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With 'Preludes,' Adam Birnbaum brings Bach into a new field of play

Jacob Blickenstaff

Adam Birnbaum is a jazz pianist of sensitive touch and lucid insight, with a set of accomplishments befitting the top echelon of players in his generation. Twenty years ago, he was among the first graduates of Julliard’s prestigious new jazz studies program. Not long afterward, he won both the American Jazz Piano Competition and the American Pianists Awards. He can be heard on a fine array of albums, including Dynamic Maximum Tension, a new barnburner by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society.

But Birnbaum, now in his mid-40s, maintains a fairly modest profile on the scene, which is probably a reflection of his personality. A Steinway artist and an assistant professor of jazz at SUNY Purchase, he has a self-effacing streak that surfaces readily in conversation — including this recent interview about Preludes, his exquisite new trio album, based on the first half of J.S. Bach’s canonical Well-Tempered Clavier.


I’d like to start by asking about your history with the Well-Tempered Clavier. It sounds like you encountered it quite young.

Yes. We had a piano around the house, and my parents would play different stuff. So I used to just kind of pick out things by ear, and sometimes it was classical, sometimes it was jazz, sometimes it was a Beatles tune. I learned to read music a little bit later, and I had a really great classical music teacher, starting around age 8, who forced me to read and learn repertoire. I’m super thankful for that, because I was not learning to read at that point. He introduced me to the Well-Tempered Clavier, and said something about how it was the Bible for him — where all music starts and ends. A lot of people feel that way about Bach. There’s something kind of universal about it. So I guess I've had that music running through my mind for a long time, and a lot of these pieces I chose are very widely known. I mean the C-major prelude — even people that know nothing about music would probably recognize that piece. So I thought that if you took those pieces and reinterpreted them, there’s such a wide audience of people who get where you’re coming from. And if you mess around with it, they can kind of follow what you’re doing. It’s basically like a standard, I guess, in a more universal way than a Cole Porter tune.

I read a recent concert review of Jeremy Denk performing the Well-Tempered Clavier in the Guardian, in which the critic, Flora Willson, characterizes the piece as “part compositional brain teaser, part circuit training for performers.” I thought that was a lovely description. Does it ring true for you?

I’m not really a historian, but I do know that Bach was a great teacher, and he liked to leave puzzles and games for his students. These pieces were written as exercises in all 12 keys, because that was a new concept. But more than that, I imagine that he thought of them as exercises more than grand musical works. Like, “Here’s a little idea,” and they each use a different device or technical thing. They're not ètudes in that sense, but I think he designed them sort of as practice pieces more than some of his more complex works. Now, I’m referring here to the preludes. The fugues are incredibly intricate — and I that's why I didn't touch them. I would have no idea what to change with the fugues. But the preludes, they're just kind of suggestions, in a way, and they’re so open-ended, I imagine that he improvised them originally, and what he wrote down is just kind of an approximation of this thing he came up with. We know that Bach was an improviser, so I imagine that every time he sat down and started with something, there were probably a million ways he could go from there. It may be an arpeggio that he just moves around through different harmonic areas. I think of them as improvisatory sketches.

Yet we tend to approach them today as if they’re etched in stone.  There’s something very fixed and exalted about these pieces. What do you make of that shift?

I definitely feel that classical music got in a rut in certain ways, where we forgot that some of it was improvised and more spontaneous to begin with, and actually performed more like jazz, in a way, at informal salon concerts in people’s houses. So I think Baroque music has a kind of direct tie to jazz — and especially Bach, because he didn’t write dynamics and tempo markings and phrasing markings. He just wrote the notes; not even a tempo. So he left a lot open to interpretation, compared to, say, Brahms or other people who give so many specifics. Frankly, even at great conservatories right now, we have a divide where the jazz musicians learn harmony and how to improvise, and the classical musicians learn pieces by rote. I think that’s a problem. I feel like there should be much more of a breakdown of the barrier — that classical musicians should all improvise, and jazz musicians should learn classical repertoire. I mean, it’s all music.

Right.

So my idea was: there have been many attempts to play Bach in a jazz style, and lots of them are great. Some of them are not my thing — but he’s just so universal that hundreds if not thousands of people have felt the need to try to reimagine him. This might be corny, but as this project developed I started to feel like it has a unique place in the history of all these attempts to bridge the gap between these two worlds.

