Jacques Loussier: Improving on perfection

The French pianist Jacques Loussier has spent a lifetime jazzing up the classics
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In 1959, Decca released a record by the young French pianist Jacques Loussier that became a sensation: the conser-vatoire-trained Loussier had dared to jazz up Bach, and audiences loved it. In the 45 years since then, he has retained a loyal fanbase in Europe and America, and 10 of his CDs of jazzed-up Vivaldi, Handel, Ravel and Satie are currently available. But what do you find if you look him up in Grove? Nothing. And in The Rough Guide to Jazz? Again, nothing. It has been Loussier's misfortune to fall between two stools.

On Saturday, however, the Royal Festival Hall pays tribute to his talent by staging a 70th-birthday concert in his honour, which will begin with Bach, and then move forward to turn-of-the-century composers. Meanwhile, Chopin gets the Loussier treatment on Impressions on Chopin's Nocturnes (Telarc CD83602). And if at this seems nugatory - Chopin's nocturnes are both tightly structured and perfectly embellished - it shows that this self-made original has lost none of his Gallic cheek.

When I ask him for his musical life story, it turns out to have been a triumph from the word go. "I fell in love with the music of Bach when I was 10," he says, "and I immediately began changing the harmonies, looking for other themes and improvising. It felt quite natural, and it amused me." What was his professor's reaction at the Conservatoire? "He liked it; he encouraged me."

Decca was a push-over, too. "I did an audition, and they simply said, 'Right, we'll do a disc'. And it came as an enormous surprise to the public - nobody before had played Bach in that way. It was revolutionary." There were more discs, film scores and a collaboration with Pink Floyd. But were there no obstacles at any point? "No. I had simply created my own road between classical and jazz - and all doors opened for me. And they've remained open because, for decades, nobody else followed the path I had taken."

How did this new Chopin disc emerge? "The idea was suggested to me - I wasn't sure how to do it. I decided it would only work if I found the key to each piece - the underlying idea - and a clear approach to it for myself. The key was to find an atmosphere which resembled that of the original nocturne, and a way of revolving round Chopin's themes which expresses their ideas differently. I suppress what he does with the left hand, and replace it with different harmonies and rhythms. It's a little stylistic exercise, which I find amusing."

Does he ever play Chopin straight? "No." So he's not suffi- ciently interesting for you? "No, it's not that. If I do improvisations on well-known classical works, it's because I want to show that there are other ways of playing them, which are equally valid. Anyway, there are 200 excellent recordings of Chopin played straight - why would I add to them?"

Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0870 401 8181) 30 October