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From Bach To Bop

AAJ Staff By

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One does not have to look far into the Jazz or Classical world to find the improvisational thread that connects the two.
Stravinsky said that Jazz is the only art form that America can call its own. Although I generally agree with Stravinsky I also believe that the spirit of Jazz has danced through many centuries of music including the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Most musicologists will agree that J. S. Bach’s intuitive quality was that which gave his music its most profound effect. Bach’s ability to improvise, or rather his improvisational mastery, set him apart and above most, if not all, of his contemporaries. The master lutenist Silvius Leapold Weiss, a personal friend of Bach’s, was also known for his improvisational skills and the two frequently attended and/or held what were called improvisational meets where they would improvise fugues, etc. These events nowadays would likely be called jam sessions.

Although we must have most surely lost an enormous amount of improvised music from Bach and Mozart and a host of other great artists of the past who loved to spend a great deal of time blowing, we still have a library of music from these greats that reflect the fruit of their improvisational inspirations. One has only to listen to pieces like the Double to the Bouree from the B Minor Partita for Unaccompanied Violin by Bach to realize its similarity to an improvised double time Bop solo over the changes to a jazz standard.

David Underwood, a masterful guitarist whose specialty is Classical music, understands that Bach was not only a great improviser but also really swung. David’s interpretation of Bach's music is certainly indicative of this understanding. His career as a performer and instructor has taken David from the master classes of Andrea Segovia and Julian Bream to resident guitar instructor at Trinity University in San Antonio Texas where he now has Underwood Guitar Studies, his private studios.

David and my personal and musical friendship has existed for many years and became a musical collaboration several years ago when we began experimenting with improvisation over Classical compositions. Although this was not an original idea, our concept of it is and we undertook the project and the music very seriously without, of course, taking the humor out of it. Although David and I never intended this musical adventure to go beyond our own enjoyment, it blossomed into such an interesting and amazing project that it has grown into live concerts, several recordings and still continues to expand.

David and I decided to release some of these recordings on a small scale in a CD which we entitled GUITAR: Improvisation-Composition, which is exactly what it is - a lot of guitar playing in a setting that you've not heard before. The first section of the CD is devoted to Bach and consists of the Sarabande, Bouree and Double from the B minor Partita for Unaccompanied Violin, followed by the unparalleled Chaconne which has been called Bach's triumph of spirit over matter and although written for solo violin has been transcribed for and performed by a large variety of instruments as well as orchestra. All of the improvisation was spontaneously played together with David playing the original composition. We both felt prepared and mature enough to attempt this musical venture as we had played the original pieces for years and were very familiar with them. The Chaconne is followed by a seven minute Fantasy that David and I improvise. This piece is inspired by the feeling invoked upon us by the Chaconne during and after our performance of it. The third part of the CD consists of four Etudes by Heitor Villa-Lobos, the 20th century composer whose compositions for solo guitar are acclaimed to be among the greatest written. The Etudes are numbers 1, 4, 7, and 8. The improvisational approach to these pieces differs because of the composer and the contemporary time period in which they were written. We feel that bringing the spirit of improvised jazz into the magic of these great compositions and composers was justified and realizing that this is a somewhat controversial issue, leave subjective judgement up to the listener. I would, by the way, love to hear from any of you who hear this CD any thoughts or comments about it. At any rate I think David Underwood’s performance on this recording was brilliant and would urge any lover of Jazz or Classical music and guitar to hear it. This CD can be purchased at


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