Sandy Burnett - Playing on the Book

Sandy Burnett - Playing on the Book

Sandy Burnett reflects on Johann Sebastian Bach’s creative practice, and the opportunities and challenges that emerge from taking chorale melodies as the starting point for contemporary jazz improvisations.

Between 1997 and 2010 I was engaged in a massive labour of love at St Michael and All Angels in West London’s Bedford Park masterminding a complete performing cycle of Johann Sebastian Bach’s surviving sacred cantatas. On Wednesday 21st June 2017, I’ll be returning to St Michael’s for a slightly different Bach date at the Bedford Park Festival; it will sound, in places, a bit like this:

That’s David Gordon and me arranging, and rearranging, phrases from the Lutheran chorale Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, made famous in Bach’s cantata BWV 140. David is an absolutely brilliant keyboard player and composer, and we’ve been working a fair bit together in the last couple of years, sometimes in chamber music and on baroque dates, sometimes in jazz club settings.  The fact that we both do a fairly unusual ‘double of classical and improvised jazz playing means he’s a great creative partner to have on board in this project.  There’s more detail about the harmonic approaches we’re trying out in that video at the end of this article – scroll down if you can’t wait. 

For the moment, though, back to the Bedford Park cantata cycle, which was an amazing and inspiring experience. There were two really important things that I took away from it which I’m seeking to explore further this time round. 

The first is how hugely important chorales, or Lutheran hymn tunes, were in Bach’s creative practice.  These seemingly simple melodies were at the heart of so much that Bach did on so many different levels, whether it was using them as simple teaching material, expanding them to form the structural pillars of so many of those wonderful movements that open his cantatas, or exploring their harmonic possibilities with a relentless energy and amazing musical imagination. For me, it’s this refusal to settle for the easy answer that sets Bach apart from the rest as a composer.  For example, isn’t it amazing what he does with O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden in the Matthew Passion? He features the chorale five times as the drama unfolds, the chordal colouring of the hymn tune darkening with every successive appearance. Quite apart from the spiritual power it brings, just from the musical point of view, as a later generation might put it, Bach really shows himself to be king of the reharm.

And the second is to do with time. The sacred music of the cantatas and Passions works strikingly on two levels.  We get passages of scripture quoted directly or indirectly, rooting the works in the Biblical era, while the recitatives and arias comment on the Gospel story from the early eighteenth-century point of view, reflecting on what the Christian message means to Bach’s Leipzig Lutherans. In other words, it’s a two-fold structure of historical statement followed by contemporary reflection. This got me thinking about whether we could do something similar as improvisers:  presenting a selection of Bach’s motets as is, and following them with improvised musical reflections from our own present-day perspective.

In the case of the largest motet, we’re actually going to interpolate a couple of new movements of our own. There’s some evidence that the magnificent Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227 was put together from movements written at different times, so I’m taking that as a chance to interpolate two new improvised chorale reflections of our own into the original.

What will our instrumental improvisations sound like?  As well as drawing on jazz rhythms and harmonies – there’ll be plenty of that - David and I have also been looking into what we know about how musicians used to improvise pre-Bach, in medieval and Renaissance times. Musicologists such as Rob C. Wegman for example have done some fascinating research into music making in the fifteenth century, a time when counterpoint in Northern Europe wasn’t just a written down thing.  There was an oral tradition of discant, or improvising melodic lines alongside a cantus firmus; one account mentions that for singers to be booked at Cambrai Cathedral they needed to brush up on their improvising.  Clearly it was a key skill to be able to ‘sing upon the book’, or cantare super librum.

Which leads us back to our arrangement – or rearrangement, or possibly derangement? – of the Wachet auf chorale.

·  Phrase one – this is a standard jazz reharmonisation of the tune in the top line of the piano.

·  Phrase two – the double bass plays the melody as a bass line, with the piano harmonising over it along the lines of figured bass.

·  Phrase three – David takes the melody as the top voice of the piano’s left hand chords; we then repeat and develop this, perhaps rather as Bach does in his chorale preludes.

· And phrase four finds the melody once again in the left hand of the piano, while both double bass and the piano right hand improvise on fixed intervals from the chorale. This is an idea we’ve taken from fifteenth-century contrapuntal practice, where the bass, or in fact the contratenor bassus, uses notes which are usually either a third or a fifth away from the melody. 

So procedures like that will probably find their way into our performance on Wednesday 21st of June.  Then again, they might not. Why not come along and find out?

Bach motets, jazz reflections is at 7:30pm on Wednesday 21st June 2017 at St Michael and All Angels, Bath Road London W4 1TT, as part of the Bedford Park Festival 2017

About Sandy Burnett:

Sandy enjoys a varied career that embraces conducting, broadcasting, playing double bass, and communicating his passion for music across many musical styles. His conducting credits include a complete cycle of Bach cantatas, as well as work with the Southbank Sinfonia, the Guildhall Big Band, Tallis Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre, and in London’s West End where he spent many years as musical director. He is a much-respected bass player on the British scene, and has worked with many of the great players in British and American jazz.  He spent a decade as one of the core team of music presenters on BBC Radio 3; alongside his work as performer, he devises and leads music tours and gives lectures on classical music in the UK and across the world.


Twitter: @sandy_burnett

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