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Tobin Mueller’s latest double CD, "Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller", may be his most ambitious and sophisticated recording project to date. Continuing the concept he initiated in his "Impressions of Water and Light", where he performed original arrangements, variations, and new compositions based on the works of Ravel, Debussy, and other Impressionist masters, "Flow" uses the protean output of Johann Sebastian Bach as its core inspiration, and lets the Baroque master lead Mueller as a composer and pianist into a journey of re-interpretation and new creation – a journey that inevitably explores the interactions of Baroque and Jazz.
In the fifteen tracks of Disc One, Mueller plays his own piano arrangements and interpretations of Bach’s music, discovering in the eighteenth century genius not only the precision and grace of his compositional structures, but also deconstructing these harmonies and melodies in order to penetrate their inner life, and then letting that spark carry him to another place in his own artistic soul. Disc Two features two original suites for piano (and a bonus track piano duet from his 1998 musical "Creature") that are the result, the composer tells us, of spending half a year immersed in Bach’s music and in the study of his piano suites, as well as the Goldberg Variations. Despite the compositorial lessons Bach may have offered Mueller, these two works stand majestically on their own, addressing the listener in an idiom that at once is classic and modern.
In listening to Mueller’s interpretations of Bach’s own music, one is struck not only by his skill as a pianist, but by his comprehensive grasp of Bach’s form and structure; for only with such a complete understanding as his foundation, can Mueller dare to embark on his own “takes” on these classics. Highlights of the first disc are many. The rhythmically varied interpretation of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, "Joy", which opens the collection, serves as an overture to what follows. "First Starfield", derived from Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major, is a beautiful re-imagining of Bach’s melody using parallel fifths under and over Bach’s line and subtly shifting the downbeat midway through the piece. "In Anna Magdalena’s Hands" is a take on the Prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite #1, which recreates for the piano the lush, romantic chordal line of the unaccompanied cello in the original. "Leopold’s Short Life" (based on Prelude and Fugue # 2 in CMinor) is arranged as a big band piece which evocatively suggests the transience of life and the inexorable ticking of time, while "Sleepers Awake" is set down as a dialogue between right and left hands, between the voice calling the sleeper to consciousness and the Jazz groove of the baseline. "Night at the Theatre" constitutes Mueller’s interpretation of Minuet in G, (a work now commonly ascribed to Christian Petzold, but still associated with Bach through his wife’s notebook) in which he begins in a Broadway idiom and shifts to an eloquent and contemplative kind of soliloquy. Finally, the first CD ends with "Encore and Amen", a virtuoso tribute to what Mueller calls “the energy of an [Bach’s] infinite mind,” before it solemnly concludes in a reverential “amen.”
The second disc contains two suites for piano, each in six movements. The first, entitled "Suite: Flow", explores the concept of ebbing and flowing energy mirrored in the rhythms of nature from tidal waters to migrating birds, and salmon swimming upstream. While Bach may have been Mueller’s departure point, there are a great many other influences which can be heard coalescing in the rich musical language of the work, among them the transparent and limpid harmonies of Impressionism. "Flow" begins with a slow first movement, “Tide Pools,” in which the rippling waters and receding eddies are reflected in the elusive chords. “Momentary Undertow” continues in slow tempo using arpeggios to evoke the circular flow and the eventual ascending pull. The third movement, “Yin and Yang,” is a light textured synthesis of two styles of playing, juxtaposing and integrating chords and arpeggios. “Salmon Ladder Variations” offers a marriage of Thelonius Monk and J.S. Bach in which short repeating figures suggest the fish ascending the ladder and slipping back, yet never abandoning their intense drive to procreate. “Bird in Migration,” the fifth movement which blends Charlie Parker with Blues and Bop improvisation, depicts the bold flight of the birds as an expression of freedom. The suite ends with “Curved Surfaces,” varying the melody of the first movement and using a waltz tempo to reference the dance-like gigues that ended Bach’s French suites.
In his "New England Suite", also in six movements, Mueller meditates on the passage of the seasons and the cyclical forces of nature which flow through the universe with musical majesty. “River Ice” with its dark, repetitive chords that color the opening movement with a hint of Native-American roots, evokes the crystalline sparkle of the ice breaking up and reshaping itself. “Ghostly Bells (of Independence)” with its changing keys and tempi recalls the bells that have tolled throughout New England’s history, the varying pitches beautifully captured in the melody with the pure, clarion peeling at the end of the movement an intimation of approaching spring. “Lighthouse” introduces a sense of renewal, its bookended sections in waltz-time, with a middle section reference to Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier #4. “Train” becomes a metaphor for summer with its allusion to the romance of the road; Mueller’s walking bass in the left hand signifies the continuum, while his right punctuates that with the sound of a train whistle and the suggestion of stops along the way. Movement five, “Nor’easter” conjures up the gently pelting rain on windowpanes and roofs in early autumn with a delicate, lulling quietude before seguing into the final movement, “Berkshire Shadows,” that pulsates with a gentle maturity and restful vigor. There is just a whiff of Ives here, as there is in the first movement, as well as the lush resonance of a description of the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” in John Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” before the suite ends on a gentle upward progression that is as much question as statement.
