Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 7: Remarks by Stephen A. Crist (Emory University), performance by George Barnes and the Jazz Renaissance Quintet
The instruments heard in the Tiny Bach Concerts so far have included harpsichord, organ, and 18th-century square piano, and in the most recent episode, the traverso, or transverse flute. That is, of course, entirely unsurprising for music that originated in the 1700s. But the instrument in the spotlight of this installment is the electric guitar. Let me explain. Like musicians from many different traditions, jazz musicians have frequently been attracted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. About 25 years ago, I was surprised to learn that the famous jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck considered Bach to be his favorite composer, an unexpected connection that I explored in print. And the most recent volume of Bach Perspectives, published by the University of Illinois Press for the American Bach Society, includes an essay in which I consider the Modern Jazz Quartet's engagement with Bach's music, culminating in their 1974 album Blues on Bach.
George Barnes, whose arrangement of Bach's organ fugue in G minor, BWV 542, is featured in this Tiny Bach Concert, is not as well known as Dave Brubeck, or the Modern Jazz Quartet. He was born in Chicago in 1921, and as a teenager in the late 1930s, Barnes was the first electric guitarist to make a commercial recording with the blues singer Big Bill Broonzy. After military service during World War II, Barnes returned to Chicago. He later moved east and became a first-call guitarist in the recording studios of New York City. Barnes played on his own recordings, but he also worked with many famous musicians in a wide variety of styles: Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Sam Cooke, and Bob Dylan, to name just a few. In the mid-1970s, Barnes moved to Concord, California, in the Bay Area (and coincidentally, the birthplace of Dave Brubeck) to establish a guitar studio. Sadly, just a couple of years later, he died of a heart attack at the age of 56.
In recent years, Barnes's daughter, Alexandra Barnes Leh, has been working to consolidate her father's legacy, and to make his work more widely known. We're very grateful to her for making this Bach Barnes recording available. As the story goes, George Barnes had heard the flamboyant organist, Virgil Fox, play Bach's fugue in G minor, and this inspired him to explore it with his Jazz Renaissance Quintet. Just 59 years ago, in late February of 1962, Barnes entered a studio in New York City and made this recording. It's not difficult to understand what's going on. Each line of this four-voice fugue was played by a different musician in the quintet. First, Barnes himself plays the fugue subject on a special instrument that he had designed for the guitar company Guild Guitars. You'll hear him on the guitar in F, pitched four notes higher than the standard range. The second instrument to enter is the clarinet, played by Hank D'Amico. Next comes a standard-sized electric guitar, played by Bucky Pizzarelli. The fourth and final fugal entry is assigned to Jack Lesberg on the bass. The fifth member of the quintet is Cliff Leeman on the drums, which are difficult to hear on this recording, but present in the background. Here's the opening of Barnes's arrangement of Bach's fugue, in which you can hear all of the instruments enter in turn.
This is the only classical recording Barnes ever made. He had hoped that this demo track would entice Mercury Records to produce a whole album along these lines, but the decision-makers at the label felt that it was too esoteric, so it didn't become available until about 10 years ago. Barnes's sound, generally speaking, has been described as a "light-hearted melodic swing style," and he is known for his vital and well-articulated improvisations. Even though no improvisation is involved in Barnes's fugue—the musicians play exactly the notes that Bach notated—his light and airy approach, with lots of staccato notes, is very much in evidence.
If it seems unusual that a pioneer of the electric guitar should play Bach on that instrument, let me introduce you to a present-day musician who did something similar just a few weeks ago. Rick Lollar is a fabulous jazz guitarist based here in Atlanta. He recently made a Facebook video of himself, playing the first half of the Courante from Bach's Partita in B minor for solo violin, BWV 1002. And I'm happy to share it with you now.
After I viewed this performance, I told Rick that I'd love to hear his thoughts about why he as a jazz musician gravitated towards Bach, especially during this pandemic moment. I was curious to know what it is about Bach's music that he finds so attractive. I'd like to end my remarks by quoting Rick's eloquent and illuminating reply, which vividly captures some of the magic of the interplay between the worlds of Bach and jazz, and which serves as a bridge to our featured recording by George Barnes and the Jazz Renaissance Quintet.
Rick said, "I've been fascinated by Bach for about as long as I've been fascinated by jazz. Plenty of folks have investigated the degree to which Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were pulling from Bach as they developed the bebop language. So in that way, a jazz musician can't avoid the influence if they tried. But beyond that, the music is the height of both mathematical elegance and artistic beauty. Applying it to the guitar forces you to play the entire instrument, every inversion of every chord in every position. It's obviously a technical challenge just to play the notes. But it seems to pull an expressiveness for me that I strive to achieve when improvising. When the pandemic hit, and my year of tour dates vanished. I immediately revisited my old friend, the Presto from Bach's Violin Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001. I've been trying to play it since college and haven't been able to nail it yet. But in trying, I was able to get into a kind of meditative state. I wasn't feeling very creative at the time, but it really helped to play some of the most beautiful music ever written."
Thank you. Enjoy the recording.