There are no sacred cows in music – certainly not for Papo Vazquez. His 2018 offering in a quartet format is selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Mr. Vazquez jumps right in after a short duet with Rick Germanson as both interpret the (opening) “Aria”, breaking the mould immediately by changing not only the time signature of Bach’s sarabande from ¾ to a more statuesque-sounding theme. Bach’s arabesques are exchanged for Mr. Vazquez’s balletic moves. That, naturally, is followed by Mr. Vazquez’s entirely improvised statement of Bach’s theme. Here he brings a juicy, jazz brilliance to the piece, which is further evidence that Mr. Vazquez is an entertainer with a virtuosity that allows him to tackle Bach’s notoriously volcanic counterpoint with extraordinary ease. You know immediately that this is a very special disc.
Full disclosure: this is not the complete Goldberg. We have just a third of them here. Missing are Var. 2 to 6, 11 to 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 23 to 26, 29 and 30. It is possible that CD runtime was a consideration, although listening to the beauty of what made it onto disc it is a pity that the whole Goldberg has not been recorded. Also what has not been included are expositions of Bach’s majestic command of the dances of the day and other canonic features that Bach really taught the world to craft to perfection. Something else that is important to consider is that at the end of the day Mr. Vazquez has chosen to use the Goldberg as a leaping off point for his “jazzy” record. So clearly what this record is not is a performance of the Goldberg as we know from Glenn Gould’s or Murray Perahia’s or Angela Hewitt’s (et. al.). Jazz musicians may have all mostly been classical musicians starting out before they found their “jazz calling” but when they become “jazz” musicians everything changes, especially the approach to the cadenza as opposed to the (jazz) improvisation. And then there’s that beguiling thing called “swing”…
And there is plenty to both swing – and crow about on Mr. Vazquez’s Goldberg Variations. To begin with the arrangements – something he shares with Mr. Germanson, his partner and arranger-in-crime – are exceptionally resourceful. Each uses a particular variation as a leaping-off point to explore – for instance – the sprightly variation as it contrasts markedly with the slow, contemplative mood of the theme. Where (Mr. Germanson’s) rhythm in the right hand forces the emphasis on the second beat, giving rise to syncopation from bars 1 to 7; and that is only as far as Mr. Vazquez’s version of “Var. I” goes. In “Var. 10” Bach’s Variation 10 as written is a four-voice fughetta, with a four-bar subject heavily decorated with ornaments and somewhat reminiscent of the opening aria’s melody. Mr. Vazquez and Mr. Germanson (who also arranges) turn this into a mesmerising dreamscape. And on, and on… as variation after variation unfold with often unexpected re-direction but always with exquisite results.
By the time we get to the final “Vazquez Variation” we have all-but forgotten (not really, but try to imagine anyway) Bach’s originals. This is because Mr. Vazquez has put his stamp, with a commanding thump, one might add, on this record he makes in homage to the great composer of any age – Johann Sebastian Bach. Along the way two young prodigies – bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Jerome Jennings together with (a slightly older) Alvester Garnett also make their mark as interpreters of – or to put it more appropriately – co-creators of this irresistible tribute not only to Bach, but to our wide world of music today.
Track list – Aria, Duet; Aria Jazz Var.; Var. 1; Var. 7; Var. 8; Var. 9; Var. 10; Var. 15; Var. 18; Var. 21; Var. 22; Var. 27; Vazquez Variation
Personnel – Papo Vazquez: trombone and leader; Rick Germanson: piano; Dezron Douglas: bass; Jerome Jennings: drums; Alvester Garnett: drums (Var. 15, Var.27 and Vazquez Variation)
Released – 2018
Label – Picaro Records
Runtime – 59:05