Charlie Parker (from Al McKibben)
Robert Louis Stevenson
Christian McBride on Bach and the Brandenburg Concerto
His taste in music, however, is not bound by category. “I have a reputation for acoustic, straight-ahead jazz,” he says, “but what I listen to at home is fusion, funk, classical. The music I like participating in is open, heady. You listen to the bass parts in Bach, the Brandenburg concerto, they’re like bebop lines.” – Hot Fusion; by Peter Mcelhinney; Style Weekly, 2011
Dan Ouellette and I interviewed Christian by telephone at his home in Montclair, New Jersey. We asked him to comment on this quote of his:
- Christian McBride– Well, what I mean is the linear motion of those lines. There’s so much melodic content, and it’s rhythmic. A lot of classical music from the romantic period, like the later classical and the romantic period–much of it is quite impressionistic. And as great as that is–because that certainly influenced a certain sound in jazz also–but, there’s something about baroque composers, particularly Bach. His music is just rhythmic. It’s rhythmic. It’s linear. I get the sense that there were a lot of bebop musicians who paid attention to that. I’m not saying that they listened to the “Brandenburg Concerto” and said, “Oh, now I’ve got ideas to write a song.” But, at least [jazz musicians have been influenced] in terms of the shape of the way Bach’s lines formed. And, as a bass player, I can almost guarantee you any bass player who plays–any jazz bass players who knows even a little bit about classical music–they will tell you how much they love Bach because Bach always keeps the bass busy. That’s another rarity I find in classical music.
I emailed John Clayton. told him about “Jazz and the Brandenburg Concerto” and he responded by email:
Abdullah Ibrahim (interview by Dan Ouellette)
Q. You studied the Bach Brandenburg Concertos?
A. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Q. Tell me about it. So, and what did it bring? What did it bring to your playing?
A. It still does it. But you first have to talk about the regime in South Africa [under Apartheid]. The bedrock of that policy was that we do not have the mental capacity to deal with such intricate things as the Brandenburg Concertos. They wanted us to play pennywhistles. . . .
But a lot of that trickles down into the communities or to individuals because when I started playing things on that level—not the Brandenburg Concerto—but at that level, I mean I was booed off the stage. You know, what the hell are you doing?
In the [Capetown, South Africa] Township, across from the cinema there was Mr. Martin’s cafe and there was an old broken grand piano there. But this was where the gangsters have holiday, but they were my friends.
So when I used to compose I’d go there to play my premiere, I’d play for them. Maybe you go into that room and you stay for 1/2 hour you’d be completely stoned, even if you don’t smoke because they were. Even though I was there to play this heavy music they didn’t want to listen to it – the gangsters. They liked the music because they could see pictures. So I didn’t know it wasn’t because they were enjoying the music or their joints.
The Brandenburg Concertos, I listened to everything. We had a gramophone and then the spring breaks and we don’t have money to fix it. So you spin the disc with your finger. I was 14, 15. I played one 78 over and over but the label was so old I couldn’t read what the music was. But I played it over and over again. And years afterwards I discovered it was the Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. So I think looking back that my ears were open to this, and I transcended the instruction that they were trying to place us. I know when I first heard The Rite of Spring I said ‘Wow – that’s it.” And Brandenburg Concertos was part of all that.
I realized that it was serial music and there’s this formula. Yeah. And also once you crack the formula you know what they are doing. I said, okay, so all of this music was composed by other people, but so you bow to it of course. [I studied with Hal Overton in New York later] and he gave me Bach preludes and fugues to study. Then he said, okay, play it for me. And then he said to me , “Don’t use any jazz phrasing.” I said, “well how do you know how Bach played this?”
Because Bach was not recorded it had to be my interpretation of it. So then I realized, you know, wait a minute. Okay. I can play the Brandenburg Concerto, that’s Bach. You know how he phrases – that’s how he breathes, but that’s not how I breath. That’s not my rhythm. So I had to find my own rhythm and my own voice.
I can appreciate the formula of the concertos. Yeah, absolutely. Incredible music. Yeah, but it wasn’t my voice, it wasn’t my voice. Why would I want to, why would I want to play it?
Regina Carter started studying violin at the age of 4 within the Suzuki Method. Here Regina discusses her exposure to the Brandenburg during those lessons:
- Regina –I think for a non-classical listener, or people that aren’t familiar with classical music, I think the Brandenburg Concertos are the most accessible — it’s the perfect entry into that world. I can only speak for myself, there’s so much joy, so much depth to it. It’s just pretty. It’s beautiful, you know? And it’s easy to listen to and it’s got a thing to it, because it’s got its own swing, if you will, or its own vibe. It’s just got a different kind of vibe.
- Regina –On Saturdays, [my teacher], Ms. Rupert was her name, and I studied [with her] at the Detroit community music school. She would line us up or put us in a circle and she would start to make up a melody and when she tapped you on the shoulder, you had to pick up where she left off and continue making up a melody. So she was teaching us about improv. And then when we would sometimes play Baroque quartets and, you know, sometimes the, you know, also playing later, this is when we’re older and can, you know, can read–read some and play, she might have us site read some of the Baroque quartets and, you know, the Brandenburg and–and try improvising over that, you know, which was really difficult because, you know, this is just the first time. You don’t know what to do or what to play and you have to really have studied that. But I wasn’t–I–you know, I’m thankful to her that she did that, that, you know, because I feel like for me, at least, it gave me a–it stopped me from being so fearful of being off the page. It’s the ear more.
- Robert –Outside of the Bach and Brandenburg and all that, one of the things I’ve been really fascinated about just since we did the Ella Fitzgerald tribute video back for the Jazz Festival a couple of years ago is the way that you assimilate music? All the great musicians assimilate all kinds of music, but you seem to do it in a unique way. And I was just curious, when you were–say, when you were touring Africa are different things and you hear some music, you know, what about a piece of music grabs you and goes, you know, I really want to learn how to play that, I really want to understand that music? Is there something that happens inside you when that happens? How does that happen?
