Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

In the quest for an often spurious authenticity, genre-hopping has become an accepted practice.

In the quest for an often spurious authenticity, genre-hopping has become an accepted practice. The ensemble of today that does not boast a Siberian stritch player or a balafonist from Belize is in danger of being seen as passé, even though these instruments have not played a significant part in the development of the jazz canon.

It's curious, then, that while so many other musical influences are being embraced by the jazz world, there is one fusion that has always been unfashionable to the point of being ignored almost completely. This is the performance of classical themes in a jazz context. There have been exceptions. The second movement of Rodrigo's Concierto d'Aranjuez has received many treatments, most notably in Gil Evans's arrangement on Sketches of Spain.

But the theme from the "orange juice concerto" (as one friend knows it) is so strong that it stands apart from its original setting. And we need not concern ourselves with kitsch rearrangements, such as Bob James's take on Bizet's "Farandole", or the James Taylor Quartet's version of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

No, I'm referring to piano trios such as that of Jacques Loussier, which take Bach, Mozart, Ravel et al and dare to reinterpret them in the jazz idiom. I say dare, because often they are looked down on both by classical purists, who regard such tinkering as sacrilege, and by jazzers, who think the result too prissy and formal.

In the past, such standoffishness may have been explained by the reaction to the pretensions of groups such as the Modern Jazz Quartet, who with their rondos and fugues, appealed, as Benny Green put it, "to the culture vulture that resides in us all, the beast in the attic of so many jazz fanciers".

But Loussier, who started off concentrating solely on Bach, was never trying to dress up jazz. Like the British pianist David Rees-Williams, whose excellent trio has just released Time Scape, an album that stretches from Buxtehude to Stanford, he always aimed to breathe new life into work by composers who were themselves - at least, those from the Baroque and classical eras were - improvisers. "All the music we end up with is latent in the originals," Rees-Williams says. "For example, Purcell often hints at blues-type melodic lines. A particular problem with formal music today is that the creativity of musicians is often confined to the written note. In earlier times musicians such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart would improvise and experiment even in performance."

For years, Loussier was almost the sole practitioner of this art, and for a long time he looked no further than Bach. But his latest release is of his reinterpretations of Chopin's nocturnes; Ramsey Lewis shows unexpected sympathy for Brahms' Third Symphony on his new album; and all but the cloth-eared will find the Rees-Williams disc a delight.

Jazz and classical music are today two occasionally elitist art forms whose practitioners enjoy a mastery of technique unrivalled in any other musical genre. It would be a shame if snobbery stopped devotees of both forms finding out what magic can lie in a synthesis of the two.