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Brad Mehldau: After Bach

Nenad Georgievski By

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It seems that classical composer J.S. Bach has provided a surge of inspiration for some recent releases by artists on the Nonesuch label, starting with the Bach Trios led by an unusual yet explosive combination of musicians such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolinist Chris Thile, and bassist Edgar Meyer. Now we have another Bach-inspired release, this one by the highly acclaimed pianist Brad Mehldau, with works consisting of selection of the composer's compositions, along with several originals inspired by Bach's music.

Mehldau is one of the most distinctive and influential jazz pianists today. He is renowned for stretching the forms and boundaries of jazz music through his ambitious and exploratory projects and bands. Over the course of almost three decades, he has charted his own course through this challenging area of arts. One of the most recognizable features of Mehldau's oeuvre is the unusual sources of inspiration and interpretation combined with his compositional prowess. He is one of those vanguard musicians who freely use every source available, be it classic jazz, European classical music or indie and alternative rock as inspiration for his art.

The dust of history often makes people forget that most of the greatest composers in classical music were also superb improvisers. These days when the aspect of improvisation is mentioned in relation to classical music it is easy to assume that a mistake has been made. Jazz or folk music are probably the first things that come to mind when people mention improvising. But great composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt or Bach were renowned for their improvisations skills that they displayed in performances of classical music in the pre 20th centuries. Composing "on the spot" was considered a standard in classical music that was highly entertaining and well-respected as a precious skill. Bach amazed audiences with his improvisational keyboard skills. Classical music and jazz have always had a long and interesting relationship, so it is no wonder why there are so many "jazzed up" versions of works by classical composers, Bach included.

But Mehldau's work After Bach is not a "jazzed-up" approach to Bach's music. It's a straightforward interpretation of a selection of his compositions and improvisations on aspects of his works. Co-commissioned in 2015 by Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall and organizations in Canada, Switzerland, and Ireland, After Bach consists of performances of four preludes and one fugue from J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, each followed by an "After Bach" interpretation by Mehldau. By his own admission, during his formative years classical music ran parallel to jazz and pop music. Indeed, it is difficult to find any top level jazz musician today who hasn't been enchanted by Bach's oeuvre.

Even though many jazz pianists can play classical music well, the real question has always been whether their performances can stand shoulder to shoulder with those of world-class classical pianists. In the case of these performances with Brad Mehldau, the answer is undoubtedly yes. Regardless whether it's jazz or classical or his own composition, it seems that Mehldau pursues a mission to explore the place where beauty and sorrow meet. He immerses himself deep into these works and yet manages to convey his incredible personal pianistic magnetism.

On After Bach , the enormous breadth of Mehldau's talent stands revealed. His passagework has a distinct feeling, and as a result he gives the music an improvisatory atmosphere. Regarding the interpretation of Bach's compositions, Mehldau's perceptive keyboard workmanship attests to a natural affinity for this composer's idiom, as numerous details bear out. He is a sensitive performer with a profound sense for nuances and shading, but his virtuosity brings the music across with considerable inner excitement. The program opens with the prologue "Before Bach: Benediction." His touch is sublime throughout this work and he weights carefully every phrase which in turn imbues the music with various subtle details that aren't often heard at piano recitals.

The "After Bach" works are characterized by lyrical, expressive playing which takes Bach's ideas and leads them in entirely new directions. He seizes on an aspect of the original Bach compositions and then he builds something astonishing that quickly leaves Bach's approach behind. In the piece titled "Rondo," he takes the 6 note pattern of Bach's prelude and he infuses a totally different tone to it by removing one note. The set closes with the majestic and evocative "Prayer for Healing" which has a sense of a poetic design that oddly evokes Claude Debussy's impressionistic tones. Even though it stands out compared to what preceded it, the meditative character makes it a perfect ending. There are very informative liner notes by Timo Andres who provides a detailed analysis and background on Mehldau's playing and the chances he is taking, serving as an illumination of the overall complexity and brilliance of the whole endeavor.

Brad Mehldau is a giant of contemporary jazz piano whose musical language has always been difficult to define due to his healthy lack of respect for musical boundaries. This music, which is well suited to his refined artistry, reveals another aspect to his sonic persona that hasn't surfaced fully until now. With it, Mehldau celebrates Bach on his own terms on this consistently intriguing album.

Track Listing: Before Bach: Benediction; Prelude No. 3 in C# Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 848; After Bach: Rondo; Prelude No. 1 in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, BWV 870; After Bach: Pastorale; Prelude No. 10 in E Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 855; After Bach: Flux; Prelude and Fugue No. 12 in F Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 857; After Bach: Dream; Fugue No. 16 in G Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, BWV 885; After Bach: Ostinato; Prayer for Healing.

Personnel: Brad Mehldau: piano.

Title: After Bach | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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