I fell in love with the Goldberg Variations the first time I heard them, when I was 14 or so. I started working on them a few years later, learning a new variation every so often, then got more serious about learning them after I moved to New York five years ago. About three years ago I did a long solo tour, and in the middle of it, the idea came to me of using a few of the Goldbergs as springboards for improvisation. The project evolved from there — to the point where the record has all 30 of Bach's Variations and 30 improvised responses of mine.
If you think about how jazz musicians usually improvise on a standard, and you know how the Goldberg Variations are structured, you can't help but be struck by the similarities. Jazz musicians most often play the head, then improvise a number of choruses over the harmony of the head, then play the head again to close. In the improvisation, the harmony can be stretched, and when it's good, we often end up going to a much more intense emotional place than where we started from. In the Goldberg Variations, Bach states the theme — called the "aria" — then goes through the harmony of the theme 30 more times using various compositional ideas and going through an incredibly wide range of emotions before closing with the theme again.
This is meaningful to me because I've always thought that it was kind of a holly grail to be able to squeeze the maximum amount of music out of the minimum amount of material. When I studied with Martial Solal in France, he would tell me to improvise on a standard for an hour without stopping, so that — out of boredom, maybe — I would start playing things that really took the standard to new places. Fred Hersch once asked me to play Monk's "Pannonica" several different times while thinking of various words, like "regal," "pointy," and "drunk." That was kind of a revelation to me — how the same material could turn into dramatically different things. And in my five years of playing with Lee Konitz in many different settings, we've often ended up playing many of the same tunes, which is what Lee's been doing his whole life. "All the Things You Are," "Body and Soul," you name it — as standard-y as they come. And yet when Lee plays these tunes, they're always incredibly fresh, totally different, and in the moment every night. So taking the same material tow new places is very important to him, too.
In the Goldberg Variations, Bach stretches the simple opening aria so much that people often say that he takes us through every possible human emotion. So learning the Variations, and improvising my own, has been my way to really check out what he did in that respect. And, of course, in other ways as well — it's not just that he stretches the aria; the work is amazing rhythmically, melodically, contrapuntally, structurally. He has every angle covered.
-How did you approach making them your own?
That was really the most interesting part of this project. Bach has an incredibly powerful voice, and it was essential to me from the get-go that my improvisations have their own, distinct tone — that they sound like me, even though I'm taking my cue from Bach. What I found was that if I just relaxed and spent time with each variation, finding things in it — a motive, a groove, a compositional idea, a mood — that resonated with me, and improvised in a playful way, my voice came through. The interesting thing is that as I would improvise on a variation, it would give me ideas for playing the actual variation in a different way — so it became a two-way dialogue of sorts. That's an amazing feeling, especially when you consider that the Goldbergs were written almost 300 years ago.
-Did you plan how your own variations on the Goldberg Variations would go, or are they spur of the moment improvs? Did any of your own variations stand out to you for any particular reason?
There's one element that stays constant throughout the record: I'm always playing over the changes to the aria, just as Bach is. I'm stretching the harmony in my own way, as Bach does in his variations, but the harmony of the Aria is a defining element of the Goldbergs that I wanted to stay close to: each variation starts in G, modulates to D at the midpoint, and comes back to G again at the end.
In the tradition of Zen art, a painter might spend a long, long time watching a flower, then dash off a depiction of it in a few seconds and a few strokes. When it's done right, the essence of the flower can really be contained and condensed into the intense moment when the painting is made. My approach to the Goldbergs has been something like this — spend a lot of time with the material, by learning to play it and by studying it from a structural and compositional standpoint, then, when it feels right, hit the piano and just play.
That said, for some of my improvisations, I actually set out with some specific compositional/improvisational ideas. For example, every third variation of Bach's is a canon at a different interval, meaning that each phrase in the leading voice is repeated in the following voice a little later, transposed by, say, a third, a fifth, a ninth — depending on which canon it is. When I was improvising on those, I worked with that idea: I'd play a phrase, remember it, and play it again a certain interval away. Playing canons isn't something that we jazz improvisers usually do, but it's really fun, and a good challenge. I recommend trying it out. Another example: the last variation is what's called a "quodlibet," meaning it's a mashup of popular tunes of the time. Bach uses two songs that are about goodbyes — "I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer" and "Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I'd have opted to stay," his way of bringing this mountain of a work to a close, with — incredibly — self-deprecating humor. I responded to that by improvising with two tunes I like to play that deal with the end of things: "Never Let Me Go," and "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." At other times I was deliberately being more contrapuntal, or playing a certain kind of groove that responded to the one Bach was using.