What happens when a couple of Juilliard buddies decide to take a new look at Bach, through a 21st-century lens?
Philippe and Matt reunited several years ago, when Quint was playing Claude Bolling's "Suite for Violin and Jazz Trio" with Matt's jazz trio at the El Paso chamber Music Festival. They had so much fun, they decided to collaborate on a project centered around Bach. Matt made the arrangements for violin and jazz trio, keeping certain aspects of each piece intact but letting Bach take on new and different musical flavors such as pop, jazz, folk, Jewish, Brazilian, African...even contemporary classical music.
Along with bassist Mat Fieldes and drummer David Rozenblatt, they recorded eight arrangements of Bach, including the Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1; "Sheep May Safely Graze"; Erbarme dich (from St. Matthew Passion); Violin Concerto in A minor; Duet in E minor; Goldberg Variations; and the Prelude from English Suite No. 2 in a Minor. To spice it up even more, Lara St. John joined them to record a version of the Bach Double, which included an improvised cadenza by Philippe and Lara.
Last week, I emailed Philippe about this project and these arrangements, which he called, "fiendishly difficult."
Laurie: I’m assuming "Bach XXI" means Bach - 21st century style. Was that the idea? Did that name come before or after the music came together?
Philippe: I am always of the belief that the title of any project must come organically and often times after the project has already been completed. It took us a very long time to find the right name for the album which would properly represent it.
Bach XXI seemed to be the title that immediately resonated with our team. Busoni, Liszt, Rachmaninov and Mendelssohn have all taken inspiration from Bach - arranging, filtering and enhancing his harmonic structures through their own distinctive voices, pulling the intrinsic lyricism out of Bach's music and bringing him into the Romantic era.
Laurie: This is kind of a jazz album, but it's kind of not! There's a jazz trio, but this seems to go a lot more directions than jazz. How would you describe the style of this music?
Philippe: This album truly is a hybrid of sound and world music fusion. Matt really incorporated in his arrangements the rhythms, grooves and harmonic voicings from jazz, Latin, Arab, Jewish and contemporary classical into the master's original scores. His mission was to have a fresh look at Bach's inventive genius in a new, modern and unique personal voice.
Laurie: What was the first jazz you listened to? Is it a style you have played in before?
Philippe: The first jazz record I heard was by Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. Those were the two records I found in my family's LP collection in Soviet Union. After moving to the U.S and at a recommendation of a friend of mine, a jazz aficionado, I bought my first jazz CD of music by John Coltrane and his quartet. This mix of sound was relatively new to me and the CD remained on my playlist for months.
I'd had relatively little exposure to jazz until my recent journey into cinema with Downtown Express. There, my character "Sasha" was a classically trained violinist who needed to readjust his classical training and be able to improvise on the spot. While the film was in pre-production - the sound track of it was already in development, and I met with a number of musicians with all kinds of musical backgrounds that were to be involved in the film. This was scary and liberating at the same time. Suddenly there was no written music paper in front of me, or very little of it -- just some handwritten scribbles, mostly indicating harmonic progressions which were mostly impossible for me to follow at a sight-reading pace. Upon someone shouting. "All right! Let's jam, guys!" we all would just start playing. It felt a little bit like someone throwing you in a swimming pool and screaming, "Swim!" And so I did. At first disastrous, but after multiple attempts you start to feel a bit more comfortable and start to slowly navigate strategies of structures and harmonies.
Laurie: How much did you collaborate on the arrangements? Did you do any improvising for it? How did Matt see the violin's role?
Philippe: The arrangements are fiendishly difficult. Technically and musically. This was probably one of the most challenging projects I have encountered to date. Matt's writing is complex and merciless to violin, and as honest to Bach's structures as possible. In fact, Matt had a set of rules that he applied towards his arrangements:
"I cannot remove anything from the structure of the pieces; i.e., I can’t 'edit' Bach. It all has to be there, or it no longer qualifies as an arrangement. I can add to the existing structure - this opens up the possibilities for solos, new sections, intros, codas and bridge material. When I use any part of Bach’s original music, I cannot change it. To do this would also be editing Bach to suit my purposes, and I felt that would be going too far. It must stay Bach.