- Regina –It’s like my stomach tightens up and — the emotional effect that the music, if I hear something that grabs me like that – – – it’s almost like the emotional impact it has on me is too much for me to handle. I don’t know what to do with it at first. It’s inside and sometimes I have to just walk around the house. If I’m in the house listening — it has a physical affect on me because it’s so powerful and so beautiful. Just all of a sudden I want the world to hear this. The excitement is almost too much, you know? . . . sometimes I try playing it and it’s like, okay, this isn’t–this isn’t really working. Everything is not meant for me personally to try and reproduce or replicate. Some stuff is just meant to be.
- Robert – We asked Christian McBride what was the first classical piece where he heard it and thought, “I have to learn how to play it,” and he said that the–the first thing that got him was the double violin Concerto, which was the basis of work you did with him on Fat Bachs and Greens. And he said that when he was a young player, like junior high school or something, he–he heard that and saw the music and he had never seen so many 16th notes for a bass before. And then he did that tune with you. Did he mention that story to you or did you talk about at all why he wanted you to do that tune with you?
- Regina –No, you know, he didn’t. He didn’t mention that. But that session was so long ago . . . but I think Christian, he hears the blues or he hears that soulfulness in something and definitely there’s a whole lot of soulfulness and Bach? It’s–the piece for me that–and I love that piece, I loved playing when I was younger at the community music school, and sometimes afterwards for the fun of it with other violinists. I would think another favorite of mine is the Chaconne, the Bach Chaconne. That’s another one. It’s like, whoa, you know, it’s so powerful and full of emotion and full of, you know, passion. And it’s–it’s–I have to tell this story. When I was at New England Conservatory, I had a teacher and I remember I was working on the partita in, is it E? Yeah. He kept saying no, you have to play it like this, or you have to play this. There was this strict rule and I just remember at one point I was like how do you know? Did you talk to Bach? It was just like, you know, it’s like very flippant young, you know, 18-year-old. And I just thought the music is not supposed to be caged. That’s not who Bach was. He was an improviser. He was the music of the people. So yeah, I just–at that point, I was like it kind of made me not want to do classical music anymore, and and I stopped playing classical for a long time. Then I met a teacher in New York because I was having some issues, physical issues playing, and I told her I don’t like classical music because–and she said it’s not that you don’t like classical music, you just don’t like the way it was presented to you.
- Robert – Well, there’s–yeah, the, briefly, the story of the Brandenburg is that during the–and we are on the 300th anniversary of Bach beginning to write it this year, and he finished it two years from now, he was in a very content situation. He’d been orphaned when he was 10 years old and then he–at this point several years later in his 30’s, he had a wife and seven children and a brother and they were all living together. He was quite content.
And then he went off to do a tour with the Prince that you do every summer and then while he was away his wife and three of his kids and his brother all died. And the prince’s handlers kind of messed him up over it not telling him in time to go back and see his family and so you can imagine that emotional crescendo there and then he’s in the depths of despair.
And for the first time, he didn’t have to write music for the church because the Calvinist church had banned orchestral music, and that went on for a while. So he was doing completely secular stuff, and during that time, he wrote the Brandenburg and the Well-Tempered Clavier, the double violin Concerto, and a few other things. And then he meets Anna Magdalena, who is a soprano who was coming in to audition for the choir and they fall madly in love and spend the rest of their lives together, have 13 more kids, work side-by-side their whole lives, and that was–and they got married shortly after he finished the Brandenburg.
To me, you know, every great artist leaves it all–all on every note and every page, and so that was the emotional arc that he was going through while he was writing the Brandenburg. And I think that it conveys that range of human experience.
It’s interesting that Carl Sagan selected that to be the first music on the Golden record, which is the first and only, human made object with music on a permanent record to ever leave the solar system and go into interstellar space. And may be the only thing left of earth in the universe 5 million years from now when the sun burns up.
- Regina – Wow
- Robert –And it would be Earth’s first introduction to some as yet unknown beings from another solar system and planet.
- Regina – That’s heavy.
- Robert –So what do you think about that? If you were going to express something about earth, what combination of music would you want someone you love and want to be loved by, what would you play for them?
- Regina –But–okay, so what would I play for them, but helping them to understand what is it that I’m trying to convey to them?
- Robert –The–you know, who–who we are as the people of earth.
- Regina – Well, let’s see, there would be some Stravinsky up in there. There would be some Alice and John Coltrane. There definitely has to be some Aretha [Franklin]. Aretha and James. James Brown, for sure. Ella [Fitzgerald] has to be there. Billie [Holiday]. [Duke] Ellington has to be there. This is another one that would have to be included, which would be Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa. My string crossing comes from my imitation of that – Gidon Kremer playing it, which is so incredible–such an incredible violinist. Geez.
- Regina – It’s so interesting when you think about Baroque music and think about Bach and certain composers, I think about what if they were alive today and–and I think he’d be one of those people, like Stravinsky I know was really interested in jazz. I could see someone like Bach hanging out with Randy Weston, Chucho Valdes, just so many people, you know?
- Regina – It’s just wild how [Bach’s] music lends itself so well to improvising. It’s always weird to me that with classical musicians, they stopped learning about improvisation. It’s like it’s not unless you maybe studied Baroque music and that’s your major, but they don’t learn that.
- Robert –Would you agree with the statement that the fundamental difference between classical and jazz is that with classical, especially Baroque music, was designed to please the king and not to upset anybody, whereas jazz tells the truth.–Jazz tells–and if–if you’re telling truth to power, you’re telling truth to the audience, you’re telling truth the other musicians, and that is–and that is one of the fundamental differences between the two forms. Would you agree with that?