In addition to the pleasures of these imaginative interpretations and compositions, Mueller offers the listener a memorable acoustic experience and an attractively packaged visual one. The sound is rounded, subtle, intimate, and captures all the nuances of the artist in conversation with his piano and with his inspirations. The two CDs (with a generous 121 minutes of music) are accompanied by an informative sixteen-page booklet, handsomely illustrated with artwork. Mueller, who is an accomplished writer as well as musician, offers well-articulated insights into the pieces and invites the listener to embark with him on an exciting voyage.
"Flow" takes the listener on a complex and profound journey. On one level, these are works which require thought and comprehension - a knowledge of the Bach’s originals - but on another level, they exist in their own unique realm to be heard, absorbed, and experienced in the flow of the moment. And that intangibility, that ephemerality is precisely their genius. Mueller’s compositions are firmly grounded in an impressive musical technique and far-reaching understanding of past idioms, at the same time that they are bold, sometimes playful, often rebellious excursions into uncharted territory. The gift that "Flow" bestows on the listener is the insight into the dialectical truth that from form comes freedom.
-Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller is another very ambitious project from one of the most creative musical minds out there, Tobin Mueller. His first two-disc set, Disc 1 contains fifteen solo piano interpretations/arrangements of some of Bach’s best-known pieces, and Disc 2 is a set of two original suites composed to demonstrate how Bach’s music has influenced Mueller and his own music. Disc 2 also contains a bonus track, bringing that total up to thirteen piano solos. Bach is perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived and he continues to be a favorite among many jazz musicians as well as classical music aficionados. All of the music on Disc 1 is recognizable, and even though most of the interpretations have very strong jazz elements, my feeling is that Bach would strongly approve of Mueller’s creations. The CD set also contains a 16-page booklet that provides an historical perspective on Bach’s life and music as well as Mueller’s explanations of his creative processes. In addition to all of that, the artwork, also by Mueller, further provides spirited and colorful illustrations to accompany the music. It’s a beautiful package and the music provides a unique listening experience that is sometimes a bit challenging but always very enjoyable.
I always find it fascinating to hear how composers interpret classical music, giving well-known nuggets a new spin. Mueller did this exceptionally well with his previous album, Impressions of Water and Light, which was a look at Claude Debussy and other composers of the Impressionist period. Flow is a brilliant second part to a promised three-part series which will include the music of Chopin in the future. I love that Mueller ignored all boundaries for musical genres in this music, juxtaposing modal jazz, blues, Broadway, prog rock, and new age (and others) with classical stylings, giving free reign to his vast experience and training along with an imagination that knows no limitations. My favorites on Disc 1 include “Reinvention No. 13,” a playful a take on Bach’s Two-Part Invention #13; “Double Fantasia and Fugue in Gm,” a dark bluesy arrangement that feels just right; “In Anna Magdalena’s Hands (Cello Suite #1, Prelude),” a beautiful tribute to Bach’s second wife who transcribed much of his music; “Leopold’s Short Life: A Prelude and Fugue,” based on Prelude and Fugue #2 in C Minor, arranged as a Big Band piece that has a real swing; “Bach on Vaudeville (Two-Part Invention #8 in F), again very playful and full of fun; and “Air,” based on “Air on the G String,” a slow, pensive interpretation arranged in a set of variations that incorporate a number of jazz styles.
Disc 2 contains two 6-part suites - “Suite: Flow” and “New England Suite” - as well as the bonus track from Mueller’s 1996 musical, Creature. It doesn’t seem likely that a listener stumbling upon any of these pieces would hear an immediate connection to Bach’s music, but Mueller explains in the liner notes (also available on his site) which ideas he was exploring as he composed this music. Much more jazz-oriented than classical, the rich, complex harmonies and inventive rhythms go in a lot of unexpected directions that keep the music consistently interesting as well as fun to listen to. I especially like “Tide Pools,” “Bird in Migration,” “Lighthouse,” and “Train (Summer Tango).” The bonus track, “One Body of Man, a duet” was recorded live in 1998 and is a series of variations on a theme from Mueller’s off-Broadway musical, Creature, which is based on the Frankenstein story. Upbeat straight-ahead jazz, the piece really rocks and closes this impressive album with a great big grin.
All of Tobin Mueller’s albums are very different from each other, so if you are not familiar with his music or have only heard one album, check this one out! If you have his entire collection, this one will not duplicate anything previously recorded! It is available from Amazon, iTunes, and CD Baby. Very highly recommended for a one-of-a-kind listening experience!
- Kathy Parsons, MainlyPiano.com
This is a truly enjoyable CD set! As a musician, I’ve learned to spot quality in music, but have been intimidated by jazz in any form. With “Flow”, Tobin Mueller has broken down that wall by sneaking in through the door of my affinity for the classics. His variations and reinventions of Bach in the first CD are very inviting, warm and comfortable, and I was gently ushered into the second CD with Tobin’s original compositions. The experience was one of delight. Tobin’s creativity shines, and his arrangements carry you smoothly through colorfully nuanced musical adventures. Being new to this genre, Tobin’s creations showed me the potential it had for many different styles. The melodies and well-placed notes make for one enjoyable ride!
