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Adam Birnbaum - Preludes (Chelsea Music Festival)

10 October 2023

Pianist Adam Birnbaum gets around – he’s tickled ivories for veterans Al Foster, Regina Carter, and Wynton Marsalis, and fresher faces Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and Cécile McLorin Salvant. The New England Conservatory and Juilliard School grad have also had works commissioned by Chamber Music America and the Chelsea Music Festival. Preludes grew out of his work with the latter, which has involved arranging the music of composers like Schumann, Beethoven, and Debussy for jazz trio. Joined by bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Keita Ogawa, Birnbaum takes a dozen pieces from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier and applies jazz aesthetics, especially instrumental improvisation and rhythmic swing. Rearranging classical works for jazz isn’t anything new, but balancing the tunes with the drive is tricky to achieve. Fortunately, Birnbaum sounds like he was born to it. His formal training gives him just the right touch with Bach’s often-stunning melodies, while his jazz experience allows him to add the proper spritz without erasing them. Thus he can give ‘Prelude in D major” a sprightly spring to its step that’s as much old school dance as modern swing, and “Prelude in E minor” a Latin rhythm that backs the melody magnificently. In Birnbaum’s hands, “Prelude in Bb minor” becomes the perfect late night jazz ballad, and “Prelude in D minor” gains an improvisational infusion that stretches the melody without obscuring it. Clearly, Birnbaum understands exactly what to do with Bach’s indelible tunesmithery: give it new wings.