Bach, Brahms and Brad

A pianist asks: Why aren't there more improvisers in classical music?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011 - 11:28 AM

Brad Mehldau, that is. The music of the jazz pianist/Carnegie Hall-commissioned composer entered my ipod world through his interpretation of Radiohead’s Exit Music. I was immediately struck by how lyrical and intricate his sound was and have been a fan ever since. When I heard Mehldau was presenting a solo piano recital on January 26 at Zankel hall of his own works, interspersed with repertoire by Bach, Brahms, Faure and pop and jazz transcriptions, I wondered, what was he going to do with “those” guys?

But Mehldau is hardly the first jazz pianist who has crossed over to the classical side. Scott Joplin’s first piano teacher was a German-Jewish music professor who taught Joplin classical music and opera. Some even speculate that Joplin’s ragtime tunes were influenced by polka rhythm which he learned to play with his German teacher. Fast forward almost half a century later, Herbie Hancock performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony at the age of eleven. Keith Jarrett comes to mind as another notable classically-influenced jazz pianist. The young Jarrett gave his first formal piano recital at the age of seven, playing works by Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. He has since then recorded several albums of strictly classical repertoire and composed in the classical style.

With my own classical piano background, I was both curious and a little anxious to see how and why my favorite jazz pianist was going to approach Bach and Brahms. Would his classical playing be convincing? I held my breath. At the beginning of the concert, Mehldau asked the audience to listen with three words in mind: interpreter, improviser and composer. He paired each of the five Brahms short pieces (from Op. 76 and 79) and two of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue (from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I) with his own compositions. After each pair, he briefly explained to us some of the specific elements that inspired his own improvisation: harmonic components, rhythmic motifs, and voicing of the melodies.

Meldau played Brahms with a sensitive touch, fluid motions, and a beautiful tone; his Bach was contemplative and had very clear voicing. His own compositions that immediately followed shared the same keys, tempos and moods, sometimes even borrowed specific melodic fragments from Bach and Brahms. Furthermore, Mehldau’s own music possesses a thick, chordal texture that is signature of the Brahmsian style. I could clearly hear the contrapuntal voices in his improvisation inspired by Bach.

Improvisation used to be a big part of the Western classical tradition. Somewhere along the way it got lost. But isn’t this what Bach, Mozart and Chopin used to do? They'd take a melody they liked, improvise on it and one of those improvisations happened to be written down. Improvising on a melody is, in many ways, interpreting the melody. Today, jazz improvisers and classical performers are world apart. That night I saw those two worlds overlap. Mehldau performed the Bach and Brahms exactly as they are on printed pages, and then he showed us how he understood it through his own improvisation.

Mehldau finished the evening with "My Favorite Things" and Jeff Buckley’s "Dream Brother." But my favorite things of the evening were the graceful ways he played the C-sharp minor fugue by Bach and then seamlessly slid into his own cerebral improvisation; or his rather indulgent Brahms followed by a very poignant song of his own. Through his interpretation and improvisation I now hear Bach and Brahms in a completely new way I have never thought of before. It reminded me the first time someone showed me how well wine and dark chocolate taste together—the wine is finely aged and smooth, the chocolate is rich, indulgent and not too sweet. The flavor of the former influences and lingers in the latter. Hearing a "non-classical" piece gave me an extra layer of appreciation of music I already knew.

Weigh in: Is there room for improvisation in the world of classical music? 


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Comments [6]

Silversalty from Brooklyn

I only just remembered one of Bill McGlaughlin's Saint Paul Sunday shows that I really enjoyed, featuring pianist Stephen Prutsman.

The links -

The whole show is excellent but check Prutsman's own compositions.

"Tannery Pond" @30:10 and "Dog" @38:25

The times are loose in that they may vary with the means of accessing the audio.

Feb. 21 2011 08:41 PM
Michael Meltzer

Pianists in Beethoven's day were more often composers than not, and as part of usual concert agenda, improvisation was REQUIRED.

Feb. 14 2011 06:50 AM
Sharon Fenlon

This is a fascinating question - I am not familiar with Brad Mehldau, but will be on the lookout for classical performers who "stretch" the genre. It's a provocative topic.

Feb. 13 2011 07:44 PM
Pat Marafiote from Weston, CT

Nice write up of that event. I also braved the weather that night and trekked in from CT to see my favorite jazz pianist.

I come at it from the "other side of the tracks" as a jazz musician. Brad's program, and his between piece lectures, showed how he was approaching his craft as interpreter, improvisor, and composer, and not as jazz guy or a classical guy.

His discussion of how to bring forward secondary melodies in LH voices helped me better understand how much freedom the classical interpreter has in his craft despite the absence of improvisation.

One of my favorite pieces that evening was his improvisions on the Beatles classic Martha My Dear. For readers looking for a sample of his work, I suggest viewing this on YouTube:

Brad's performance that night was incredibly inspirational and well worth getting stuck in a couple of feet of snow when I got back to Fairfield County!

Feb. 13 2011 02:53 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

It's too bad you don't have any video or audio to include, but anyway..

Your post seems too good to leave without comment. It's a shame that I'm the one to make one since I've so little knowledge of music. None - of its fundamentals.

First, to your question, "Is there room for improvisation in the world of classical music?"

Probably not much.

Just look at the comments in the play lists to see the sense of orthodoxy that exists. I think it would take a performer of such brilliance and charisma that few would dare question or challenge the improvisations - changes to the orthodox. Horowitz? Pavarotti?

In a small sense Gould did but he was so involved in his own orthodoxies that his improvisations meant little, unless one considers his enlightenment of Bach as an improvisation. I was recently told about Gould transcribing for piano some of Wagner's work, including creating four handed pieces that he played both parts of, combining the recordings. Trivial, and as I get the sense of some of Gould, meant more for attention than serious consideration.

Consider the Gould-Bernstein "tempi" to-do.

The video on the great pianists of the 20th century that I looked at recently included Georges Cziffra who apparently was also a jazz pianist. Did he mix the genres? Undoubtedly. Did he dare mix them in a concert hall?

The Cziffra section begins at 33:09. Watch the comments beginning at 34:33 and the amazing playing that follows.

Certainly Gershwin mixed the genres. Ever check some of the comments when one of his pieces is played?

There's a piece by Satie called "Le Piccadilly" that I've recently listened to. It's described as a "march" but to my ear it sounds more like a rag.

I'm looking at extensions of a genre rather than 'on the spot' live improvisations. But then one is probably based on the other. One is an evolution while the other is a spark that drives the evolution, so not that different in terms of consideration.

[Hey! Someone beat me to commenting while I was "composing." :)]

Feb. 11 2011 07:23 PM
Frank Feldman

I bet he'll do something quite a bit more interesting than Chrisopher O'Riley!

Feb. 11 2011 07:00 PM

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