- Regina – I would agree to that almost–I’d say 90%. I’m just going to say that’s what the music represents. That’s what is supposed to be, and expression, you know, a way to express whatever it is that’s going on. But you know, it’s interesting when you think about radio and what radio became, I think in the 80s or 90s with the and start with the corporations taking control and then thinking about record companies having all the power and telling musicians what they could and could not record or radio station saying we can’t play this because it’s too this or it’s too that. For musicians playing live, yeah, they could express themselves, but I felt like as far as radio went, and still, that’s–they’re saying no. That’s a no-no. So it kind of compares to the classical.
Uri Caine and Mark Helias
- Dan Ouellette –The topic of the day is the Brandenburg Concerto. Why did you do the fifth [on the Proms 2018: The Brandenburg Project]?
- Uri Caine –The Swedish Chamber Orchestra decided to do a project where they chose composers that had to write to the same instrumentation, and [chose the Fifth for me] because the fifth had such a famous long cadenza for keyboard–or for harpsichord [when it was composed in 1721].
- Uri Caine –They said, “You take the fifth.”
And so, the way that the fifth is built, the string orchestra is the group, and then, the solo is the keyboard, flute, and violin. And so, it’s sort of like a contrast between the three soloists and the five–and then, the rest of the group.
A lot of the Brandenburg Concertos have that aspect–it’s like the beginnings of the idea of the concerto, where you had the individual fighting against the group, and the group sort of punctuates what the individuals play, regurgitates it in different ways, comments on it. But, the soloists are the ones that are taking the ideas from the group and moving it forward. And it also, just from a dramatic point of view, gives the soloists like they’re out there in the front. And the rest of the group is supporting them.
For me, when I first started getting into Bach as a teenager, the third Brandenburg was the one that I gravitated to because I just happened to get the score for that. Just the idea of having the notes in front of you and hearing it, trying to figure it out on the piano. I think, for a lot of people, that’s how they get into Bach, especially if you’re keyboard players. It’s just all this information at your fingertips. And you start to go into it to see what’s going on there, and that’s when you start learning a lot.
- Dan Ouellette –How long did it take you as a youngster to navigate it and figure it out?
- Uri Caine –I mean, I wouldn’t say I totally figured it out. But, I started to see these returning themes. How does he move G to D harmonically. How does he sometimes slow down the harmonic rhythms so they seem pretty stable? And other times, he’ll make these really radical shifts that all of a sudden move into another area. There’s a lot to study in his harmony because it sounds like it’s going along, and then, something happens and you have to go through looking for those points in music. You start to try to uncover what the architecture is. Because there’s a different type of architecture when you’re listening to later classical music, which is much more based on sonata form, more contemporary music, which doesn’t try to do those things. He’s working within the system. But, he’s just so amazing at dealing with it. There’s a lot to study there.
- Dan Ouellette –When I told [Bob Danziger] I was going to be talking with you, he wrote me that your version is the most creative and innovative version of the fifth [he’s heard].
- Uri Caine –I don’t know. But, in terms of just [Bach] being an inspiration–I think for many musicians, especially once you start playing that music with other people–because that was another thing that really changed my mind. My job when I was in school was to be the pianist for the choir, and they did Bach’s Mass in B minor, and, you know, when you’re sitting there playing piano with this massive group of people singing, it’s very dramatic, very emotional. Whenever I would have those types of experience, I would be like, wow, what is behind that. How is he doing that? And you start to go into the music.
- Dan Ouellette –What about you, Mark? You were saying to me that the Brandenburg Concerto was very important to you.
- Mark Helias –Very foundational for me. Yeah, as a double bass player I got to play, I think, almost all of them. The first one I played was the fifth, and that was in a stripped down group of just like a chamber group – one instrument per voice. This idea that the double bass or the bass line in Bach is the second melody or in most music that you listen to, [for example] you listen to the arias in the Don Giovani by Mozart, the soprano and the double bass are really having a duet, and then, the inner voices are just spaghetti. That’s my opinion, anyway. But, it is interesting how . . . the bass parts are phenomenal because they outline in a linear fashion, harmonic direction. Plus, it’s totally contrapuntal and I’ve always been fascinated by counterpoint, the whole idea of voice against voice.
So, a lot of it had to do with my fascination with counterpoint. And like I told you, when I was hanging out with Charles McPherson in New Haven when I was going to graduate school, he mentioned that, you know, like a big part of learningbebop for him was studying Bach from the aspects of linear construction.
- Dan Ouellette –Yeah, interesting. One of the interviews we did was with Christian McBride, and he connects bebop with Bach.
- Mark Helias – Absolutely.
- Uri Caine –Especially with bass lines. A lot of walking bass lines that sort of outline harmony. I would also say one thing that, I remember really strongly when I was growing up was the Pablo Casals version of the Brandenburg’s that he made at the Marlboro Music Festival [in Vermont]. And there are sort of these live gigs where you hear him grunting, making a lot of noise while he’s conducting. But, he’s really trying to get this real rhythmic push. He really loves the syncopation in it. And, see, once people start playing the music that way, I think it becomes more interesting for, you know, improvising musicians that, see, it’s not just this cold academic.
I was shocked when people–I read that people thought of Bach that way. Because the way I was hearing him being played, let’s say, even the Pablo Casals vibe of trying to make it earthy, or the Glen Gould vibe of trying to make it really swing but show all the voices very transparent. It’s very hard to do that if you’re just playing piano to have the third voice come out and get such control over it. But, it’s very dramatic when you hear people playing music that way and when you put a lot of swing.
- Mark Helias –Yeah, the recording that got me was the Carl Richter recording from the 70s.
- Uri Caine – I know this.
- Mark Helias –Munich Baroque ensemble. I mean, it’s very fast. The tempos are quite quick. And they’re using modern instruments pretty much, and more than one double bass. That recording got me. Even though the tempos are quite brisk, the way the counterpoint is expressed is so clear,and the rhythmic feel of it is quite energetic and swinging. I never got that idea of this cold, you know, sort of four square.
