[30 October 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Keith Jarrett didn’t make his name by standing on the shoulders of Bach. He’s done classical music before, Bach included. But a project like the double album Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano is easily outnumbered by Jarrett’s untitled live improvisations as well as the recordings from his infamous standards trio. Both Bach and Jarrett share a love of keyboard-oriented improvisation, but the 18th-century Baroque composer made sure to iron out his noodlings into perfectly symmetrical pieces of serious music that have always favored technique over emotion. Keith Jarrett, on the other hand, is all about emotion. He’s grunted and groaned his way through many a jam session, much to the dismay of fans of improvised music. Naturally he keeps this quirk tucked away on Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano, his duet album with violinist Michelle Makarski. There are only two unusual things you can say about this collection. First, these sonatas were originally written for harpsichord, not piano. Secondly, there are some noticeably lengthy pauses between some tracks and occasionally someone’s (probably Jarrett’s) sharp inhalation cuing the start of certain movements. Apart from that, you would never have known that this was a Keith Jarrett recording.
Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano gives us the complete set of sonatas that Bach wrote for these two instruments, from BWV 1014 to BWV 1019: “No. 1 in B minor”, “No. 2 in A major”, “No. 3 in E major”, “No. 4 in C minor”, “No. 5 in F minor”, and “No. 6 in G major”. All sonatas, with the exception of the last one, have four movements apiece, a juggle of adagios, largos, and allegros. The 25 tracks clock in at roughly an hour-and-a-half and the sleeve is full of professional looking photographs. What else is there to say about an album full of exercises?
A Baroque album is an ideal place to showcase technical talents. The runs and scales are plentiful, and no one has time for those indulgent rubatos. Tempos are set and that is that. Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano doesn’t show Jarrett’s creativity but his precision. After all, composers like Bach were developing a repertoire for educational purposes. Jarrett’s 16th-note runs are perfect. Michelle Makarski’s playing is perfect. Her sense of dynamics translates to complete control over her instrument. There is not a mistake to be found on the album by either musician—both in technical and interpretive capacities. This brings to mind Artie Shaw’s two cents about Glenn Miller’s seemingly flawless band: “And if you never make a mistake, you’re not trying—you’re not playing at the edge of your ability.”
Jarrett and Makarski have already taken themselves to the edges of their respective abilities. Makarski’s first recording featured six compositions by John Cage, a composer who once notoriously penned the most technically difficult music for violin (“Freeman Etudes”, not the piece she recorded). How these two found common ground in Bach should prove to be a strange story. But what isn’t strange is this album of perfectly positioned wig music. Are they sure they didn’t mean to go a few volumes further in their sheet music library and lay down some Bartók?