'After Bach' Offers Brad Mehldau's Well-Tempered Jazz

Mar 27, 2018
Originally published on March 27, 2018 9:14 pm

When Johann Sebastian Bach compiled the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722, he wrote that the 24 preludes and fugues were "for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study."

Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau is one of the countless musicians who have since immersed themselves in Bach's work. On his new album After Bach, available now, Mehldau interprets sections of Well-Tempered Clavier, then uses Bach's melodies and cadences as a starting point to explore.

Music historians talk about Bach as dizzyingly prolific, authoring thousands of pieces before he died at age 65. Not everything was written down; some of his works began as improvisations. Starting with a small motif or chord sequence, Bach would develop music extemporaneously, doing the baroque version of riffing. It's an approach to music-making that a jazz player like Mehldau understands intuitively.

As in Bach, there are recurring themes on After Bach, as well as some brainy, high-wire act elaborations. But there are also ear-stretching modulations and sudden swerves that darken the mood.

The result is Bach's airtight harmonic logic gently pried apart by a modern musician who is fluent in jazz, The Beatles, and electronic music.

The album cover, a black-and-white picture of a massive spiral staircase, is shot by the late photographer Peter Marlow. It's an apt image, capturing the supreme order of Bach's music, as well as its sense of endless, possibly infinite variation — a quality Mehldau celebrates with his originals on this collection.

Pretty much everything in modern music comes after Bach, and incredibly, three centuries later, there's still new inspiration to be found inside his long shadow.

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(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN GOULD PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "FUGUE NO. 16 IN G MINOR, BWV 861")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That's Glenn Gould playing "Fugue No. 16 In G Minor" from the second book of "The Well-Tempered Clavier." Johann Sebastian Bach compiled the first book in 1722. At that time, he wrote that the 24 preludes and fugues in that book were, quote, "for the prophet and use of musical youth desirous of learning and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study." Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau fits into the latter category, those already skilled.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "AFTER BACH: OSTINATO")

SHAPIRO: On his new album "After Bach," Mehldau plays pieces from "The Well-Tempered Clavier" followed by original works that were inspired by those pieces. Tom Moon has this review.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Music historians talk about Bach as dizzyingly prolific, creating thousands of pieces before he died at the age of 65. And not everything was written down. Some of his works began as improvisations. He'd start with a small motif or chord sequence and develop music extemporaneously, doing the baroque version of riffing. It's an approach to music making that a jazz player like Brad Mehldau understands intuitively.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "PRELUDE NO. 3 IN C# MAJOR FROM THE WELL-TEMPERED CLAVIER BOOK I, BMV 848")

MOON: On his new album, Mehldau interprets sections of "The Well-Tempered Clavier" like this prelude as written. Then using Bach's cadences and melodies as a starting point, he goes exploring.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "AFTER BACH: RONDO")

MOON: As in Bach, there are recurring themes and brainy, high-wire-act elaborations. But Mehldau weaves in ear-stretching modulations and sudden swerves that darken the mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "AFTER BACH: RONDO")

MOON: It's the air-tight harmonic logic of Bach gently pried apart by a modern musician who's fluent in jazz, the Beatles, electronic music.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "AFTER BACH: DREAM")

MOON: The cover image of "After Bach" is a black-and-white picture of a massive spiral staircase shot from below by the late photographer Peter Marlow. It's an apt image. It captures the supreme order of Bach's music and also its sense of endless, possibly infinite variation, a quality Brad Mehldau celebrates with his originals on this collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "AFTER BACH: DREAM")

MOON: When you think about it, pretty much everything in modern music comes after Bach. And somehow incredibly, three centuries later, there is still new inspiration to be found inside his long shadow.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "AFTER BACH: FLUX")

SHAPIRO: That was Tom Moon reviewing Brad Mehldau's latest album, "After Bach." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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