- Uri Caine – . . . music is a language. But, it’s also something that can be manipulated psychologically. And you test it. If I do it for two bars, is it better than if I do it for four bars? Or do I have to do it eight bars and repeat it? And then, they’ll know that I’m in F. And Bach has it all covered. He can do it in one measure. He can do it in two beats.
He’s not thinking in terms of chords. He’s thinking in terms of lines that create chords–.
- Mark Helias ––Yeah. The idea of using counterpoint to create moving progressive harmonies is unbelievable.
- Uri Caine –The famous thing about the fifth is that there’s–right before the end, there’s this really long keyboard cadenza.Usually it’s improvised but Bach wrote it all out. And it goes on for like four or five minutes, long time. And it’s very hard to play, and it’s also–gives you an idea of what his idea for a cadenza would be, just like–because cadenza–it’s another one of these things in classical music that’s so strange that that was the point where the performer could be free, do his thing. But, I think, especially by the time we get to Beethoven’s time–you know, he would hear other people playing and go, “You know, that’s terrible improvisation. I’m going to write it out for you,” even though he would improvise. He would write out a version for the lesser people coming after him to play. And then, that becomes codified. And so, now, when we tell somebody, “Hey, it’s a cadenza. Why don’t you make up your cadenza?” “No, no, I could never do that. It’s Beethoven.” You know what I mean?
- Dan Ouellette –Yeah, sure.
- Uri Caine –It’s gotten so formalized. So–.
- Mark Helias ––Some people would write their own cadenza, they would compose their own cadenza and then play that.
- Uri Caine ––I had this discussion with Mahan.I said, “You know, why don’t you go up and improvise it, man? You can play your ass off”–he’s like, “Oh no.”
- Mark Helias –But, what’s interesting–that particular cadenza does–sounds great improvised.
- Uri Caine –It does.
- Mark Helias –And it’s got these sort of metric modulations in it and later on this like–it slows down. Then, it speeds up to the reentry of the orchestra. And I remember listening–it’s about 200 and some measures long. It’s really long. And it was the first piece of chamber music I ever played. You know, I was an undergraduate. And this girl played–great harpsichord player. But, I was amazed at the structure of that cadenza and then the way the band comes in with (SINGING).
- Uri Caine –Because it has a lot of those elements, in other words.
- Mark Helias –
- Uri Caine –It starts out. It sort of moves to this weird area.
- Mark Helias –It has all these diminished chords in it.
- Uri Caine –Then, it get mysterious. Then, he gets virtuosic where he’s going (SINGING). You’re expecting–okay, that’s the set up. They’re going to come in. Then, no.
- Mark Helias –Then, he takes another diversion.
- Uri Caine –It’s deceptive cadence (unintelligible) you think, okay, it’s going to be–and then, they come in. So, there’s a lot of humor if you look at it that way when he’s setting up expectations and then saying, “No, you thought I was going to end on that.” And so many other composers stole those ideas.
- Mark Helias –You know, the one that–I got like strung out on number six.
- Dan Ouellette –Really?
- Uri Caine –That’s a nice one, yeah.
- Mark Helias –In the recording, they only use violas. [Originally it was] viola da gamba’s. And it was a special orchestration for that one. So, the Munich one, they only used, I think, violas and maybe some viola da gamba. But, it’s a darker color because it doesn’t have the high violin sound as much. You know? And there’s a couple sections where he’s got these contrapuntal things in number three that sound almost like a harmonica.
- Uri Caine –
- Mark Helias –It’s incredible how he has the two violins. And number three is amazing as well. Three and six, I got really deep into those two, in particular, for some reason.
. . . the Brandenburg Concertos are Bach at his most joyful . . .
- Dan Ouellette – When did Bach show up on your radar screen as a young piano player?
- Fred Hersch – Probably age five.
- Dan Ouellette – Really? And what were you–what did you hear?
- Fred Hersch – Well, I was playing the Anna Magdalena Bach book, which is what most young pianists start on. And I think, was around my sixth birthday possibly, I received the box set of Glenn Gould playing the Partitas and Inventions, and sinfonias, Columbia Records, I still have the discs. And it just blew my mind.
- Dan Ouellette – Blew your mind in what way?
- Fred Hersch – Just the aliveness of it, the rhythm, the–I’ve always been interested, even as a small child, in multiple moving parts, and of course Bach is the king. In fact, one of the only books I tell any of my piano students to look at are the Bach harmonized chorales, the four-part chorales, because they’re just an absolute bible of voice leading, for four-part voice leading. And so I listened to the Glenn Gould, and then I got Brandenburg Concertos. And then, I started studying theory and composition when I was eight. And one of the pieces we looked at was the B-minor Mass, which is just, magnificent, and also the Brandenburg Concertos. And you know, as I got older and older, I played more and more Bach. And you know, it’s one of those things like, if I ever have an hour free and I don’t really feel like improvising, my book of Bach Partitas is right next to my piano always. I like the Partitas, they’re dance suites, because each movement has dance rhythm. And the Well-Tempered Clavier is of course, incredibly important, but some of it, honestly, is a little stodgy, it’s a little square. But the Partitas have a great–if you find the underlying rhythm, –they’re very joyful and beautiful. I think the Brandenburg Concertos are also Bach at his most joyful, you know, a lot of them. I played one of the Bach double concertos. I know a lot of Bach.
- Most pianists that I know, when they play Bach, they feel like they’re talking to him, in a way, you know? That he talks through the music directly to the keyboard player, whether it’s harpsichord or piano.
- Dan Ouellette – Christopher McBride referred to, I believe it was Brandenburg Concertos, as the first jazz bebop.
