Les Swingle Singers: Jazz Sébastien Bach. Philips 824 703-2 (no copyright date, circa 1985), 042282470324
Reissue 2000 with different cover, same label number and barcode:
Special issue from the Italian daily La Repubblica, Voci 7 (2002), no barcode:
and “le volume 2 de Jazz Sébastien Bach”, Philips 844 847 BY (1968), US edition “Back to Bach”, Philips PHS 600-288 (1969)
The Swingle Singers have not “jazzified” Bach: they’ve brought out the inherent jazziness of Bach
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 15 March 2011
I’ve been waxing lyrical about the Swingle Singers in my recent reviews (see Anyone For Mozart, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi?, Swingling Telemann, A Cappella Amadeus – A Mozart Celebration) and I’m going to do it again. I’ve contended that what they do is to return instrumental music to its very essence: the voice. It is often said (and I agree) that music (at least before the advent of the 20th-century atonal and serial avant-garde), even when purely instrumental, is vocal music transcribed for other instruments. Mozart’s Piano Concertos have even been described as quasi-operas. Some composers have needed the instrument to compose (mostly the piano, but it was the guitar for Berlioz; Stravinsky once said something to the effect that ideas came to his fingers rather than to his mind) but many first hear those tunes in their inner ear and possibly sing them, before committing them to the music sheet. Therefore, classical instrumentalists are asked not just to play the notes but to “sing” them, e.g. to try and emulate the voice, even when their instrument is in essence a percussion instrument, whose acoustic properties are fundamentally different from the voice, like the plucked-string harpsichord or the struck-string piano (leading, by reaction, composers like Stravinsky or Bartòk to assert the percussive nature of the instrument – which however was never at the detriment of singable melody). What the Swingles do is to reverse the whole process, and return these instrumental compositions to their vocal origin and essence. That is, I would suggest, what makes it so deeply touching, and irresistible.
I’ve also said that the arrangements of the Swingle Singers are to our humming our favorite tunes under the shower what a Picasso is to your kid’s drawings. It is what we all do in everyday life, inadvertently, without even thinking about it, in a totally rudimentary manner, raised to the highest of arts. What makes the art of the Swingle Singers so unique and irresistible is a combination of factors: first, there is the pleasure common to any transcription: hearing the old warhorses in a new guise. It’s like your wife showing up with a new, sexy lingerie: it adds new thrills to the old routine. I’m not necessarily a great fan of new lingerie, but I am a great fan of transcriptions (I guess that’s why I’m divorced – for both reasons. Prefering transcriptions to your wife’s new sexy lingerie never bodes very well for the future of your relationship). Anyway, what I’ve called in another review this “old pal” factor is essential in the pleasure procured by their “Bach greatest hits” (or Mozart, or Vivaldi).
Then, there’s the sheer joy of Ward Swingle’s transcriptions, and of the Swingle Singers’ realization. This CD collates the two Bach albums made by the Swingle Singers in 1963 (“Jazz Sébastien Bach” – published in the US under the title “Bach’s Greatest Hits“) and 1968 (“le volume 2 de Jazz Sébastian Bach” /”Back to Bach” – see details in heading); incidentally, it is the cover of the first French album that is used for the CD.
Since the CD bears no copyright date, my tentative dating of publication = 1985 is based on a mention in The Stereo Review of March 1986, and on the fact that the companion, “Anyone for Mozart, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi” (see above), with a higher label number, does bear a copyright year of 1986. And since the original, 1963 Bach album was very unspecific about the pieces played, and since Phonogram (the owning company back in 1985 that released the CD compilation) has done no effort to better the description, here is the precise track listing of 1 to 13:
1. Fugue in D minor, Contrapunctus 9 from The Art of Fugue BWV 1080
2. Choral-prelude for organ BWV 645 “Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (Sleepers Wake) (# 1 from the Schübler-Chorales)
3. Aria (Air on the G String) from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major BWV 1068
4. Prelude in F minor (not major as the track listing has it) No. 12 BWV 881 from Well-Tempered Clavier book II
5. Bourrée II from English Suite No. 2 in A Minor BWV 807
6. Fugue in C minor, WTC Book I No. 2 BWV 847
7. Fugue in D major WTC Book I No. 5 BWV 850
8. Prelude in E major WTC Book II No. 9 BWV 878
9. Sinfonia from keyboard Partita No. 2 in C Minor BWV 826
10. Prelude in C major WTC Book II No. 1 BWV 870
11. 4-part “perpetual” canon BWV 1073
12. Two-part Invention No. 1 in C major BWV 772
13. Fugue in D major WTC Book II No. 5 BWV 874
