Yes, 1959 and Jacques Loussier’s Opus One and the album that overnight turned what had been a conservatory joke (jazzyfying Bach and occasioning good laughs with the buddies) into a chart-hitting phenomenon. It also more or less confined Loussier into the cross-over genre. Did music gain or loose? Crossover certainly gained. Judging from Loussier’s remarkable pianistic abilities and sure and sound judgment on playing Bach (in times when it wasn’t so customary to publicly play Bach at the piano), “straight” Classical music did loose what Crossover gained. Oh well – many good classical pianists, but only one Loussier.
It’s interesting to take Bach’s scores and see how Loussier’s Jazz functions. In fact, it is very respectful of Bach. After short jazzy intros, Preludes 1 & 2 from the Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier are first played straight in their entirety, with only double bass and drum accompaniment providing the jazz coloring: I find that it sounds entirely natural, and not like an out-of-place sonic graft. Then Loussier segues with a an impro based more or less on the prelude. More in the case of prelude 2, using various processes of syncopation, changing melody into chords, or doubling the note values so to give the impression of acceleration while retaining the same tempo, regularly returning to the straight score as a manner of anchoring, and altogher omitting not one bar; less in Prelude 1 – here the coda, taken at double the speed, provides the Bach anchoring. The two corresponding fugues also start straight, with the double bass substituting for the piano’s left hand (and that alone is enough to provide a jazz coloring), but the impro starts earlier, inside the initial statement. Likewise with the mighty Toccata and Fugue BWV 565: for over two minutes, Loussier plays (extremely well) exactly what Bach wrote; the jazzification is provided only by double bass and drums. At 2:04, just before the start of the fugue, Loussier starts syncopating the left-hand, then improvises on and over Bach with the same processes as in Prelude 2, while closely following score (again not one bar is skiped) and regularly returning to straight Bach. Prelude 8 is directly varied (and if I am not mistaken Bach’s 3/2 time signature is changed into a typical jazz 4/2), with an interesting sonic effect by percussionist using, if ears serve, tambourine in an obsessive ostinato. Prelude 5 is played straight (always drum and double bass), then interrupted by Loussier’s impro, and then resumed where it had stopped, until the end. Fugue 5 is played in its entirety but brilliantly improvised.
In fact, “improvisations” may not be an entirely appropriate word. None of this sounds as it had been invented on the spur of the moment during the recording sessions. Obviously it was carefully planned, written and rehearsed. So one should talk about Loussier’s “jazz variations” on Bach. I’ve updated Amazon’s product info on another of these Loussier CDs I tried to get Loussier credited as composer alongside Bach; that part was refused by Amazon, referencing him only as performer. Shows they haven’t listened.
Loussier’s jazz isn’t very radical and demanding. It is agreeable, cool, easy listening, which may be good for some listeners and frustrating for some others; I am somewhere in between. It is interesting also to compare some of the pieces recorded here and their remakes on the occasion of the 1965 live concert at the Theâtre des Champs-Elysées (Play Bach: Aux Champs-Elysees). Things are not always comparable. In the Prelude No. 2 from WTC, in the live concert Loussier plays only the first part, Bach straight with accompanying drum and double-bass, but no ensuing variation. But where Loussier 1965 does follow the wake of Loussier 1959, one can hear that he and his partners had had six years to mature, not so much their Bach as their Jazz. In the 1959 WTC Prelude 1 the jazz is more joyous and carefree, more big-band inspired, but less subtle and more superficial also. As good as the 1959 Toccata & Fugue is, the jazz in the 1965 remake is even better, and there is an great, outlandish drum impro in the middle adding three and a half minutes to its total time. And there’s the added kick of the live circumstances.
So the 1965 live concert is, I think, the best intro to the early Loussier. But Play Bach 1, despite its short TT, remains a highly enjoyable disc, recorded in fine 1959 stereo.
Christian Garros (drums)
Jacques Loussier (piano)
Pierre Michelot (bass)
01. Prelude N 1 en ut majeur 5.26
02. Fugue N 1 en ut majeur 5.03
03. Prelude N 2 en ut mineur 4.21
04. Fugue N 2 en ut mineur 2.48
05. Toccata & Fugue en re mineur 8.57
06. Prelude N 8 en re diese Mineur 4.57
07. Prelude N 5 en re majeur 1.55
08. Fugue N 5 en re majeur 1.50
Music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach