If you’ve been reading this blog for a while (or have explored its archives), or if you have ever seen my CD collection or my last.fm library, you may have noticed that I’m quite a fan of the music of Johann Sebastian “Mighty” Bach (bonus points if you pick up the literary reference there!) and also of jazz.
I have noticed quite often over the years how jazzy some of Bach’s music is. My favourite example is the opening of Prelude No. 1 in C (BWV846) from the 48. It basically consists of a bunch of broken chords but if you analyse the chord progression it is full of major sevenths and other chords that are usually more at home in a jazz setting than a classical one (in case you’re wondering, the first 8 bars are, ignoring inversions, C, Dm7, G7, C, Am, D7, G, Cmaj7).
It is, perhaps, therefore not surprising that several musicians over the years have sought to interpret Bach’s music in a more overtly jazzy style, nor that I enjoy listening to these jazz interpretations.
Quite probably the most famous is Jacques Loussier, a jazz pianist who devoted a large proportion of his career to playing jazz arrangements of Bach’s music. I have a compilation album drawn from several of his original albums on this theme, which I love listening to.
The only other album I have of explicitly Bach-inspired jazz is by the Modern Jazz Quartet and is entitled Blues on Bach. I have had this album for several years and played it quite a few times but only fairly recently noticed one particular feature of it. The album has 9 tracks, all based more-or-less closely on Bach’s works. Five of them have relatively whimsical titles that give some clue as to which piece they are built on (such as “Precious Joy”, which is a reworking of “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring”). The other four are entitled Blues in X, where X is the key of the blues. These are also based, fairly loosely, on Bach themes.
The keys are Bb (or B as it is called in German musical terminology), A minor, C minor and B (or H, as it appears in German) and the order of them, interspersed as they are between the other tracks, is no accident for – lo and behold! – they spell: BACH!
Incidentally, I’ve long harboured a suspicion that the German tradition of calling the notes B and H instead of Bb and B may have arisen from Bach wanting to be able to spell his own name musically, since the sequence A B H C D E F G (+ accidentals) seems considerably less logical than A B C D E F G (both in the placement of H out of sequence and the fact that that one should get its own name whereas other semitones have to be content with being called x-sharp or y-flat). However, I’ve been unable to discover any hard evidence one way or the other (such as attested use of the note names before Bach’s time). The Wikipedia article on musical notation doesn’t mention that possibility and indicates that the origin of the practice is unknown, suggesting it may be due to a resemblance between the letters b and h in Gothic script (see the article for quite a bit more detail).