You mentioned some of those prior attempts, and one of the best-known is what John Lewis did with the Modern Jazz Quartet. I have to imagine that you first encountered that a long time ago. Did it speak to you in a certain way? 

I mean, the MJQ is an incredible barrier-breaking group, in the sense they were able to bring jazz into a new light. They wore tuxedos, they played in fancy venues, and they sort of showed people that this music can exist on an equal level to classical music. But John Lewis didn’t dumb it down. He found a way to take the conceptual elements of Bach but play swing music and blues, with a contrapuntal element to the arrangements. And there was a thoughtful way that he structured the ensemble more like a chamber group. So yeah, I love the MJQ. My album probably doesn't sound much like that, but I think he managed to take the essence of what Bach is — compared to, say, Jacques Loussier, who just kind of played the notes that Bach wrote, with a swing beat behind it. To me, that’s not as inventive a way of approaching it.

In your arrangements, you’re true to the spirit and even the harmonic structure of the preludes, and most of your outward reinventions have to do with rhythm. There are pieces on this album in 7/8 meter; there are pieces in 11. With that asymmetrical pulse, you’re able to modernize the feeling of these pieces. Was that the intention?

One of the unique things about Bach’s music, especially these pieces, is the perpetual motion. A lot of them start, and then they don’t stop. They just go all the way, in whatever groove or rhythm that’s it in. And that’s also something very similar to jazz. We usually play in a groove that doesn’t budge. But I just thought, there’s two ways you can go. You can try to reinvent that in a swing context — and like I said, the MJQ figured out a great way to do that — or you could keep the straight eighth notes. And in modern jazz, most of the grooves are straight eighth-notes; we don’t play as much straight-ahead swing, although I love to do that, too. But for this music, I thought, rather than force it into swing, which felt a little unnatural, I could take a straight-eighth note approach, and by dropping a beat here or there, I could automatically modernize it without really having to change the harmony. Because Bach writes very, very clear harmonic structures. So you’re right: most of the time we’re just improvising over the chords he wrote. I didn’t try to fancy up what he wrote; just kept his harmony and put a different groove on it, basically, and opened it up to improvise.

And you have the right trio for that, starting with Matt Clohesy, your rhythm partner in Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society; the two of you have a deep hookup. And then Keita Ogawa is an inspired choice as your percussionist, because of the lightness that he brings, and all of the texture he’s able to deploy, almost like some kind of magician.

Jacob Blickenstaff

Matt Clohesy is one of my favorite bassists in the world. Incredibly strong player, great time, can play in a variety of styles with equal authenticity. I also like that he plays not only jazz but also blues and rock gigs and can rock out on electric, so he is sort of the perfect foil to the delicacy of doing a record of classical music covers in that he brings that other type of energy to the music. And I’ve worked with Keita in a bunch of different situations, and I know how great and versatile he is. Usually when I work with him, it’s a band with percussion and drums, you know. But for this project I didn’t really want to have a full-on jazz drum sound, because it’s more of a chamber-music thing. So I wanted something subtle, that would leave a little more space, and so naturally I thought of Keita. I knew he would be a great fit. And yeah, he just kind of brought magic. You know, it may look like I arranged these pieces, but honestly, I just took what Bach wrote, and then gave it to Keita, and the magic is sort of what he did with the groove.

So you would say, “Alright, I’m feeling this shape in 7, or in 11, here’s the cadence.” And then the trio would kind of materialize the actual groove and the arrangement?

Yeah, exactly. And it would change. I mean, for the E-flat minor prelude, he actually played two completely different grooves for two takes on the recording. And I had a really hard time picking, because I really liked both of them.

Is there any other prelude that you want to point to as an especially tricky puzzle? And this may be a separate answer, but are there some where you’re really proud of the shape that it took?

The ones in 11 — that’s a groove that I don’t play in as often. And there’s a bunch of Bach stuff in 12/8. And I thought about it; you could try to make that a traditional sort of Afro-Cuban 12/8 groove, but that felt a little corny to me. So I settled on this idea of kind of dropping a beat. That’s on the D minor, and then the G major. So that was a bit of a challenge — especially the G major, ‘cause it’s pretty fast. When we perform this, usually the C minor prelude is one that people really like. There’s one thing I do in there that seems to be popular. We start off very open, and then at some point I start playing the left-hand pattern and then improvising in the right hand over that. I had to practice that a lot because it’s hard to maintain this really fast moving stream of sixteenth notes while improvising with the other hand, but eventually I was able to figure out ways to displace the rhythm and play some stuff over that. That was more in the jazz idiom. People tend to really enjoy that when they hear it.

