listen magazine feature

Sheep May Safely Groove

J.S. Bach, Jazzman

By Damian Fowler


In 1747, Johann Sebastian Bach made the journey from Leipzig to the court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam to visit his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was then chief harpsichordist in the royal chapel. No doubt the sixty-two-year-old Bach was looking forward to a relaxing evening and some downtime with Carl after his trip. But when the music-loving king noticed that “Old Bach” was on the guest list, he devised an entertainment for the court, which included many of Europe’s leading composers. Frederick handed Bach a long and tricky musical figure and challenged him to turn it into a three-part fugue on the spot. According to local accounts, Bach played it cool, hit the keys, and played a three-part groove that wowed the king and his entourage. The old master showed the crowd he could still lay it down. 

With the benefit of over two hundred fifty years of hindsight, it’s possible to see Bach as a kind of jazz musician, taking rhythmic figures and improvising around them, albeit within the mathematical strictures of Baroque harmony. Of course many of these improvisations were written down and became part of the legacy of Bach’s eternal music. In fact, after Bach laid down his three-part fugue, Frederick tried to push his luck and asked if the composer would improvise a six-part fugue. Although the master graciously declined, the challenge would eventually inspire The Musical Offering, a collection of canons and fugues including the six-voice fugue of Frederick’s dare. So, as always, Bach had the last laugh.


‘Having to keep the structure ended up being a really good idea.’


Perhaps it’s not a stretch for a contemporary jazz musician to find in Bach not only spiritual kinship, but also the musical elements for further harmonic exploration. That’s exactly what pianist Matt Herskowitz reveals his recording Bach XXI (Avantijazz), which combines his jazz trio — Mat Fieldes, bass, and David Rozenblatt, drums — with classical violinist Philippe Quint in a new musical offering that transfigures Bach with hybrid jazz-classical harmonies. Make no mistake, this isn’t some cheesy crossover attempt simply to swing Bach and make him palatable for the lobby of the Holiday Inn. Herskowitz has fully reimagined eight works of the master using rhythms, grooves, and harmonic voicings from jazz, Latin, Arab, Jewish, and contemporary classical styles.

Herskowitz first jazzed up Bach when he was working on the soundtrack of the 2003 French animated film The Triplets of Belleville. As he explains in his liner notes to Bach XXI, he was hired to perform the Prelude in C minor from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier in the style of Glenn Gould. After a couple of takes, he started “noodling around with the Prelude as a jazz waltz.” That caught the ear of Benoît Charest, the film’s composer, who looked up through the control booth and said, “Hey, that sounds really cool. Wanna do a take of that?” He did, and the resulting Bach à la Jazz became one of the soundtrack’s hits. From here, Herskowitz started exploring more deeply with Bach arrangements for other concerts, including a musical festival with violinist Philippe Quint who liked what he heard and urged Herskowitz to collaborate on an album. 

Taking his cue from Bach’s tightly constructed music, Herskowitz set himself some ground rules for his arrangements on Bach XXI. “One of the rules of the exercise was not to change or edit Bach’s structure,” he says. “However many sections there are in the main piece, it has to stay that way — it has to stay integral. So I can’t subtract from Bach’s structure, but I can add to the existing structure to open up possibilities for solos, intros, codas and bridge material. Having to keep the structure ended up being a really good idea. It forced me to really think holistically about what I was doing.” Herskowitz also determined that he must use all “essential material of the original music,” principal melodic lines and counterpoint, but that he could change the inner voice harmonies in favor of his own jazz voicing. He also transformed them rhythmically to create, where necessary, a “funkier line.”

Bachbop. Pianist Matt Herskowitz has long worked to blend his native jazz stylings with the iconic music of J.S. Bach.

