So all these years we thought the “J.S.” in J.S. Bach stood for “Johann Sebastian,” when what it really meant was “Just Swingin’!” We had no idea J.S. was so hip — that is, before David Matthews marked the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death by renovating several of his post–Baroque works for the sixteen–member Manhattan Jazz Orchestra. Chances are that those who have even a nodding acquaintance with classical music will easily recognize such archetypal works as “Toccata and Fugue,” “Air on the G String,” ”Minuet” and others, even though they’ve assuredly never heard them played quite this way before. Heresy? Hardly. More like the way Bach himself might have written these pieces had he lived in the twentieth / twenty–first centuries instead of the eighteenth. He was, after all, a consummate musician, and his compositions betoken the time in which he lived. Matthews has taken the spirit of Bach and placed it in a wholly appropriate contemporary environment, one that simply happens to swing like schoolchildren on a playground. As Johann Sebastian loved to play with chords and changes, he may have been as delighted to hear the MJO’s adroit improvisations on his polyphonic themes as we were. Matthews has confined himself to conducting and arranging on this album, thus rendering the MJO pianoless, but his charts are so sturdy and resourceful that one scarcely notices its absence. What is noticeable from the outset is the orchestra’s great enthusiasm for the music, which it approaches not as outdated or irrelevant but as the timeless work of a genius that lends itself readily to more modern interpretation. Soloists aren’t listed but they assuredly include trumpeters Lew Soloff, Ryan Kisor and / or Scott Wendholt, trombonists Jim Pugh or Larry Farrell, saxophonists Chris Hunger and Bill Evans, bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Terry Silverlight (who perform marvelously in tandem to keep the rhythm percolating). That’s one of the “three Bs” (Bach) taken care of and two more (Beethoven, Brahms) to go. And we mustn’t overlook that other eighteenth–century wunderkind, W.A. Mozart. A “second Renaissance”? Why not? And who better to lead the way than contemporary big bands. The Manhattan Jazz Orchestra has thrown down the gauntlet. Is anyone else ready to accept the challenge?
Contact:Milestone Records, Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710. www.fantasyjazz.com
Track Listing: Toccata and Fugue; Air on the G String; Invention No. 4; Kyrie; Minuet (A Lover
Personnel: David Matthews, conductor, arranger; Lew Soloff, Ryan Kisor, Joe Shepley, Scott Wendholt, trumpet; Jim Pugh, Larry Farrell, Birch Johnson, trombone; David Taylor, bass trombone; Fred Griffen, John Clark, French horn; Tony Price, tuba; Chris Hunger, alto sax, flute; Bill Evans, soprano, tenor sax, flute; Roger Rosenberg, bass clarinet; Chip Jackson, bass; Terry Silverlight, drums.