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Bach Jazz Rock

So I just landed in Miami Beach for a concert with the New World Symphony, and my hotel room is crazy dark with blue walls, wood floors, animal skin rugs, egg lamps, and sub woofers. There’s a pool in the courtyard and a free happy hour. There’s a Continental breakfast starting at 8am, but who’s going to be awake for that? It’s rock-and-roll baby!!

It’s fitting in a way because this week’s concert is about Baroque music, Bach in particular. I have my parts in front of me for the Suite No. 3, which I haven’t done in a while, and I’m going through it all and checking all of my markings and such, changing this and that as my mind has changed about certain things over time. While I’m doing this, it occurs to me that this is all so unnatural. No one would have had to mark up the parts back in Bach’s day! Everyone knew the language of the music and knew the grooves. The trick for us is that we have to re-invent it every time!

We’re getting into this issue this week. What this concert at New World is about is WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THIS MUSIC? How did Bach’s melodies and grooves get mutated into Lobby Music, or music for Wedding Planners or Jewelry Commericals? It’s one of those Concerts With Video that New World is working doing, so I get to illustrate this. We’ll be playing a cheezed up version of Bach “Air on a G-string” while images of Hannibal Lecter flash on the screen. (That is one of my all-time favorite uses of Bach — serial killers — the brilliant, seductive, yet cold, impenetrable and dangerous OTHER). Then, we show what happened when Stokowski got his hands on the music, and finally what folks are doing nowadays.

But the problem, even now, is all of these nit-picky markings that drain the life out of the music in the rehearsal process. If the Historically Informed Performance people have re-discovered that this is groove music, the process of learning to groove is not particularly groovy. I’ve seen conductor/professors with great ideas kill the music in rehearsal because they spend so much time explaining it. They players try to go along, but can’t help but loose a little school spirit in the process, because the process is boring. I wonder how helpful all the directions and markings I’ve provided in the parts really are. How do we get the Rock Back Into Bach?

I came up with one solution with the Charleston Symphony last week. We did a Classical-Jazz Hybrid concert with the excellent drummer Quentin Baxter. We sent two violinists to his house to learn play the first movement of the Bach Double jazzily with him drumming along (very softly and elegantly — think Modern Jazz Quartet). When those guys came to the rehearsal the orchestra and I were blown away. They told me about the rehearsals: in the process of learning to do the piece this way, lots of sounds were made, but few words were spoken. It was the way music should be learned, by listening, not explaining. The violinists had trouble going back to the “normal” way of playing after that, because in the jazz version, the notes were speaking. I wonder which version of the Bach Double was the most authentic?

So I hope we can find a way to do the same this week as well!

PS another cool thing we did in Charleston was play Ravel’s Bolero with a jazz quintet improvising on top of the orchestra. I haven’t heard an audience go apeshit like that in a long time. You should try it.