For Quint, the transition to playing in a jazz context was both an eye- and ear-opening experience, although nearly all the violin parts were written out. He jokes that he had to learn new terms such as “groove” and “swing,” which hardly get thrown around in the classical world — although, Herskowitz adds, they should be. During the studio sessions he even adopted the jazz name Phil, instead of the more formal Philippe. “It was like letting go,” says Quint. “I found myself in this pool of liberation. I had to rework my knowledge of what I perceived as jazz and how I should implement my classical chops to play these arrangements.” Quint — whose virtuosity is well demonstrated on his other classical albums — readily admits that the “jazz sessions were the most strenuous sessions of my life.” Another one of the tracks on the album — the Double Violin Concerto in D Minor — includes a section of improvised solo for everyone, which has Quint and featured violinist Lara St. John digging into the groove with tongue-in-cheek abandon. For the most part, classical violinists steer well clear of such unscripted challenges.

I attended one of the group’s rehearsal sessions ahead of the album’s launch, and was transfixed by how adaptable and muscular Bach seemed to be, not at all deterred by the presence of drums and bass. I heard the familiar strains of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major — one of the composer’s most recognizable pieces — now transposed for violin and piano trio. Herskowitz found in this single flowing melodic line “rich harmonic implications” that he believes “seem to predict those forthcoming in pop and jazz.” The arrangement starts quite formally, a performance that wouldn’t be terribly out of place in Frederick’s court but, by degrees, the jazz harmonies nudge the music out of the eighteenth-century room, down a set of stairs, past that neon sign, and into the blue haze of an underground club. We’ve moved from a room full of aristocrats wearing powdered wigs into a more intimate, dimly lit space filled with jazz aficionados relaxing in T-shirts and jeans. The music still retains much of that Baroque formality and rigor; as every good jazz musician knows, the structure is all. “In the process of doing these arrangements I was very aware of the original music and building my own thing,” says Herskowitz. “I let my presence in that eighteenth-century room suggest to me what was possible in the twenty-first-century room.”


It’s possible to see Bach as a kind of jazz musician, taking rhythmic figures and improvising around them....


Over the centuries, Bach’s music has inspired many composers to arrange or transcribe his work for different instruments and ensembles. Ever since the young Mendelssohn helped revive the Bach legacy in the 1800s, composers have never looked back. Mendelssohn himself created a piano accompaniment for the Chaconne of the D-minor Partita, which in turn inspired Schumann to follow suit with piano accompaniments to all the solo violin and cello works. The list goes on — Liszt, Brahms and Busoni, as well as twentieth-century giants such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Webern (to name but a few) all undertook large-scale orchestrations of Bach. Jazz and folk musicians have also found inspiration in his music, from Dave Brubeck to the Swingle Sisters to Chris Thile, who continues to make a convincing case for Bach on the mandolin.

“This process gave me a really deep appreciation and wonder for this music,” says Herskowitz, having scrutinized Bach with the eye of a composer. “I think that wonder would benefit a lot of classical performances, too. Because the closer you look at it the more wondrous it is. You start seeing the techniques involved, seeing Bach do things he was not supposed to do.”

“Bach was a trailblazer,” adds Quint, whose relationship with Bach has now changed for the better. As a violinist within a Romantic tradition, Quint admits to have  had a “love and confusion relationship” with Bach, which seems to pull against this type of performance. And yet this experience, playing Bach with a different inflection, has for Quint offered a “reintroduction” of sorts to the music of the master.

And how would Bach feel about this album if, say, he could step into this conceptual twenty-first-century room where his music is re-harmonized with sevenths, ninths, flat fifths, and swings even harder than an allemande? Herskowitz imagines Bach would appreciate it: “I think he would understand what’s going on. Bach was considered one of the most conservative composers of the day, but for me in terms of dissonance and the groove, what he was doing was very modern.” 


This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & CultureSteinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

Visit Steinway

Find a retail location to see a Steinway piano in person.

Find a Location
Contact Us

Have all your questions answered — by phone or email.

Our Newsletter

Keep abreast of Steinway & Sons in the news and the arts.

Stay In Touch
Click to scroll this page