When classical composers explore jazz, it is sometimes portrayed as a form of musical dress-up. Think of the jazz-tinged classical pieces of the 1920s: Ravel's Violin Sonata, Stravinsky's Ragtime, Milhaud's La creation du monde. But some historians and musicians increasingly believe that genuine creative fusions emerged from this era, many of which have yet to be discovered by a larger audience.
Alexandre Tharaud, a French pianist, has a particular fascination with the music that was performed at Le Boeuf Sur le Toit, a Right Bank cabaret founded by Jean Cocteau and Louis Moysés in 1921. It became the epicenter of cabaret society during the 1920s and a haunt for jazz musicians and classical composers. One could hear the pianist Jean Wiéner playing Bach, Clément Doucet vamping through Cole Porter, or Marianne Oswald singing the songs of Kurt Weill. Serge Diaghilev and Maurice Chevalier were regulars at the bar.
“From the opening night and many years, you could hear jazz in this cabaret-bar,” Tharaud explained. “They were long concerts – four or five hours all night.” In the WQXR Café, Tharaud opted for something more concise. He played Chopinata, one of several clever jazz tributes to classical works that Doucet wrote during this period.
All too often, this is music that gives classical pianists awful headaches as they struggle to deny all their training and play off the beat. But for Tharaud, a sense of swing may be in the genes. The pianist says his grandfather was a violinist who played both classical and jazz in Parisian concert halls and clubs during the 1920s.
This fall, Tharaud will release a recording devoted to music from the heyday of Le Boeuf Sur le Toit. He'll also perform a recital of more traditional piano literature on Carnegie Hall’s Distinctive Debuts series. For a pianist whose career has been centered mainly in Europe, and has recorded a series of major-label albums from Scarlatti and Bach to Chopin, Tharaud may be a revelation for New Yorkers.
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Interview: Terrance McKnight; Production & Text: Brian Wise