"I must use all essential material of the original music, that being all principal melodic lines and counterpoint. I can, however, decide not to use any inner voice harmonic material in favor of my own harmonic voicings. I can transform them rhythmically as well: for example, changing a straight eighth note rhythm into something that swings or grooves. I can also do the same with bass lines, such as substituting a straight quarter note bass line with a rhythmically funkier line."
Matt was also very specific towards the role of violin. From the very first session of our get together for the album, he said, "Phil," (this became my new jazz name) "...please don't play this like every classical musician thinks jazz should be played." Very true. For many of us, jazz represents complete freedom: "Do whatever, as long as it somewhat matches" -- add slides, rhythm is flexible. Matt wanted us to get away from this type of approach. I confess - I was still able to sneak in a few slides here and there, but overall, one will hear very classical execution of the material, with jazz effects gained through structure and harmony.
Laurie: When did you first meet Matt Herskowitz, and what made you decide to work together on this?
Philippe: Matt and I, together with our bassist Mat Fieldes and percussionist/drummer David Rozenblatt, all met at The Juilliard School, years ago. But it was not until a few years ago when we all reconnected at the El Paso's Pro Musica Festival. There was the first time I performed Matt's arrangements. I loved them so much that upon completion, I asked him if there was any chance he would consider writing enough arrangements for a whole CD. We mutually selected repertoire containing some of our favorite Bach works, and the work began!
Laurie: I bet it would be fun to play the Bach Double with Lara St. John, especially when told to be wildly creative about it. How did that process work? Any moments that us violin geeks would find amusing?
Philippe: Anything with Lara is guaranteed to be a wild and fun experience! When I asked Matt to take a stab at Bach's Double Concerto first movement - I am pretty sure both of us were hoping Lara would accept to join the project. Luckily she did! Lara and I have collaborated on several occasions now. Always looking outside of the box and extremely generous to her friends and colleagues, Lara was a great contributor to this project with her very distinctive style and interpretation. Matt purposely implemented a cadenza for us in the middle of the movement, which is the only point in the whole record where I get to improvise, together with Lara.
Laurie: What makes the music of Bach particularly tempting, when it comes to improvising, or using it as a basis for something new?
Philippe: For me, this was a very first journey and quite a departure from my previous albums. Once again, a terrific learning experience. Something I may have never considered 10 years ago, being concerned with conservative response such as "Bach is probably turning in his grave," or "Please do not touch Bach." But times have changed, and Bach has been turning in his grave for so long he is probably used to it by now.
To end, here is what Matt had to say about his Bach explorations:
"I’ve always loved the music of Bach, and I performed quite a bit of it in my days as a classical pianist. My first jazz arrangement of Bach was his Prelude in C minor, WTC book 1, which I did for the soundtrack of the film The Triplets of Belleville, quite by accident; I was hired to perform the Prelude in the style of Glenn Gould for a scene in the film. After I’d done a couple of takes, I was asked to wait a few minutes while they checked if it worked. While I was waiting, I started noodling around with the Prelude as a jazz waltz. Benoît Charest, the film’s composer, looked up at me through the control booth window and said, “Hey, that sounds really cool. Wanna do a take of that?” I did, and that became Bach à la Jazz, which turned out to be one of the hits of the soundtrack! About a year later I started making Bach arrangements for another project, but this time going much more deeply into the arranging process. Bach’s music is tightly integrated and holistically constructed, the themes always present in various forms throughout a piece. I soon realized that this is what makes it possible to arrange Bach’s music in this way: he’s already provided all the material I need to work with, allowing me the space to arrange and create new grooves and textures. This led me to experiment with more intricate grooves and further expand the harmonic implications of the music. I didn’t feel like I was inventing something new, but rather re-interpreting what was already there in a different context. The possibilities seemed endless... what choices should I make? How far should I go? How complex should it all become?
The process of creating these arrangements revealed so much to me about Bach’s music and language. I listened to many hours of Bach in search of the pieces which “jumped out” at me, those which immediately provoked a strong idea for an arrangement. That mostly happened either right away or not at all; I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, I had to start working, so I trusted my intuition.
It’s so great to return to the music of the master and explore it more deeply than I ever did before. I feel truly privileged to have had the opportunity to create this project, and to then have it realized by such great musicians."
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A piece from Bach XXI: Bach Cello Prelude, arranged for Violin and Jazz Trio by Matt Herskowitz.
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