REVIEW: Brad Mehldau's Three Pieces after Bach at the Wigmore Hall

Brad Mehldau receiving the applause from a packed Wigmore Hall

Brad Mehldau's Three Pieces after Bach
Wigmore Hall. 17th December 2015. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Re-interpretations of Bach through the prism of the jazz piano tradition can be more or less considered a durable, viable sub-genre in their own right. The Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis developed his own vision of the 48 Preludes and Fugues.  Jacques Loussier has left a significant mark. Leipzig-born Joachim Kühn was always bound to take it on, with his unique vision of the seriousness of the cantatas and motets. Last year the Wigmore Hall saw Dan Tepfer's lengthy exercise in extending the Goldberg Variations (INTERVIEWED). Alex Hutton's Gunpowder and Compass from his Magna Carta Suite gives a fascinating glimpse of his much broader and deeper Bach project.

Brad Mehldau's Bach project, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall and organizations in Canada, Switzerland and Ireland, and already performed in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, clearly has momentum behind it. He has taken pieces from the '48' which he plays as lead-offs into either written pieces or improvisations. The evening was an impressive feat of stamina, virtually two hours of solo piano. For the Bach and for the Three Pieces after Bach he plays from a tablet, avoiding the need for a page-turner.

At a first hearing, the pieces have more the character of meditations on the Bach pieces rather than sets of variations. Mehldau has a way of circling them and dwelling around them. Methods include putting in a left hand idee fixe or ostinato, and then muddying and darkening the polytonalities around it, and also treating Bach's music as an invitation to densen and to blur rhythmic regularity, a procedure which is consistent with, and an extension of Bach's own process.

Their are strong resonances of other piano traditions: it certainly sounds as if Mehldau is conversant with Shostakovich's '48,' and their are excursions reminiscent of Ravel (the second of the Bach pieces Ostinato has a very similar device to Ravel's Le Gibet), The third Mehldau piece Toccata  hovered and meandered in a Philip Glass manner, and the  last improvisation on Bach of the evening was summoning up the timelessness of Messiaen through a series of resonant chords.

For the end of the evening Mehldau gave the audience more melodically familiar material, with a Bach-ian treatment of The Beatles' Martha My Dear and a vast. protracted. portentous improvisation on Pete Townshend's Pinball Wizard.

My notes from last night contain one remark which keeps involuntarily coming back. "Miss J.T./ Escape," I wrote. Yes, I do miss John Taylor. Where Mehldau broods, meanders, circles, hovers, J.T - in a way which is also fully consistent with what Bach did - would have slipped off into another room, produced a sudden movement of escape, jinked, side-stepped, and smiled from wherever that unexpected place was that he had disappeared to.

Bach will always continue to provide a limitless source of inspiration to jazz pianists.

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