- Fred Hersch – You know, I mean, certainly in Bach there are patterns that are sometimes regular, and sometimes he breaks them. But I think what Chris might by referring to is, you know, Baroque music has a–kind of a motor rhythm, you know? When we got into the Romantics, things kind of–you know, they’d speed up, they’d slow down, there would be different sections. You know, Bach, there’s a pulse, and there’s a specific term for that, and it’s called affekt, A-F-F-E-K-T. And so, it’s not just the metronome marking of the tempo, it’s, are you feeling it in–to each bar, or are you feeling it, you know, to the half bar? Or if it’s a three, are you feeling one, three, one, three, one, or are you feeling one, two, three, one, two three, or one, one, one? So those–that’s the affekt. And I lived in Boston in the mid-70s, when I went to the New England Conservatory. And I came across the great Dutch early music players, particularly the harpsichordist and conductor Gustav Leonhardt.
And Boston was a real hub of the early music scene in this country, Amsterdam was the hub of the early music scene in Europe. And in fact, for a period of time, I had a harpsichord. A harpsichord is very difficult to play, and of course you have to tune it every time you sit down to it. But the only way to make anything expressive with a harpsichord is by using rhythm, because basically you pluck the string, that’s it, doesn’t get louder, or softer, or sustain, that’s it. So it’s a question of when you do it.
And Gustav Leonhardt and later Tom Cookman, who’s actually my all-time favorite, you know, when you hear them play Bach keyboard music, or conduct Brandenburgs or whatever, whatever, they’re able to make it super expressive by really understanding the rhythm from the inside. And that’s something that we jazz players know as groove. When you hear a great Baroque orchestra, you know, which are of course much smaller than our normal orchestras, maybe only a single violin or two on a part, small, intimate orchestras, you can tell that they’re really feeling the time together, just as I do with John Eber and Eric McPherson. There’s never any doubt about the way that the three of us play rhythm together. You know, what I learned early on in my jazz career as hooking up, you know, just that, here we’re playing, it’s not just the metronome marking, it’s the groove.
And great rhythm sections in history, jazz history, sometimes the bass player is behind the beat, and the drummer’s on top of the beat, or it could be reversed, or they both could be in the center of the beat. But the main thing is it works, you know, and you can’t really quite say why it works, you know? It just does.
- Fred Hersch – The Brandenburg Concertos, of course, there’s multiple lines and–you know, but they are concertos. And you know, there’s typically a lead, you know. And there’s always the harpsichord playing the continuo part, which actually adds a lot to the rhythm, and it’s hard to do well. Bach’s son CPE Bach in 1727 wrote a manual on what you needed to know to be a successful keyboard player in that time. And he described transposing, improvising on themes at sight, reading figured bass, which are sort of like chord symbols, except they’re numbers, being able to play in different styles, being able to accompany. He was basically describing the modern jazz pianist.
- Dan Ouellette – What was the first Bach piece that you heard, where you just said, I’ve got to learn how to play that?
- Fred Hersch – It was the B Flat Major Partita, as played by Glenn Gould. And yeah, that was the–you know, I was little older then, I was probably around like 10 or 11. But that–of course I could never play it like him, I still can’t play it like him. But there’s something about that particular piece that was just a window for me into the world of kind of more mature Bach, not just the, you know, very easy pieces. That was the first one that I tackled. And its kind of nice, because partitas usually have six, sometimes seven movements, so you learn all these small pieces and then you have a big piece. It’s not like learning some, you know, big 20-minute piece, you learn it in chunks.
Tim Jackson – Artistic Director, Monterery Jazz Festival
on the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society
[note – I searched the Monterey Jazz Festival programs from 1958 to 2018 and found only one reference to the Brandenburg Concerto. It has to do with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society – a jazz club in Half Moon Bay. Bill Minor told me Tim was Jackson had a connection to the story, so I sent it to Tim Jackson and he commented as you see below.]
Article from 1993 Monterey Jazz Festival program:
When describing it, Pete Douglas makes his Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society [BDDS] sound like a pleasant accident waiting to happen. In the early ’60s, Douglas regularly hosted Sunday afternoon parties for friends at his two-story, Miramar beach home in Half Moon Bay. Some strangers came by his place one afternoon and asked if they could set off dynamite on the beach. Not taking them seriously, he said yes. The explosions occurred while Douglas and his guests were dancing to a Bach Brandenburg Concerto. “A few months later, I put out a sign that said Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society,” says the 64 year-old Douglas. ” No reason — every beatnik had to have a sign on his pad. A s bohemian types, we hardly thought of ourselves as a society.” Two years later, a lawyer friend handed Douglas his nonprofit papers, and by May 1966, he opened his place to the public, presenting jazz concerts and only asking for a contribution at the door.
Tim Jackson comment:
Pete was an early mentor to me as I lived with him at the Bach for 6 months in the last half of 1973 when I was 19 years old. Working at the concerts he produced was my introduction to the music business. The things you mention below all happened well before my time with Pete. However, I heard Pete describe the scenario as listed in the article from the MJF program. Pete was a real beatnik and he loved all types of music but mostly jazz and classical. And he never worried about pissing people off. I never heard Pete play the Brandenburg’s although we did listen to classical music, mostly Stravinsky. He did not play the BC’s at concerts that I knew of.
Pete was a special and unique person that built a lifestyle that suited his needs and that he was able to share with hundreds of people on a weekly basis. He was an interesting mix of a classic curmudgeon while still being a very social guy. He loved a good party.
“I like for the music to be hard,” Marsalis said. “As a trumpet player, why do I want to play the Brandenburg Concerto? Because it’s hard. I want to play the pieces that challenge me the most. I don’t just mean velocity. Some music is emotionally complex, too. But a degree of complexity, balanced with a certain spiritual substance and emotional weight, ensures that your music will remain.”
- Dan Ouellette– Herbie Hancock told me that you always play a lot of classical music. Is that true? That was Herbie’s take.
