Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Jazzy Side of Bach: An Impressive Predecessor

Regular readers know that I find it hard to resist writing about Johann Sebastian Bach as a master improviser whose talent would not be equalled until John Coltrane came into his own maturity. Much of this has to do with a capacity for improvisation imaginative enough to defer coming to closure for such a long period of time that it can drive some listeners crazy. Bach's skill at such jamming then finds its way into his work on composition in the form of what I still like to call his "and another thing" style, always coming up with one more thing to say before giving in to a perfect cadence. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Virgil Thomson was also aware of Bach having this jazzy side.

Consider this passage from one of his reviews:
The closer the performing conditions for Sebastian Bach’s concerted music are approximated to those of early eighteenth-century provincial Germany the more the music sounds like twentieth-century American swing.
To be fair, he wrote this on December 31, 1940, when he was reviewing the first time in the United States that the BWV 248 Weihnachtsoratorium was being performed as a single coherent concert piece. Coltrane would have been fourteen years old at that time. Also, Thomson was more interested in the style with which swing was executed, rather than the improvisatory practices of jamming. Nevertheless, it is humbling to know that my approach to Bach had been "scooped;" but I was delighted to discover that I had been scooped by such an impressive writer!