"Flow" will remain in my stack of favorites for some time to come, and I recommend it to all, no matter what your usual listening pleasures may be.
I find this album to be a great companion while I'm working or when I need to calm my mind. This is good medicine! Tobin approaches the music of J. S. Bach respectfully, but also with a genuinely playful refreshing approach, adding his tasteful original touches.
There are so many beautiful details in his piano playing, the playfulness gets the good feelings flowing. Tobin really gets in a zone with these tunes. The bonus track "One Body of Man, a duet", is my favorite, a bluesy jazz piano duet.
No need to force things - go with the flow, and for a while, be in the place where no action is needed. That being said, Berkshire Shadows is a place I want to be (final movement of his "New England Suite"). Recommended!
[Note: Thor Oliversen plays bass/guitars on Tobin's song "When My Heart Still Beats" from A Bit of Light (2006).]
I’ve been listening to Tobin Mueller’s new solo piano 2-CD album “Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller” the past few days. Like last year’s “Impressions of Water and Light” -- where Tobin rearranged and improvised on well-known pieces by Debussy, Ravel, etc. -- on disc 1 of “Flow” he does his own jazz-influenced thing with Bach melodies. On disc 2 you find two suites composed by Tobin and inspired by Bach. None of the 2 hours of music on these CDs sounds like imitation Baroque. Rather, “Flow” carves out a niche somewhere between classical, jazz, and new age music. Many musicians have arranged, reinterpreted, or reimagined Bach. But, this recording is unique and quite enjoyable. Five (out of five) stars!
[Note: Bill Barner plays clarinet on "Caught In The Current" from Tobin's 2008 release Rain Bather.]
I want you to know how much I am enjoying FLOW. I feel I could listen to those two discs forever and continue to find them enjoyable in the best possible ways and on so many levels. This enjoyment is expanded with the way you’ve paired images to the music in your music videos. Because of my fascination with Escher, I was especially drawn to “Leopold's Short Life - adapted from Bach, illustrated with Escher” based on "Prelude & Fugue No. 2 in C Minor" from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Through your musical imagery, it struck me head-on that Escher's vision is fundamentally a search, a contrast, and an exploration of order and chaos. Both of those forces are all around us, and perhaps there is no more fitting realization of that contrast than in music in general and Bach in particular. There are many reasons for that, as you know, but one I had not thought of until I heard your playing (and this is certainly not limited to Bach) is that you approach the keyboard with two hands. What are those hands doing? Certainly not the same thing! Often one hand takes the role of rhythmic order, laying a pathway so to speak, while the other hand explores more abstract forms. And then sometimes it changes - the hands might switch their roles, or perhaps they both take on the quest for order or the exploration of whatever else there is. It can be that way in a picture too, though in different ways of course.
I truly believe that Escher did not fully understand these things, nor can we, but he was particularly mystified because it drove him to work, work tirelessly, work his whole life, to express something in pictures, concepts that had no shape for him in words. And yet he knew that his pictures were only scratching at the surface of understanding the duality of things... he barely formed the question clearly, let alone believed he found the answer! But he knew deeply that Ringsnakes was right... I'm sure of that... and I believe he saw hope, dreams, and fear in his little woodcut of The Well. He sensed we might climb out of it, and that there was something beyond the darkness just as his portraits contained both their figures and the space around them in the form of clouds or spheres. These are not easy things to understand, and words often don't fit quite right... nor do pictures... but Bach was speaking in a different language, a language beyond words.
You are gifted, blessed, and probably cursed as well to hear and then strive to express some of those deep things that cannot be said any other way. You ended your music video with a little woodcut Escher created towards the end of his life, one that is not well-known at all. It is called an apple blossom in the Escher books, but it is actually a pinecone, a larix to be specific. It has (and it hides) a marvelous symmetry, just as nature disguises perfection in the chaos around us. If you imagine yourself a little bee flying above that pinecone and looking straight down at its pattern, the shapes you would see would be concentric rows of petals, and those petals would have to be pushed just a little to become fish. Escher did that pushing himself in another small print we call Concentric Fish. And yet, if we see fish in the world they always take on peculiar forms, individual from one another, each like a separate note, tied to all its neighbors and yet floating on its own. It's something like that: the hidden perfection of things leaking out now and then, letting us catch a glimpse of something utterly incomprehensible.
Through you musical visions I feel I understand Bach and Escher just a little bit better tonight, and that is a valuable bonus and somewhat separate from enjoying the music and seeing pictures that I have admired for most of my lifetime. Thank you for creating that, and for sharing it with me, and thank you for indulging my tangle of words attempting to appreciate it in the spirit in which you may have created it.
Jeffrey Price, The Artists’ Market