The French Alpha Classics label has a solid well-earned reputation for its approach to recording performances of the early music repertory. This past Friday the label decided to slant this reputation in a fascinating new direction with the release of an album entitled Bach Coltrane. The recording project was the brain child of jazz wind player Raphaël Imbert, who engaged a diverse assortment of resources. For his jazz work he had a rhythm section consisting of Michel Péres on bass and percussionist (as well as vocalist) Jean-Luc Fraya. Other tracks present the Quatuor Manfred string quartet, whose members are violinists Marie Béreau and Luigi Vecchioni, violist Vinciane Béranger, and cellist Christian Wolff. Finally, André Rossi plays the organ of Bouc-Bel-Air Church, built by Jean Daldosso; and countertenor Gérard Lesne sings one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata arias.
For those who have not been following my approach to writing about music, when it comes to encounters between what I like to call the more serious side of jazz and the history of Western music, I have had a dog of my own in the fight for some time. It emerged from ideas that came to me while I was spending most of my time at the keyboard trying to familiarize myself with Bach’s solo keyboard music. Through personal experience I came to think of much of this repertoire being Bach’s attempt to document efforts at what we would now call jamming. Furthermore, when it came to those masters of jamming whose work we appreciate today, I felt there was a particularly strong affinity between what Bach was doing in his day and what saxophonist John Coltrane did in many of his finest improvisations. Most importantly, both of these men has such prodigious imagination that they could defer bringing closure to elaborate passages for durations that would almost defy the endurance of the listener. I liked to call this the “and another thing” approach to improvisation, recalling how Miles Davis had been annoyed that Coltrane always seemed to have something to add to the improvisations he would invent while playing in Miles’ combos. For a long time I had thought that this connection between Bach and Coltrane had been an original discovery on my part, but I later learned that the music critic Virgil Thomson appreciated it as much as I did!
The result is that my reaction to the new Bach Coltrane album could never rise above the level of lukewarm, simply because Imbert never showed any signs of having similar thoughts about how these two masters of music were connected. Instead, he seems more interested just in using Bach as a point of departure for his own improvisations, somewhat in the manner in which saxophonist Jan Garbarek developed improvisations over early music vocal performances by the Hilliard Ensemble. One might also compare Imbert’s approach with how jazz pianist Joe Chindamo added a violin part for Zoë Black to play during a performance of Bach’s BWV 988 “Goldberg” variations. However, Imbert never quite seems to rise to Chindamo’s level of creating a sense of in-the-moment music-making; and that is as much the case when he is improvising against Quatuor Manfred playing selections from The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080) as when he is taking on Coltrane’s “Crescent.”
Perhaps this has to do with the fact that there is always a sharp edge of suspense in the inventiveness we encounter in both Bach and Coltrane. Imbert’s style tends to blunt that edge, rather that seek out new ways in which to hone it. Thus, while his takes definitely have an introspective side, they come across as far too syrupy for what lovers of both Bach and Coltrane tend to expect. Using a shuffle feature to interleave good recorded tracks of Bach with those of Coltrane is liable to provide the listener of a better sense of why these two major music-makers can both be served by juxtaposition.