And that’s such a great illustration, because not only is it an obvious expression of virtuosity, but it’s also literalizing the dialogue between the source material and the improvisatory gesture — one hand and the other expressing these two different ideas.

Exactly.

In your experience performing this, have you encountered audiences who are really familiar with the Well-Tempered Clavier but don’t really understand improvisation? Has your performance practice helped to demystify or illuminate the improvisation in a way?

Yeah, I think so. The label that I’m working with, Chelsea Music Festival Records, it actually started off as a concert, where they invited me to do a version of this same thing a few years back, I think in 2018. So that was the first time I performed it. I think we did seven or eight preludes at the time, and that’s mostly a classical audience, but they’re open-minded, because that festival does a lot of collaborative stuff. They like to break down a lot of the walls between different genres. So their audience is used to hearing and being surprised by different stuff. But that was the first audience where I saw that there is something unique for classical audiences who have heard these pieces. I don’t want to say it was revelatory, because that sounds arrogant, but they seemed to really enjoy hearing this take on it. And honestly, I know that for jazz musicians, some of them will dig this, some of them won’t pay attention. Which is OK. I really think this has more of a universal appeal to audiences. And we’re actually right now looking at booking it in some chamber festivals and non-traditional jazz venues. And I think that’s probably ultimately where this project will end up being most successful.

Some of your peers are also doing this outreach; Brad Mehldau and Dan Tepfer have both had success interpreting Bach. I wanted to ask about the difference between your approach and theirs, because in most cases, they perform the piece as written, faithfully, and then offer an extemporization. So you can hear the A/B comparison, which is not something you chose to do here. 

With Brad, I mean, what are you gonna say? He’s an absolute genius, and his Bach record, After Bach, is incredible. But I guess, conceptually, the starting point is the original Bach work, and he really takes that super far into his own world of incredible modern harmony. I know that I can’t do that. So I think part of my path to finding my identity is recognizing what it is that I do that’s unique. And so I would say humbly, I think I’m more of a straight-ahead jazz musician who likes to kind of tinker around with different possibilities. And so I’m taking these more literally, as standards, and just playing over the tunes in a more direct and probably less creative way, in terms of how faithfully I’m sticking to the original harmony that Bach wrote, for the most part.

Yeah.

And with Dan, it’s a similar thing, right? He takes a very modern approach to showing the Bach work and then doing something incredible with complex, very modern harmony that is built off of the seeds of the original Bach work. So I guess, compared to them, what I’m doing is more direct. I’m taking that work and making it into a jazz piece rather than sort of transforming it into something totally different. That’s just my personality. I don’t tend to elaborate over complicated things. For me, the simplest path just makes the most sense. So let’s just take those chord changes and see what we can do with them.

Keita Ogawa, Adam Birnbaum and Matt Clohesy
Jacob Blickenstaff
Keita Ogawa, Adam Birnbaum and Matt Clohesy, the trio on Birnbaum's 'Preludes'

In your liner notes, you invoke bebop as the model, as if you’re blowing over Bach’s changes. It really makes the musical result feel that much more organically like a jazz piano trio record, with a crucial twist.

Yeah, I guess that was kind of the goal.

Was this a one-off for you, or has it opened up a portal to other things that you want to do?

I’m going to let this one settle and see where it lands. But I feel like my next album might be more of a straight-ahead jazz thing. I don’t know that I’m going to devote myself exclusively to playing covers of classical music. But I’ve done projects like this in the past, a concert where I improvised on Scriabin, which was actually not even my idea. I think it’s hard to bridge the gap between the two worlds in a way that’s faithful to both. It’s definitely a challenge to do this well, and I don’t think it works with all classical music equally.

Well, it definitely works on this album. So again, congratulations. 

Thank you so much.


Adam Birnbaum’s Preludes will be released on Friday; preorder here. Birnbaum performs on Friday at the Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, Conn.; on Saturday at Scullers in Boston; and on Monday at Mezzrow in New York.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.