Ask most jazz pianists who they listen to from the classical world, and the name that crops up almost immediately is Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach's innovations in the areas of polyphony and harmony were so radical that they remain inspirational three centuries later, providing a constant source for reinterpretation. Still, the inherent purity of Bach's music makes translating it outside the classical realm a risky proposition. Migrating classical works into jazz often end up more shtick than art, but the Swedish septet Ã„nglaspel has done a remarkable job on The Beauty of Bach
Stefan Forssén is a pianist who has been active on the Swedish scene for over twenty years, though he's relatively unknown internationally. As a composer he's worked in both classical and jazz worlds, and consequently he's particularly qualified to apply a jazz-centricity to Bach's colourful themes. But this isn't some trite "Bach goes Jazz package. Instead, Forssén takes Bach's music as inspiration, and the references are sometimes direct, others opaque.
Ã„nglaspel revolves around a piano trio featuring Forssén, bassist Peter Janson and drummer Göran Kroon, but the four-piece horn section (three saxophonists and one trumpeter) provides the polyphony and multi-voiced question-and-answer to some of Forssén's fugue-inspired writing. On "Menuet, the members of the septet prove just how capable they are at straddling the line between literalism and experimentation. Forssén's elegantly majestic piano solo faithfully introduces the theme, but when the group enters, the horns answer Forssén with a similar veracity while introducing an element of improvisation to the mix. When all instruments except piano and drums drop out, Forssén begins to take greater liberties with the theme until everyone is in the pool once againthe horns seamlessly alternating between scored counterpoint and more vivid extemporization.
"Kyrie gracefully reworks a Bach theme, but toward the end Forssén introduces an harmonic approach that's more clearly from the jazz continuum, acting as the perfect setup for the vivaciously swinging "Organ ad Blues, where it's more of a challenge to find references to Bach, despite the fact that the piece is based on his Toccata in C Major, BWV 564. "Sara Linda, on the other hand, with the horns warmly stating a contrapuntal theme, manages to keep the theme from Bach's Suite V for Solo Cello, BWV 1011 relatively intact, despite its relaxed swing and Lars B. Almkvist's Kenny Wheeler-informed trumpet solo.
The brief "Courante begins with a funky drum solo that provides a surprising foundation for the horns' faithful take on Suite II for Solo Cello, BWV 1008, but in no time the temperature rises, with collective soloing that verges on on anarchy but never quite leaps over the precipice.
Overall, Forssén works Bach's material into a context that's rooted more in the American mainstream jazz tradition than the expected abstract European impressionism. Preconceptions and bordersboth literal and figurativesometimes provide unnecessary barriers to making music that can ring with the truth of both its archaic sources and its more contemporary interpreters.