Pianist David Leonhardt's sideman credentials are impeccable, with ten years supporting the great jazz singer Jon Hendricks and twenty with Ray Charles' longstanding saxophonist, David "Fathead" Newman. Bach to the Blues, his twentieth album as a leader, may not radically alter his status as a respected but lesser known veteran, but the subtle pleasures it provides and its obvious classical/jazz crossover appeal should expose him to a wider, appreciative audience. The title is something of a misnomer, as most tracks are by classical composers other than Johann Sebastian Bach. Nevertheless, Leonhardt swells the ranks of jazz musicians from Django Reinhardt and Stefane Grappelli in the '30s, through Bud Powell and Max Roach to Jacques Loussier and Esbjorn Svensson, who have found a kindred spirit in a keyboard virtuoso and composer who died more than 250 ago. Bach was evidently, to paraphrase McCoy Tyner, a jazz cat.
"Prelude in G Major" shadows Bach's original composition, with Leonhardt playing melody and Bach's trademark counterpoint, gently supported by drummer Alvester Garnett and bassist Matthew Parrish. A shift in gear then propels the trio a couple of centuries forward as it follows a delightful 4/4 pattern which highlights the rhythm team's finesse. Garnett executes some nicely weighted rim shots, while there's a Bill Evans-esque balladic strain in Leonhardt's bluesy lines, which weave in and around Bach's melody. A not particularly subtle Brazilian break towards the end sounds somewhat odd in this context, but it is Bach who has the final say as the melody takes the trio home.
The trio works through a lovely, romantic interpretation of Debussy's "Claire de Lune." Schubert's "Ave Maria" is delicately reinterpreted, bass and brushes accompanying sympathetically, with Leonhardt adding nicely measured flourishes and embellishments of the main melody, like loving caresses. Satie's "Gymnopedie No 1" rounds off a triptych which again harkens back to Village Vanguard-era Evans at his most nostalgic. Thin on Bach thus far, perhaps, but a lovely blues vein emanates from Leonhardt's keys in these pieces.
Two Bach preludes serve as vehicles for extended piano improvisations around the skeletons of the melodies, underlining that time and little else separates Bach from Leonhardt. On the first, Garnett's brushes inhabit the piece to beautiful effect, while the second prelude develops into a walking blues featuring the equally impressive Parrish. Two Chopin compositionsPolish Mazurkas in G minor and C majorare also robed elegantly in the blues. An unrecognizable "Canon in D," by Pachelbel, has an impressionistic quality about it, and is given a stately, melancholic treatment with deep bass and rumbling toms adding to the piece's somber mood.
Leonhardt pays homage whilst creating his own space, and his tasteful embellishments of well-known themes sound like natural extensions of the composers' thoughts. This is a wonderful advertisement for music's universality, and another blow to the erectors of boundaries. It's also a fine testament to Leonhardt, a pianist of great finesse and an arranger of some imagination.
Personnel: David Leonhardt: piano; Matthew Parrish: bass; Alvester Garnett: drums.