- Chick Corea – –I always used classical music as a study reference because so much great music was notated. Right? When you notate music like that–I mean, for instance, the music of jazz, the music of Bossa Nova in Brazil, the music of Africa, a lot of cultural music, Indian music–most of that music is not written down. It’s improvised and, you know, then it’s beautiful. So, the culture hands it down that way. But, when the western and the European composers began to notate their music, then you have a body of work where you can–actually studying a score–like if I pick up a Bach score or Mozart score, that’s what I like to study. I don’t listen to the records. I do–of course, I listen to the records. But, my basic reference point is the score because when you read the notes on the score, especially if you know that they’re not messed around with by editors–because a lot of the times, the editor will put in pianissimo, forte, all of these expression marks. And the original composers put very, very little expression marks, even tempo marks. They didn’t put any tempo marks. So, if you read the original scores, you connect directly with the composer. So, like almost talking to him because that’s what he wrote down, you see? So, that’s the way I study classical music more from a point of view as a composer rather than a pianist. It was never my goal to play–perform classical music. It was also more my goal to study it as a composer because, in my life, being a composer is my primary hat. That’s my primary focus. I’m a pianist too. To play and to realize my own compositions and to play for the audience. But, really, it’s–the composer in me is number one. Without that, the pianist couldn’t exist.
I didn’t study Bach as a pianist. I played a little bit of two part inventions, I played the–I played some of the Goldberg variations, which I like. That’s a beautiful piece of music. There’s one movement in the Goldberg, which is in minor key, G minor, that I took and I was playing in my solo concerts. It’s a beautiful piece of music. But, it’s interesting that Bach wrote the way he wrote. But, he was–if only we could see him improvise and see what he did. It would have been very interesting.
Bach maybe was one of the first composers that started writing in a way of changing tonalities and changing keys. He’d be modulating to different keys and was beginning to be free with his harmony. Same as Mozart. Mozart and Beethoven too–they used–they didn’t stay in one mode or one key. They changed a lot, and the way they made their transitions is very harmonic — it set the sort of harmonic tone of western music, really, because, before that, it was more or less modal and one kind of tonal sound.
Then, Bach began to modulate and change. He had the Well-Tempered Clavier. Before that it was hard to play in different keys. But, Bach had the Well-Tempered Clavier. But, that’s something maybe the class should look into technically. It’s an interesting thing. But, like the difference between a tempered scale and a non-tempered scale. Bach was the first with a tempered scale. That’s why he could write in different keys.
- Robert Danziger – Why did you decide to do the Brandenburg on your album [Esta Tierra es Tuyo, by Sones de Mexico]?
- Victor Pichardo – Well, the idea came when I got a master of the traditional jarocho music tradition, which is very popular now, all the world. Mostly in California and many places, people start to play jarocho music in the traditional style. So when my old friend came in El Guero Vega, Andres Vega from Tlacotalpan Veracruz, it’s a little town in the south of Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico, I had this music for many years in my head, and I realized that kind of related with the jarocho music, which is a traditional music of Veracruz. When he came, I asked him, listen to this, and he started to listen to the Bach Brandenburg Number 3. He said, well, this is el zapateado and I said, well, it’s exactly what I wanted to hear because you are the master of the tradition and you relate with your music, that’s what I wanted to do. At that point, I decided to make it more into the traditional folk way. I started to figure out how to add the traditional instruments jarana zapateado and donkey jaw, cajón, and jarana. All the traditional instrumentation that we used for this song, but especially in zapateado which is the foot tapping. So that point, I started to develop my version in my computer, working on my ideas, and I transcribed the whole–I didn’t have the digital version. I transcribed all the Concerto. While I was transcribing, I realized the points of relation rhythmically with the zapateado tradition and Son. So, I started to seek every section, every phrase with the strumming and the rhythmic section of traditional music, and at that point, I started to develop this kind of arrangement. Because this is divided in two, part one and part two, I decided that the D Major part, when starting D Major, to make a little gap, a little place to really show the percussion sound of our version, following the phrase of Bach but using my traditional instruments, donkey jaw, drum set, et cajón, maraca, and zapateado – the foot tapping. I based what I heard in the hometown of Andres Vega. So after that, I decided to keep the zapateado doing the second part of the piece when the D Major starts and developed some part with the zapateado] and some parts with just the strumming of the jarana, and also the harp. I’m sorry, I forgot the harp. The harp is a very important instrument, even though in this case diatonic – my son, who is the one who plays the harp, he gets harp with a little more levers to use it more chromatically, and that’s the way I followed all the chromatic sections that Bach put in this arrangement. So, we added the harp, which is a beautiful and very important sound in the Mexican music, and I kept in the same phrases, trying to follow all the rhythmic phrasing of the song. So, the song came along, but at that time, we had a collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They wanted to play with us with a brass quintet. So, that’s the way I transcribed it to brass quintet because we just had it for the strings. And when I transcribed it by then with the horn in F, and I did the same idea of Bach for trumpet one and trumpet two, following violin one and violin two. The trombone and the tuba was the contrabass. So, that was my whole idea, and it worked very well with the brass quintet, so we decided to record it in this album with the same structure and the same people that were working with us at that time. That’s a little review.
- They brought the instruments, but they built their own version of the instrument. the violin but not the quality of the European violins, but the violins they brought that were mostly different shapes and mostly handcrafted, whatever. So, they also developed their own instruments – based on the Baroque instruments.
- Robert Danziger – How did you come across the Brandenburg originally? When did you first hear the Brandenburg or Bach? Why did it grab you?