And from the very first album, it is already all there: the silkness of the timbres, the purity of the sopranos and their caressing, dreamy melismata over scatting or humming accompaniment (try the Sinfonia from the 2nd keyboard partita, track 9, the Gavotte from the 3rd Violin Partita, track 17, the duet in track 20 Adagio from the 3rd Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord BWV 1016, and the Prelude fro the Organ Choral “Now Comes the Saviour” BWV 659, track 22), the pitch-precision of the ensemble, the mind-boggling volubility of the fast movements, the tossing of pointillistic shards of melody between singers (never more breathtakingly impressive than in track 18, the famous Prelude in C major from WTC-1, but the vivace from the Violin Concerto BWV 1043, track 14, is no piece of cake either) realized so seamlessly as to sound as a continuous stream and abetted by the recording’s great stereo spread. And there is the beat and swing they bring to the music. In those days, the Swingles used a jazz drum and double-bass section; when the group reformed in London in 1973 after the original, Paris-based ensemble had disbanded, they became a purely “a capella” ensemble: not that they dispensed with the jazz accompaniment: they sung it. Anyway, I NEVER find the jazz drums and double-bass superfluous or misplaced as they can be with other jazz or pop arrangements of the classics: on the contrary, I find their presence entirely organic, and they add considerably to the excitement in the fast movements and the poetry of the slow ones. The Swingles have not turned Bach into jazz, they’ve underlined and brought out the jazziness inherent to Bach (and it is a lover and big listener of Classical music speaking, not of Jazz or rock). It lends the music a degree of excitement or (in the slow movements) of beauty that… well, I can’t say: “that is not present in the originals”: sure it is present in the originals! But it is set here on another plane, and when I am listening I think that nothing can equal it (of course, when I return to the originals – or to the “piano transcriptions” in case of the keyboard compositions originally written for harpsichord -, I think nothing can equal those). And their partners were the best French jazzmen of those days (there was a strong jazz scene in France after World War II): in the 1963 album they are Jacques Loussier’s famous accompanists, Pierre Michelot double-bass and, for two tracks, André Arpino; the rest was Gus Wallez, the drummer of Michel Legrand (try his furious solo in track 12). In 1968 the partners are Guy Pedersen, Michel Legrand’s usual bassist, and the drums are shared between the then young Benard Lubat (23 when the recording was made) and Daniel Humair (30), the recognized champions of their field (and still today, more than 40 years later!). Those four drummers are all skilful, imaginative and poetic.
Transcriptions of the famous aria from Suite no. 3 (track 3) or of the chorale “Jesus Joy of Man’s Desiring” (track 16, not announced as such but titled, with typos which I correct here, “Choral from the Cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” BWV 147″, which won’t be very telling to most listeners) can become pretty corny, overbloated and sentimentally solemn (I’ve just listened to and reviewed Stokowski’s orchestral arrangements); here, with the closed-mouth humming (in Aria) and the discreet brushes of drums and cymbals and slow, obsessive beat of the double-bass pizzicatti, they acquire a hymnal character that is simply beautiful and deeply moving. And I can extend that to many of the Swingles’ Bach arrangements, and not just in the “slow” movements like the Prelude in F, No. 12 from the Well-Tempered Clavier book 2 (track 4), the introduction of the Sinfonia from the second keyboard partita, which the Swingles make sound like a plangent Negro Spiritual (track 9), or the Prelude in E-minor from WTC-1 – track 15); but try for instance the brisk “Fugue in C-minor”, No. 2 from WTC-1 (track 6). Every burgeoning student of the piano has been made to toil over Bach’s first two-part invention and so detest it for life, just like Clockwork Orange’s with Beethoven’s 9th; as a cure, they should try track 12!
And then, there is the singing technique imported by Ward Swingle from jazz but developed to levels that I don’t know were ever encountered in jazz, and which represent his major contribution to contemporary vocal techniques: the Swingle’s unique brand of scat. You might think it is simple (anybody can sing badabadabad under the shower), but it is actually very elaborate, and serves both to clarify the textures, to allow the jaws not to get blocked in the moments of virtuosity, and to give some hint of the original instrumentation.
In 2000, Universal, who held the copyrights to these recordings, saw fit to reissue them “straight” from the LPs, short timings and all: Philips 542 552-2 Jazz Sebastian Bach, Vol. 1 and Philips 542 553-2 Jazz Sébastien Bach, Vol. 2 (together with the other recordings from the original Paris Swingle group). A none too welcome way to milk us public, because the original LPs timed circa 30 minutes, so two of them would fit easily on one CD. And that Universal also gathered the two Bachs in a cardboard casing, Philips 542 554-2 (see reviews of the individual installments for details) doesn’t change the fact that you still had two short-LP-filled CDs, rather than one fully-filled CD.
And indeed these earlier reissues from Phonogram/Philips (the two albums “Going Baroque” from 1964 and “Swinging Mozart” aka (in the US) “Anyone for Mozart?” from 1965 were also reissued on a single CD in 1986, “Anyone for Mozart, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi?”, see link above) were the model of what should have been done throughout. This and other discs of the Swingles are emphatically NOT going to go join the dormant crowd on the long shelves of my music library. They are staying right here by the CD player.