As the annual flood of holiday music pours in, much of it retreads of tired holiday classics, I’ve encountered a new album that evokes the Christmas spirit without meaning to, and in a really nice way – sophisticated and at the same time just plain lovely. The six members of the Meridian Arts Ensemble and a few guest musicians have issued a set of exquisite brass ensemble arrangements of Baroque and Renaissance music by some of the biggest names of their eras.
The opening “Gloria” by William Byrd, which features a vibraphone, feeds into a little piece by Don Carlo Gesualdo that manages in a very brief space to relay a good taste of the latter composer’s unique weirdness. There’s a quick fanfare from Orlando de Lassus, and a haunting Prelude by Corelli arranged for muted brass that gives it the feel of a Farfisa organ heard from another room. Elgar Howarth, a modern-day English composer I hadn’t been familiar with, contributes a piece marked as “after Dufay” that appropriately enough evokes the stark beauty of the very beginnings of devotional polyphony, yet sounds modern.
A stirring Sonata by Giovanni Gabrieli exemplifies the dynamic range the Meridian has at its command. The second half of the album features more Corelli and two works from the endlessly fascinating canon of J.S. Bach, the latter with the tone of what sounds like a Baroque trumpet and the return of the vibraphone and other percussion.
These offer a reminder of how mutably compositions were treated in Bach’s day. New, modern arrangements, even involving instruments the composer never imagined, continue to be welcome and enlightening centuries later in the era of Miley Cyrus. While it may not be traditional holiday fare, Alchemy goes back to traditions a good deal older than Frosty the Snowman, ones that endure through all seasons.
Ensemble themes and exposed passages, harmony and counterpoint – the group maintains a sensitive, intelligent touch and beautiful balance and tone right through to the Bach “Contrapunctus” that closes the album with a dynamic chorale of pure brass. And Bach is the subject of another new album of adaptations. There’s not a hint of brass on Bach XXI from the Matt Herskowitz Trio and violinist Philippe Quint. The album is a set of fascinating jazz settings of well-known Bach works, the kind of skilled re-imaginings that make me smile, however they might have nonplussed old Johann Sebastian himself.
The trio subtly jazzifies the lilting but distinctly non-swinging cadences of the “Prelude” of the Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, rocking the familiar melody against gently syncopated rhythms, then puffing it out into lyrical piano and violin solos before building to a dramatic sunburst.
The carol-like “Sheep May Safely Graze” from Cantata No. 208 is appropriately pastoral, the soft good-time sound of Quint’s violin calling to mind the expressivity of Stéphane Grappelli. Substitutions cruise under the theme in an especially creative coda.
Herskowitz uses space and high- and low-register atmospherics to construct an adaptation of the Violin Concerto in A minor, which comes out a bit rhythmically monotonous and thus doesn’t work quite as well as the others. Perhaps the theme with its unchanging bass note was a little too challenging to jazz up colorfully even for Herskowitz’s enormous talent.
Cloudy atmospherics introduce an intriguing modern-classical take on the “Duetto No. 1 in E minor,” a piece I didn’t recognize. It features inventive piano and violin work and a series of exciting jazz transitions as it builds to a finale with a burst of what feels almost like progressive rock.
A peaceful setting of a selection from the Goldberg Variations feels like pure Bach until halfway through, when Herskowitz begins working in jazz changes and unexpected accents. I wonder what Glenn Gould would have thought, never mind Johann Sebastian. A sharp-edged tango-tinted English Suite adaptation closes the album with free-jazz energy – a little bit Ornette Coleman, a little bit Elliott Carter, a lot of fiery fun.
Herskowitz’s piano work is especially affecting in a passionate selection from the St. Matthew Passion. An improvisatory-sounding section sustains the harmonies and moods of the source. In the same way, the exaggerated jumpiness of his take on the Double Violin Concerto in D minor, featuring Lara St. John on second violin and boiled along by the excellent rhythm section of Mat Fieldes (bass) and David Rozenblatt (drums), sets off Bach’s melodies and counterpoint nicely.
There and elsewhere Herskowitz calls on various world music and cultural traditions – Latin, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Harlem Renaissance – to deepen the flavors and textures of the music. But while the album does repay close listening, it doesn’t require a studious approach.
Bach continues to delight and awe us, whether played straight or skewed. Herskowitz’s arrangements and his small ensemble’s performances get very much into the spirit of the pieces, and this is a joy to hear – a joy to the world, you could even say – that gives the recordings the flavor of live performances.
Bach XXI should appeal to classical music aficionados as well as jazz fans and lovers of crafty and well-crafted music of all kinds. Together with the Meridian Arts Ensemble’s Alchemy, it would make a fine holiday gift or soundtrack.