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Jacques Loussier Trio: The Best of Play Bach [SACD]

Christopher Orman

Jacques Loussier Trio

The Best of Play Bach [SACD]

Label: Telarc
US Release Date: 2004-02-24
UK Release Date: Available as import

The very nature of third stream, a jazz movement of more "classically" directed gestations in some ways sounds self-defeating. One of the problems with the Modern Jazz Quartet, the benchmark for the creation, was their sterility. Their well-trained compositional eye, on the proverbial "third stream" prize, made for a listening experience that was white walled, devoid of motes, and downright uptight. To dress in suits and look stylish, all to play for erudite audiences, which somehow has always struck me as like Georgia Gibbs's castration of R&B.

Ironically, turning its back on the haphazard, madcap, rude blues stepchild perusing inebriated streets that then came back around to prove its academic worth. Because what Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others who summarize the jazz experience did, with a retrospective glance, doesn't come across quite so ribald now. It now appears sacrosanct, and in some ways dubiously more third stream than the MJQ's quaint conceptual undertakings. Look at Kind of Blue or Giant Steps; these are anointed as modern classicism.

There exists this ongoing tension, then concluding exegesis, of history texts finally catching up and then establishing the "popular-in-moment" as socially significant. Something Hegel may have ruminated about in a frenzied state of realization and astonishment. How art over the years is stolen by the suit and tie bourgeoisie and thrown up (pun intended) with "champagne wishes and caviar" dreams. The categorized attendees with ass on hands, in a small acoustic hall, golf clapping at the appropriate time; usually with sideways, furtive glances at the person next to you to make sure you follow the protocol. I think about Jimmy Heath, whose 1999 performances in Oklahoma City were a far cry from the audiences he once entertained. Same thing could be said of a recent Sonny Rollins performance.

But if historians are correct, J.S. Bach falls between these intellectual cracks. He reportedly improvised like an untrammeled, obsessed fiend, throwing all of these preconceived notions even further out of a fast moving train. The Milton Cross New Encyclopedia of Great Composers (1969), contains the following quote by organist Reinken, "I heard him improvise on his organ themes for thirty minutes, maybe up to an hour. When he finished, I told him, 'I thought this art was dead, but through you I see it still lives.'" To which Bach simply laughed and then reportedly contended that real music "exists beyond the boundaries of the page." More romantic stories have surfaced of mid-street improvisations for the masses, Bach striking something we might compare to Keith Jarrett, where these fitful extemporizations push to the muse's font. All contrasting, possibly expunging entirely, the banal disquisition of Bach. It tears down the established traditions, setting fire to the exhibit and knocking over the exorbitant alcohol.

The Jacques Loussier trio enters the discussion ensconced between the two idioms, unwittingly a fly thrown into the maelstrom of addling analysis. The recent Telarc release, The Best of Play Bach, has a strange sentiment due to the swirling eddies the trio inhabited; a tonic consisting of one part sterile MJQ jazz and one part page staring Bach. Which makes the album the unwanted stepchild in a flummoxing relationship. It never reaches decadent improvisational heights, accepting a rather lucid, café aura. Choosing restraint rather than full blown extemporaneous brilliance tempers the records' jazz leanings, making them sound more feigned, more docile than they should. Put in a less prolix context: it's nice, but nice in a boring way. Hardly as earth shattering as say Uri Caine's Goldberg Variations, or Lee Konitz's sundry concepts.

What the music doesn't quite make clear, the original artwork for Play Bach, released in 1959 on Decca France, tries to deftly explicate. In some ways it looks like a Hans Hoffman, a post-expressionistic stab at psychological suffusion and representation through abstraction. A red background, and what could be described as piano keys in the foreground before shattering into the red, reflects definition and inspiration. Or rather what Loussier and his trio originally intended, of classical music's modern stoicism exploding under jazz's impulsive shell to re-attain Bach's ideals. The rising and receding color also creates a sense of counter-movement, of uncertainty, again what could be gleamed as jazz.

However, the most defining feature of the cover are the brush strokes. They are bold, well defined and symmetrical, superceding the subtle dynamics the trio hoped to present. They rival the visual beauty of Bach's written work, which conflicted with his performances. If you look at a piece of Bach on the page, it moves up and down the scale, across numerous measures, with patent visual grace. Like a dancer across the page, in a predictable manner with the undulations being predicted and expected even by the veritable neophyte. The Best of Play Bach sounds content in this world of planning and symmetry. It is trapped, similar to the Kronos Quartet's The Complete Landmark Recordings, never reaching a zenith in either idiom. Not quite mustering the willpower to knock on the doors Bach did, and not freewheeling enough to make the trip downtown. An awkward fusion created during a period where everything was being thrown into a Jell-O mold to see what shape it would take.

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