- Victor Pichardo– I had to follow the Bach because it is my gut. I always follow Bach because the Baroque music is very close to the Mexican traditional music. When the Jesuits came to America in the 1600s, they brought their own tradition in the Baroque time at Baroque time or mostly 1700s. So, we adopt all that feeling, all that burden of the Baroque music into our own version of Mexican traditional music. We can see that indigenous music and in the Mestizo music – the people from the little villages or towns. So, I was keeping that in mind when I started to study Mexican folk music. I studied three years of ethnomusicology in Mexico City, and I was very close to listening to classical music but mostly in the Baroque period. So, I love the Baroque period. I love Bach. I love Telemann, all the guys.
- Robert Danziger – Did you consider doing any of the other Brandenburg concertos?
- Victor Pichardo – The only reason I chose that one is because it’s in 6/8. Originally, it’s in 12/8. I wrote it in 6/8, which is the way we play the Mexican music. In the different areas of Mexico, they play 6/8. It’s the pattern that we use all the time. So, that’s why I decided for this because it’s in 6/8 or 12/8. I love the other Bach music, but that was the most important because it was played in 6/8.
“Johann Sebastian Bachs music is better than it sounds.”
Carl Sagan lead the selection of music on the Golden Record that is on the Voyager spacecrafts – the only human objects to leave our solar system. He was the one who selected Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra version of the 1st movement of the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto to be the first music on the record. When asked why he didn’t include more Bach hesaid, “That would be bragging.”
According to Al McKibben Charlie Parker used to call other musicians at 3 or 4 in the morning with the Brandenburg Concerto playing in the background and Charlie Parker improvising over it.
“Great musicians are no respecters of borders; they cross them at will, and in doing so define their own territory.” – Learning to Listen, the Jazz Journey of Gary Burton.
Jon Batiste On what he loves about Bach
I think that Bach is really the mysticism of music, spirituality of music, the depth of how he’s able to be so systematic and logical, symmetrical at times, super symmetrical, to the point of it almost being a musical game of sorts, yet it harboring such a depth of human feeling, the range of human emotions and asking questions about the afterlife.
The St. Matthew Passion, I was listening to that maybe yesterday, a couple days ago. It’s about three hours long and just listening to that makes you realize what’s possible. He’s arguably the best at a thing that anyone has ever been in the history of doing a thing.
[Bach is] arguably the best at a thing that anyone has ever been in the history of doing a thing.
Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Sidney Madden adapted it for the Web.
I gotta tell you a story about the Bach Violin Concerto in A Minor.
I sang the entire concerto with members of the San Francisco Symphony standing behind me in a semi-circle. And in the second movement, I got completely turned around and lost. And the musicians were playing and you could see in their eyes, are we gonna stop, are we gonna stop, are we gonna start over again, and they were wondering what I was going to do. And so I improvised my way to a spot that I recognized and then took it from there. Anyway, we finished the piece, intermission comes, and I’m very embarrassed and sorry that I had put them through this experience, and I’m apologizing profusely to the players, I was a brand new conductor and I had messed up and all that kind of stuff. But one of the women in the orchestra was this older woman and she came up to me and she looked at me and said, “Bach would have loved it!” And it was because I was improvising, I was just sort of making something up. I’ll never forget that, I’ll never forget that.
In June 1994, Farmer was awarded the Austrian Gold Medal of Merit, and in August 1994 was honored for lifetime achievement at a concert at Lincoln Center in New York. The same momentous year brought the debut of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “A Great Day in Harlem,” inspired by a day in 1958 when 60 jazz greats, including Farmer, gathered for a photo. Also in 1994, Farmer recorded the “Brandenburg” Concertos with the New York Jazz Orchestra and performed Haydn’s First Trumpet Concerto with the Austrian-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic Orchestra.
- Robert Danziger – You know, the–let me ask this one question and then I’d like to circle back to that because there is–I’d like to get your opinion on something. But, you know, that–the one that you’re talking about, the second Brandenburg Concerto, is the first music on the golden record off of Voyager spacecraft that left the solar system that was back in the ’70s.
- Stephen Prutsman – Oh, wow.
- Robert Danziger – Yeah.
- Stephen Prutsman – They’ll want to come visit us if they hear that.
- Robert Danziger – Yeah. Well, it’s–I mean, it’s a remarkable thing in the history of music. It’s the only music to ever physically leave the solar system. And the first thing is Brandenburg Concerto, you know?
- Stephen Prutsman – Yeah, right on.
- Robert Danziger – The first movement of the second concerto. And I’m just curious if–and I used to work at Jet Propulsion Lab after I–when they–
- Stephen Prutsman – –Very cool.
- Robert Danziger – So, that’s one of the–I mean, I was just a junior nothing at the time, but it really fascinated me, one of the things about that. And I asked about–I’ve asked Regina Carter, a few people, if you were in that position of selecting the music to–that’s going to be found by some alien, you know, 100 million years from now–that represents earth, what music would you put on that record?
- Stephen Prutsman – Oh, wow. That’s like a–that’s almost like a desert island question,
- Stephen Prutsman – First thing, if there’s no timeframe — obviously I’d probably want to pack a lot into that disc. But, if there is no kind of limit to that, the first–it’d have to be B Minor Mass, man. That’s–that would be the start. I mean, if you want to try to encompass a lot of what, you know, our planet has been through, that would be a biggie. You know, I would certainly want to take something of Tatum. I mean, just personal reasons. I would–something that jubilant and overpowering and it’s fun and awareness and color–
- Stephen Prutsman – –And all that good stuff. That would have to be on there. Oh, geez. I’d have to think about this because there are two issues to consider. And you sort of have to take yourself out of the question, right?
- Stephen Prutsman – You have to say not my personal favorites, but what really represents this planet of 8 billion people. And so, I definitely stick with the Bach. I guess a lot of Bach because, and I don’t want to get too touchy feely here, we are all deeply in love with this music, but it’s also beyond us in a certain sense. So, that it’s the sense that it’s the intimate, it’s the really personal, it’s the one on one. And at the same time, it’s impersonal. It’s beyond us all. It’s so great, we can never understand it entirely. We can never grasp it entirely.So, that’s probably the area. And, you know, from a personal standpoint, yes, I would want something by Revel.
