Off-Ramp

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Peter Stenshoel reviews Bach Humbug! Or Jazz Goes Baroque by George Gruntz

54090 full
54090 full

Harpsichord as a jazz instrument? Why not? 

This terrific album of European jazz was tossed into the American slipstream and my family was there to lap it up. My guess is it was the success of The Swingle Singers' Bach's Greatest Hits that emboldened Phillips to try out Bach Humbug! in the United States market.

As the title suggests, no music by Bach is used, but Bach's contemporaries and somewhat earlier composers are mined to wonderful effect. Clearly, George Gruntz, the arranger/harpsichordist, had a good understanding of baroque music. He mixed jazz improvisation into these classical works with a natural grace and, at times, joyous abandon. Klaus Doldinger's soprano sax and clarinet, and Emil Mangelsdorff's flute are full of vitality yet also respect the material.

On a personal note, it has been fascinating to listen this disc after a 40-year hiatus. As the tunes play, I hear voices from days long ago. For example, Mom, a high school flautist, praises one of the flute pieces in particular. Brother David digs Pachelbel's "Ciacona F-Moll," with its funky ostinato. Dad responds to the minor-into-major strains of William Byrd's Pavana on "The Earl of Salisbury," which is this week's sample.

Finally, I can testify to the unexpected power of jazz played on harpsichord. In the early 70s, I encountered a beautifully-maintained harpsichord in a stately British manor, Hothorpe Hall, just begging to be played. I plopped down and played Frank Zappa's "King Kong," but before long, I heard a howl of protest, followed by a stream of angry words in a Germanic tongue. Apparently, I was profaning the instrument, according to an elderly European gentleman there for a conference of the Lutheran World Federation. 

George Gruntz, born in Basel, Switzerland, was a mainstay of the international jazz scene, and he worked with a number of the United States' finest jazz musicians. He died January 10th, 2013.

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