Red Priest, Johann, I'm Only Dancing (Red Priest Recordings, 2009)

The Baroque period is the first musical era generally categorized under the broad -- perhaps overly broad -- umbrella of classical music. What I've noticed from my admittedly limited experience with Baroque music, though, is that the branches which led to later classical music and the folk traditions of Europe had not really diverged yet. For example, the oldest Swedish fiddle tunes tend to sound very Baroque, especially if they were composed for the nyckelharpa. And the most celebrated Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, composed his share of jigs. Red Priest, a British quartet consisting of Piers Adams on wind instruments, Julia Bishop on violin, Angela East on cello, and Howard Beach on harpsichord, specialize in contemporary interpretations of classical music. They take on the diversely flavored compositions of Bach with their latest CD, called Johann, I'm Only Dancing. They describe their approach to this recording as "rock-chamber-Bach," with an emphasis on the danceable elements of Bach's music. But while the album's title does suggest that the band know their rock and roll (it comes from a David Bowie song), I think the album will appeal particularly strongly to listeners with a background in instrumental folk music.

A common image of Bach, and certainly the impression left on me in my high school and college music classes, is that he was a stodgy maestro who hammered out these elaborate but somber minor-key pieces on a church organ. Red Priest understand that there is quite a lot more to Bach than that, and they succeed in conveying that to the listener. Some of the liberties they take would probably appall a purist, particularly the Latin syncopation in the first part of the "Brandenburg Concert No. 3 in G Major", but the rest of us can appreciate that it's OK when capable musicians have some fun while working out the arrangements. And ultimately, the whole point of the album is to show that Bach was a fun composer. Sure, he may have introduced layers of complexity into his music that were unprecedented for his time, but what folk fiddler or rock lead guitarist has never tried to cram as many notes as they possibly could into a solo? Bach could do that better than most people who've followed him, while maintaining very elaborate and precise chordal progressions, so there.

And yes, he even composed jigs. From the perspective of somebody who's spent a lot more time at Swift's Hibernian Lounge than at Avery Fisher Hall, Red Priest's arrangements of "Prelude in D Major" and "Introduction and Gigue" were major revelations. Red Priest are flexible enough as a unit to bring out the folk-sounding aspects of some of Bach's compositions. This perhaps best reflected in the toccata part "Toccata and Fugue in D minor," the opening line of which is recognizable even to people who otherwise know nothing about classical music. In Red Priest's arrangement, the melody is played on a recorder instead of a church organ. Instead of sounding memorably ominous, the piece winds up sounding light and airy; and yet, it still works.

It's always risky to take liberties with music that's succeeded quite well on its own terms for nearly three centuries. However, Red Priest know what their doing, and the music on Johann, I'm Only Dancing is really reverential to its source in spite of initial appearances. The music is performed beautifully, and the arrangements reflect a side of Bach that may be obscure to people unaware of the depth and variety of his compositions, but is nonetheless there.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

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