Pianist/composer Jacques Loussier has been swinging the classics for more than four decades now—ever since he formed the Play Bach Trio in the late '50s, when the union of his classical background with his interest in jazz created a remarkable success story. The trio toured extensively, selling over six million albums in fifteen years, and then disbanded.
In 1985, the Bach tercentenary prompted Loussier to reform his trio with two new members and return to his jazzy spin on the classics. For Telarc, his first two recordings were reinterpretations of baroque music: Jacques Loussier Plays Bach (CD-83411); and Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD-83417). He then expanded the trio's musical language with recordings of music by the French composers Satie, Ravel, and Debussy.
For his latest Telarc project, Baroque Favorites (CD-83516), Loussier and his talented partners—bassist Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac and drummer Andre Arpino—have tackled some of today's most widely heard and popular Baroque classics. And therein, according to Loussier, lay the challenge—to maintain the essence of the music and still bring something new to his arrangements. "These pieces are so well known, and several of them are very simple," he says, referring especially to the enormously popular Canon in D by Pachelbel and the Adagio for Strings by Albinoni. "The spirit of each piece had to be kept. For every piece, one must find an idea and a solution. I may have lots of choices—lots of ideas—but only one will be the right one, the one that will be in good taste, and maintain the integrity of the original score."
Many of these works were originally scored for strings, and translating the sound of a small string orchestra to piano, bass and drums presented real hurdles. "The sound of the piano is shorter and more percussive than the strings," says Loussier. "I had to find ways to work around that in these pieces." The repetitive structure of the Pachelbel allows Loussier and his virtuosic bass player, de Segonzac, to trade the melody and bass lines in a delicious interplay of sounds and ideas. In the Albinoni, similarly constructed with a repetitive harmonic framework, Arpino provides a lively beat in the central section that tempts Loussier to some sassy improvisation.
The disc opens and closes with sparkling works by George Frideric Handel. Loussier admits that the opening work, the Sarabande from Suite No. 11, is one of his favorites, where the format of theme and four variations allows him plenty of scope for invention. After a simple statement of the theme, Loussier takes full advantage of the form, employing a mixture of gentle swing, walking bass lines, syncopated piano chords, and a persuasive Latin beat from drummer Arpino to bring the variations to life.
For the relatively unfamiliar second selection on the disc, "La sonnerie de Sainte Genevieve du Mont," by Marin Marais, Loussier found a brilliant "solution." "I was looking at the score, and I was really wondering what to do with it," says Loussier. "It was too simple in one way; too complicated in another. Then I thought, 'How would it be in 5/4?'" The result is a spontaneous and witty simulation of Dave Brubeck's "Take 5"—such a simple and natural marriage of ideas that it almost seems as though the piece was meant to be performed that way.
Two delightfully contrasting sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti are included on this disc. In the first, the lyrical Sonata No. 33 in B minor, Loussier keeps his arrangement simple, in a slow, cool swing. He shows off his classical "chops" in the typically rapid scale passages that open and close Sonata No. 32 in F-sharp minor, surrounding a central section with the bass and drums playing a fast Latin beat.
Parts of Marcello's three-movement Concerto in D Minor for Oboe and Orchestra also display a distinctly South American flavor. The first movement, after a straightforward opening with a walking bass line, breaks into a lively bossa nova. In the Adagio, Loussier and de Segonzac once again trade melody and bass lines. The final movement calls for virtuoso playing from all three members of the trio, with fast scale passages for the piano, and bass and drum solos in the middle of the movement.
Two other Handel works round out the disc: the popular "Largo" from Xerxes, and the Concerto in F Major for Organ, in five movements. Loussier takes center stage in the first movement of the concerto with a solo piano improvisation. In the middle of the second movement Allegro, Arpino lays out an extended percussion solo over a distinctive Latin rhythm in the piano and bass. In the fourth movement Larghetto, de Segonzac's solo lines are imbued with an almost Eastern flavor. The final Allegro is fast-paced but easy, and is a showcase for Loussier's improvisatory skills in a solo piano "cadenza."