- Robert Danziger – –Well, that’s–that was a wonderful answer, by the way. I will now go and listen to all those things by this afternoon. You know, it’s one of the great pleasures of doing this is you ask that question and Regina Carter mentioned, the Swan.
- Stephen Prutsman – –You know, there’s a–I’ll tell you real quick. If you ever–if you have a chance to check out–you already know this, but the movie adaption of the Kurt Vonnegut film (Slaughterhouse-Five)that the guy who’s on this lonely planet with this–way off somewhere and all by himself with this really attractive young model and it’s his fantasy, but the soundtrack is the theme of the brand–of the Goldberg variations. So, there is this sense of–with that theme of being in outer space just like the Voyager continuing without stopping forever and ever and ever, just like a beautiful light wave going on out. So, there is this attraction with the cosmos in Bach, definitely.
“You can never play enough Bach.” – The Surprising Influence of J.S. Bach on Jazz Great Bill Evans, March 18, 2018
SS: Dave, you often identify Bach as your favorite composer. What influence has Bach had on your musical career in terms of both composition, and your improvisations?
DB: Well, I love the Brandenburg Concertos, and I think they’re so rhythmic, and so full of life, and so related in a way to jazz. Or, jazz is related to it (laughter).
The fact that many people at his time knew how he could improvise, and he liked to improvise on Sunday in church, and the minister would usually not like it at all that he was improvising because the audience, the congregation would get so wrapped up in his improvisation that they wouldn’t listen to his homily.
And so, he would ask Bach not to improvise so much, and would say, “The congregation doesn’t like it when you change the harmonies,” which probably he didn’t like it — the minister. But, the similarity between the figured bass that Bach used with the choir, and the chord progressions that a jazz musician uses are kind of a similarity that you improvise in these progressions.
And, that again relates it to jazz. And, he must have been a tremendous improviser. There are certain organists to this day that improvise so great, that in classical music, it’s been the organists that have kept alive the old tradition of improvisation, while most symphonic music has let it die out. That, again, I credit to Bach’s great legacy of improvisation. It carried over into Mozart and into Beethoven.
- Bob D. I was listening to your [Jonathan Scales] song The Mouse. And I’m thinking, this certainly reminds me of having a strong Brandenburg influence. I asked Jeff Jones, [who plays on the record and is also friend and Mentor to Jonathan, and is Chair of the CSUMB Music Department] and I guess he texted you. And you wrote back that the first record you bought was the Brandenburg. Did I get that kind of right?
- Jonathan Scales – Yes, that’s very true.
- Bob D. – And when did you first encounter the Brandenburg? Why did you buy that record?
- Jonathan Scales – I first encountered that when I was in the ninth grade. I was a freshman in high school. I was living in Germany. I was going to an American school in Germany. and I don’t know. We went to the little shop which was on the American base, and my mom said I could pick out a CD. That’s the one that I gravitated towards. I was really into classical music like Mozart and things like that. I was kind of intrigued by it and didn’t know anything about the Brandenburg concertos. It just seemed interesting, and I got it. I listened to it a lot when I was a freshman in high school.
- Jonathan Scales – At that point, I was in the city called Kitzingen. Kitzingen is a small town outside of the bigger city called Wurzburg, and that’s in the south of Germany in what we know as Bavaria.
- Bob D. – Do you remember which version of the Brandenburg you got, who it was done by?
- Jonathan Scales – I don’t remember what orchestra it was. All I remember was that the disc was orange. All I can see in my head is I see the orange disc and, yeah, some company that started with an L. But I wasn’t really concerned–I never even thought of who the orchestra was.
- Bob D. – Right, yeah.
- Jonathan Scales – I listened to the recording over and over.
- Bob D. – Was there one of them you really liked more than others or just sort of the whole package?
- Jonathan Scales – Well, I usually would listen to it just straight down a lot, and I guess as a younger person–I can’t speak for all younger people, but I liked the fast ones.
- Bob D. – Right, yeah.
- Jonathan Scales – I liked all the fast movements. One in particular that sticks out in my head, you know, I’m a horrible singer, but it’s the one that’s like–it’s kind of in three. That one is amazing.
- Bob D. – The third one is the one in 6/8.
- Jonathan Scales – Yep, and that is–that’s an incredible piece of music right there.
- Bob D. – Do you still listen to the Brandenburg?
- Jonathan Scales – Sometimes actually. I have a playlist, a streaming playlist on Spotify that has a whole range of different things I like to listen to, and that piece that I mentioned, the thing that’s in 6 or 12, that’s on there. And I definitely go back and listen to it sometimes because, for one, it brings back a lot of memories of when I was really first getting into composition. I would just wake up Saturday morning because I didn’t have to go to school–wake up on Saturday morning and just like listen to the album and try to write music. I have good memories of that. I can sing all the parts.
“The detailed lives of clerks don’t interest me much unless, of course, the clerk breaks into heroism. But I have no intention of trying to explain my book. It has to do that for itself. I would be sure of its effect if it could be stipulated that the reader read an obligato of Bach.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
RLS put his poetry to Bach’s music and said, “‘Bach is adorable; so singularlyunspewy. I wish I could get the Pentecost air with more than one finger; but … the attempt to introduce the other notes knocks the time to old Harry …”
- Links and Bibliography
- The True Life of J.S. Bach; by Klaus Eidam (recommended by David Gordon, Dramaturge, Carmel Bach Festival
I like to read. I’ll read a little philosophy, and about the great composers. My favorite is Johann Sebastian Bach — he was really the first jazz player, with his inventions and what he did for the keyboard in the 1600s and 1700s. He’s a genius! (Why a legendary pianist says Bach was the first jazz great By Raquel Laneri)
The first 12-tone composer . . .