Thursday, March 21, 2013

Goldberg’s Variation

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The Goldberg  Variations utilize the Sarabande from Anna Magdalena Bach's
notebook as a passacaille—that is, only its bass progression is duplicated in the varia­tions, where indeed it is treated with suf­ficient rhythmic flexibility to meet the harmonic contingencies of such diverse contrapuntal structures as a canon upon every degree of the diatonic scale, two fughettas, and even a quodlibet (the super­position of street-songs popular in Bach's times).
Such alterations as are necessary do not in any way impair the gravitational compulsion which this masterfully propor­tioned ground exerts upon the wealth of melodic figurations which subsequently adorn it. Indeed, this noble bass binds each variation with the inexorable assurance of its own inevitability.”[Emphasis, mine]
- Glenn Gould, concert pianist

At the conclusion of this piece, I have re-posted a video retrospective of the artwork of Clifton Karhu because I wanted to dwell a bit more on the technical virtuosity of the music that accompanies it as played by the Joris Roelofs Quartet.  [Karhu - 1927-2007 - lived and worked in Japan for many years and drew his inspiration from the traditional Japanese woodblock print masters of the 19th century.]

The musicianship on this recording is of such a high quality that it does justice to the roots in modern Jazz from which it draws its influence – the “school” of Jazz founded by pianist-composer Lennie Tristano and his main collaborators, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and tenor saxophonist, Warne Marsh.

The super cool, deeply harmonically and very intellectual style of Jazz that Lennie, Lee and Warne played did not find very many, subsequent devotees, although contemporaneous musicians like pianist Alan Broadbent and alto saxophonist and flutist Gary Foster could be said to be somewhat reflective of its tenets.

I hope to have more to say about Alan and Gary’s collaborations in a future profile about Gary.

This JazzProfile derives it’s title from The Goldberg Variations, “one of the monuments of keyboard literature” which was published in 1742 while Johann Sebastian Bach [1685-1750] held the title of Polish Royal and Saxon electoral court-composer.

Glenn Gould’s 1955 Columbia Masterpiece Performances [MYK-38479] recording of The Goldberg Variations never fails to leave me shaking my head in amazement at the grandeur and scope of Bach’s conception and Gould’s pianistic talent in accomplishing it.

But although the music on the audio track to the Karhu video tribute may be said to be representative of both the Tristano school of Jazz and J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, particularly in its use of bass clef figures played by the piano and the bass [see above quotation by Glenn Gould], it is very much its own music.

And what music it is – commanding, lively and full of energy.

The tune is entitled The Rules and was composed by New York-based pianist Aaron Goldberg. It forms part of the music on the Introducing the Joris Roloefs Quintet  CD [Materials Records MRE-023-2].

Joris, a rising young star on the European Jazz scene, came to New York to record this album along with Aaron, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Ari Hoenig.

The Rules is based on a tonal center which is interlaced throughout its performance by the use of a six-note phrase that Aaron carries, primarily, with his left-hand, and, at times, in unison with bassist Penman to bring added emphasis.

The constant repetition makes the phrase very insistent but all of the soloists do a masterful job of bobbing and weaving in and around it without ever being overcome by it.

The sustained intensity that the group maintains really consumes the listener; one keeps expecting it to breakout at some point, but it never does.

In the absence of any means to record them, some experts maintain that J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations are really Bach’s improvisations put to pen and ink.

While listening to Aaron’s recorded solo on The Tunes, I began wondering what future pianists might make of his improvisations if they, too, were to be “notated” for posterity?

Obviously these notations would not be as complex as the knuckle-busters Bach composed, and yet, in their own way, perhaps just as challenging and interesting.

There are three solos on The Rules, but the solo order is unusual: piano, then drums [!] with the lead instrument, Joris’ alto sax, soloing last before the group returns to the theme to close out the piece.

Each is a long improvisation that makes great use of space. There are no chord progressions to be run or melodic frameworks to navigate or modal scales to set a course through. The music literally has to be created from the ground up from a very limited foundation. Such are The Rules to The Rules.

But make no mistake. This is not “Free Jazz” with the worst connotations that references to that 1960’s style can arouse. And it is not an exercise in sterile intellectualism. The music is formed in the minds of the musicians using the repetitive six-note phrase as a point of departure.

This is some of the most powerful and emotional Jazz you’ve ever experienced.

Ari Hoenig’s solo reminds me of drummer Shelly Manne’s axiom that “the hands should not rule the way you play the instrument.” He meant by this that the drummer should play music first and not show off technique. Of course, Shelly had both, and so does Ari, who plays one heck of a drum solo on this performance.

The Rules ends in an explosion of sound and with what musicians refer to as a “surprise ending.”

As Jazz moves forward in the 21st Century, players such as Aaron, Joris, Matt and Ari will not only add their brilliant improvisational ideas to its legacy, but also bring to it, an enormous quantity of technical skills which with to execute them.

The Jazz Gods must be smiling.

I certainly am.

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