piano. Here it's been done with expert grace and a clear sense of function. The resonances of the instrument are captured in glorious natural detail, as a modern master of the keyboard reproduces the original music and creates his own interpretations, in the process fashioning an album that exposes fascinating new musical angles on Bach's towering legacy.—Robert Baird

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review -RB
this is an instant purchase for me. I will also pick up the Keith Jarrett disc from 1988 as well.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Excellent recommendation .......... Instant purchase for me too ..........

wozwoz's picture

Many thanks for the informative and most interesting review. I have just had a 'listen' to a sample at Amazon, and am most impressed at the innovative and original style of the "after bach' versions, and have ordered a CD for my collection. Now I have to figure out: do I file it under Bach or Jazz?? :)