In the United States, where the Walter Murphy Band and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra scored top-10 disco hits with "A Fifth of Beethoven" and "Hooked on Classics" respectively, the blending of classical and popular music has tended to fall into the artistically dubious "novelty" category.
Not so, however, in France, thanks in large part to the classically trained pianist Jacques Loussier and the jazz combo he inaugurated 50 years ago, the Play Bach Trio. Between 1959 and 1964, the trio (Loussier, bassist Pierre Michelot, and drummer Christian Garros) released five numerically titled Play Bach albums on which they established that, since it did have that swing, baroque music must mean a thing.
Loussier disbanded the original Trio in 1979 but organized another with bassist Vincent Charbonnier and drummer Andre Arpino in 1985 for performances marking the 300th anniversary of Bach's birth. It is this Trio one hears on the recently released 11-track collection Jacques Loussier Plays Bach: The 50th Anniversary Recording (Telarc Jazz).
The title is misleading-the recordings were made prior to Charbonnier's becoming disabled in 1997 (the liner notes cite a "terrible accident," other sources a "serious illness") and thus antedate the Trio's 50th anniversary by more than a decade. Likewise, the cover blurb proclaiming Loussier "75 years young" jumps the gun: He won't turn 75 until Oct. 26.
But as an introduction to Loussier's unique hybridization, The 50th Anniversary Recording is more than adequate. From the relatively straight "Partita in E Major" and "Siciliana in G Minor," in which the only jazz element is the enhancement of the pulse by the rhythm section, to the "Invention for Two Voices No. 8" and "Vivace from Concerto in C Minor," in which Loussier breaks into improvisation midway through, the performances faithfully capture the Trio at its latter-day peak.