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Dip Your Ears, No. 247 (Bach, Jazzed Up: An Austrian Attempt)

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Bach Improvisations
Benjamin Schmid & Friends

Oehms Classics has released several recordings of Benjamin Schmid, one of Austria’s premier violinists. This time we are treated to “Improvisations on J.S. Bach”. Color me interested! If keen observers notice that the cover photo of Schmid’s is not just of oddly shoddy quality but also rather dated, they might be onto something: A hint at the fact that the recording was made a decade ago and is only now being released? Pondering this raises the question: Why release it now? Listening to the album raises the question: Why release it at all? That’s not to insinuate that all’s bad with the music on this disc – the opposite. The approach and the general idea are great: Let a collection of extraordinary musicians – certainly Schmid himself, the locally famous Austrian bassist and all-purpose musician Georg Breinschmid, and major marimbist Emiko Uchiyama – loose on Bach in jazzy arrangements speckled with jazz standards (Kurt Weill’s Youkali, a bit of Django Reinhardt, Jerome Kern) and semi-improvisations. And in its idealized form, the result here is somewhere between Jacques Loussier and Edgar Meyer. Several of the arrangements are very groovy, indeed. It’s just that this exalted level is reached rarely – and when it isn’t, it leaves you wanting. The opening E major Prelude is a case in point: A dab of hoedown, as re-imagined by Austrian boys, a touch of bluegrass raises the spirits. And then some woeful off-key notes that are sold as on-purpose but which are not finding any buyers at that price.

After several foot-tapping episodes, the project reaches the nadir in a freewheeling violin-rumination on the Well-Tempered Clavier Prelude No. 1 that is played by the marimba. If you hesitate before figuring that the violin’s part is not just aimless noodling, it’s already too late. What’s lacking is conviction. Every improviser has essentially two modes: “Searching” and “rolling with the material”. To the extent any of the works on this disc are truly improvised in the moment (it’s a mix of studio and live takes), they sound like they are only searching and never really rolling with it. There is a hesitancy about the material that does not befit any groove nor, importantly, the instrument. You can be hesitant on the piano and maybe get away with it. But on the violin, the instrument betrays its player at once. A phrase that might have been probing becomes a whimper, in-stead. Much of what sounds promising among these tracks, also sounds as though it would have been much better had performers had much more time under their belts with this music. (In fact, Schmid has recently released a very well regarded Jazz album on Gramola, suggesting that he isn’t the problem.) The liner notes are a few curiously offhand comments from Schimd: to the point at best, brusque and meaningless at worst. It’s almost as if he could not quite be bothered to revisit this project, which is also how it sounds. It’s a strange recording, flawed and full of good ingredients. Yet rather than ending up reasonably satisfying, it makes you wish for a very similar, better one. Unfortunately, that little difference makes *all* the difference.


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