There's a reason so many musicians perform modern interpretations of Bach: do almost anything to his compositions and they still sound great.
Skeptical? Try this: download his Brandenburg Concertos from the internet in MIDI format ( www.bachcentral.com has an excellent selection of his work available for free) and change the instruments to anything except percussion (heck, even that may work). The results will nearly always be pleasing and harmonically correct.
If that's too technical, then consider how his "Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor" is perhaps the greatest video game score of all time, serving as everything from chamber music in haunted castles to rock-fusion in outer space.
With that in mind, we come to pianist Kalman Olah's fitting the composer's Goldberg Variations into the world of modern jazz and Hungarian folk songs.
Contrasts And Parallels is an engaging album that's lively, smooth and innovative throughout. It's divided into two sets of "variations," one focusing on Bach's work and improvisations, the second on folk interpretations.
Olah opens with a five-minute solo improvisation that's soothing and reasonably intelligent, sort of halfway between Keith Jarrett and George Winston. The trio shifts to modern swing on a subsequent improvisation. Starting with Bach's compositions might provide listeners a better frame of reference, but these establish the group's ability and intent to play loose but harmonious.
The interpretations are challenging modern jazz, yet seldom wander into overly discordant or contradictory phrasing. Like Bach, himself a master of improvising on long-established musical forms, the trio keeps the variations in a recognizable zone of comfort while offering fresh and seldom repetitive ideas within the given structures.
Olah is generally the lead voice and provides a strong sense of melody and drama. Bassist Janos Egri does a good job of providing interactive support and engaging solos that are broad in range and tone. Drummer Ferenc Nemeth offers the most contemporary influence, but he's never so dominant he threatens to alienate the character of the interpretations.
The folk songs on the second half of the album deliver, as Olah promises, both notable similarities and "variations" on the Bach pieces. Iren Lovasz delivers a rich vocal performance on "Rubato," opening the set on a differing note, but many of the remaining pieces retain the earlier jazz/classical blend. Perhaps the best fusion of styles comes on the haunting and mournful "Passacaglia," starting slow and minimal with Olah performing a classical-influenced melody, shifting into an up-tempo solo midsection that retains the song's character and closing again in meditative fashion.
Olah may be little-known outside his native Hungary, but is one of the country's most popular jazz pianists and can fairly claim to accomplish his goals with this album. It's clearly not for those looking for the Goldberg Variations themselves, nor listeners interested in a revolutionary spin on them (try Uri Caine's controversial double CD The Goldberg Variations for that), but those looking for a solid jazz album based on their timeless ideas ought to be satisfied.
Personnel: Kalman Olah, piano; Janos Egri, bass; Ferenc Nemeth, drums; Iren Lovasz, vocals
Record Label: M.A. Recordings