This article originally appeared in Gramophone's 2009 Awards issue. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe
This past July, the Tour de France came through Verbier, the town where we have our summer home. I was struck by the fact that so many highly trained and committed cyclists from all over the world each representing so many different countries and so many different cultures - could come together in this one carefully organised and highly competitive event. It reminded me of how much smaller and more connected our world has become in the last several decades. Even when people are competing, there's a sharing of ideas that can lead to something very new and innovative.
In some small way, I see parallels between the diversity and the energy of the Tour de France and the work that began with the Play Bach Trio 50 years ago. By most people's standards, classical music and jazz are two very disparate art forms. One follows a very definite structure, a distinct set of rules. The other is wide open to improvisation. It's not uncommon to think of jazz and classical music as being at odds with each other. And yet, when they come together, like athletes in a competitive and fast-moving race, a new kind of energy is created.
Most people don't realise that the original idea came about almost by accident - an experiment I tried when I was a student at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 1950s. I was looking for a career as a solo pianist, but I came to a point where I realised that I was not going to be an internationally recognised classical musician. Around that time, I had discovered jazz through the music of ]ohn Lewis, the piano-player for the Modern Jazz Quartet, and I began playing in some clubs around Paris, just to have an opportunity to explore jazz a little bit. The music of ]ohn Lewis gave me the idea to do something with improvisation on the themes of Bach. Mind you, I was not expecting any kind of recognition or commercial success with this idea, because I thought no one would be interested in listening to that. I was more surprised than anyone at the success of this music and my recordings with the Play Bach Trio.
The early responses from the critics were mixed. Some people understood that the music of Bach had been the subject of improvisation and reinterpretation by other musicians in earlier centuries, and as such, those same people found it acceptable to take a jazz approach to the music. But others said we shouldn't touch the music of Bach in any way. It's important to remember that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, many composers were improvising on Bach's themes. Bach himself was doing it, with his own music and with the works of others, especially Vivaldi. So at the time, the idea of taking someone else's music and interpreting it in a different way was quite acceptable. Everyone was doing it in some way, and no one condemned it.
After all of the success with the music of Bach, expanding my repertoire seemed like the next logical step. I wanted to see if the kinds of improvisations I had done with Bach's music could be done with the music of other composers. But I became very aware that not every classical composer took the same approach to composing. Not everyone built his music on the same rules as the ones that Bach followed. As a result, it was difficult at times to find the key to the problem of marrying elements of jazz to the themes of other composers. But I found it, beginning with Vivaldi's Four Seasons. And there have been several others, including Debussy, Ravel, Satie and Beethoven.
Fifty years after those first recordings with the Play Bach Trio, I am encouraged by the relationship between classical music and jazz. I think more and more jazz musicians have an understanding of classical music - not just the theory, but also the history and the influence on other forms of music. I'm talking about people like Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett. They are jazz musicians first, of course, but they have a very thorough understanding of classical music. They are able to play it in the style of a classically trained pianist, and there is a great maturity to their technique.
But this wasn't always the case. Fifty years ago, it was difficult to find musicians who could play both styles well. It was as if there were two different types of musicians - those who played classical music and those who played jazz - and there was no middle ground between the two. What's more, the audiences were similarly divided. The classical people never wanted to listen to jazz, and the jazz people never wanted to listen to classical music. It was a very clearly defined split in the music world. Thankfully, that has changed. Today there are plenty of musicians who are able to play jazz and classical music, and play them both very well. And there are plenty of listeners who embrace both musics and recognise the middle ground between them.