The Modern Jazz Quartet epitomized what some observers labeled, perhaps derisively, "chamber jazz." The recently formed Classical Jazz Quartet (CJQ), featuring bassist Ron Carter, pianist Kenny Barron, drummer Lewis Nash, and vibraphonist Stefon Harris have revived that elegant tradition. The group has followed up last year's The Nutcracker with Plays Bach.
As I listened to the opening theme of "Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring", and its all too faithful replication of the original opus, I dreaded the worst. Fortunately, though, that opening leads to what Dexter Gordon might've called a swingin' affair. The CJQ shifts from reverent to up-tempo in a heartbeat, transporting the piece from the cathedral to the Vanguard.
The songs were arranged by Bob Belden, and the most surprising thing about a few of the arrangements is how they bear so little resemblance to the Bach compositions. In a couple of cases, such as "Brandenburg Concerto #2, 1st Movement", there's very little sign of the powdered wig paradigm; Belden used only a section of the piece as the foundation for a more thorough investigation of its boundaries. The same is the case with "Oboe Concerto in A Major, 2nd Movement", where Belden uses the bare bones of that piece to construct a Latin-flavored blues. In these cases, Bach is so muted that he's almost suggested rather than actually present.
The group assembled to interpret these arrangements is itself a classic, with a Hall of Fame lineup of players. Carter, Barron and Nash remain platinum members of jazz's upper register, but it is young Harris who steals the spotlight. Harris is to the vibes what Keith Jarrett is to the piano, or Slam Stewart to the bass: a rhythmic driving force and performer who takes great joy in singing as he plays.
All things considered, Plays Bach is a well- executed, polished work. There is true passion in the playing and the band is right on point. Considering the composer in question, and the personnel involved, this was a can’t-miss prospect from jump.