New York — Anyone who has ever heard the Modern Jazz Quartet knows that pianist John Lewis has been flirting with classical music for over three decades. His graceful, balanced touch and orderly approach to the keyboard are a natural for an unlabored crossover into European classical music. As principal composer and arranger for the quartet, his love of the classics entered into and became the heartbeat of that group's repertoire. Now, after 22 years with the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), a nine-year hiatus during which he pursued a solo career, and a historic reunion with the MJQ in 1983, Lewis is taking the plunge: With some persuasion from record producer Kiyoshi Koyama, he is recording the complete Bach preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier. The first recording in the series was released in Japan on Bach's birthday and is now available on Philips in the United States.
But these aren't the usual interpretations of Bach's music. In an interview, Lewis states that he can see no point in repeating what others have done. ``There are many good recordings of the preludes and fugues -- Wanda Landowska, Glenn Gould . . . and Kenneth Gilman -- I like that one very much.''
At first, he even questioned the wisdom of doing the project at all. ``It wasn't my idea. Mr. Koyama persuaded me to do it. I didn't really want to do it, being a jazz pianist.'' He laughs, ``But he's very persuasive!
``We've been working on this about two years now, and it's ongoing. There will be another album coming out in Japan this Christmas. It's a lot of work!''
What is it that sets Lewis's recording of the preludes and fugues apart from the others? First of all, Lewis's improvisations on the fugues -- an acknowledgment that Bach himself was an improviser. Then there are the transcriptions of the fugues for violin, viola, guitar, and bass, to which Lewis adds his piano.
``The improvisations took some work, because all those preludes and fugues are different. They say there's a formula for fugues -- but not for Bach. I had to find different ways to treat each one. I analyzed all of them, and then used ideas that made sense compositionally.''
Lewis is committed to the Bach project and intends to finish it. Nevertheless, he seems a little uncomfortable about the whole thing, and this comes across to a degree on the recording. Although critics and fans have spoken of his obvious affinity for classical music over the years, Lewis says he can't see it and views himself as strictly a jazz musician. And no wonder -- he started his musical career in the 1940s playing in and arranging for Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra. Later he played in the Charlie P arker-Miles Davis Quintet.
``My wife is a harpsichordist -- she knows much more about this music than I do,'' he says. But he admits, ``I just like to play and listen to music that I enjoy. My taste is eclectic. I like many kinds of great music.''
And he speaks fondly of the classics that inspired his arrangements for the MJQ. ``There were pieces that were attractive to us harmonically and melodically. They broadened our whole range of expression.''
If any jazz player is suited for a project of this sort, it's John Lewis, who, whether he likes to say so or not, has a genuine feel for classical music and knows what to do with it in a jazz context. There's plenty of meat in the preludes and fugues for endless development of jazz-based improvisations. In this first recording, it's not so much ideas and inspiration that are lacking as it is fire and punch. Bach's music has plenty of fire and punch, and Lewis would do well to bring that out a bit more i n the yet-unrecorded albums in this series.