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Loussier cannon

September 13, 2010

Another review I never completed. Too bad, because I really gave Jacques Loussier what for. So here are my observations on that dead horse beater, from a La Jolla Summerfest concert, Aug. 22, 2008. My colleague Kris Eitland did a dance review of the same concert, which you may find here.


“…music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note, and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase, and the structure would fall.”—
Peter Shaffer, Amadeus

Thus spake the character of Antonio Salieri on the compositions of Mozart, a sentiment shared by many music lovers, myself included. Only a jackass or a genius would be foolhardy enough to tinker with Mozart’s musical perfection.

Jacques Loussier is no genius.

Exactly what Loussier is, besides incredibly lucky to sustain a career long after his 15 minutes were over in the 1960s, is unclear. Plenty of teenage classical pianists have better technique and expressive abilities than Loussier. Sophomores in college jazz programs can knock off a better solo than Loussier can after nearly a five-decade-long career. The guy cannot swing, and his harmonizations are thoroughly uninspired.

Nevertheless, a major choreographer such as Pascal Rioult felt something when he heard Loussier’s version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major, K. 488. Maybe it was pity. No matter what Rioult perceived in this music to inspire him to devote his creative time and energy, and the talents of 8 dancers, not to mention the thousands of dollars to pay for the costumes and lighting, Rioult was unable to make a choreographic silk purse out of this musical sow’s ear. How this landed on a class act like SummerFest is also unclear. You don’t sell a pig ear in Nordstroms; it belongs with all the other pig ears in a self-serve bin at Petco.

In Loussier’s disfigurement of one of the most sublime piano concertos ever written, walking bass lines intrude on classical sections for no discernable reason, other than to wink at listeners who think a walking bass line popping up in a classical work is cute. The mournful Adagio is trivialized by transforming it into a slow, square waltz. Loussier’s drummer imposes a splang-splang-a-lang ride on the cymbal over Mozart’s music, although it’s not so much of a ride for Mozart as it is a hit-and-run. Mozart’s notes and phrases were displaced by Loussier, with the unsatisfactory results Antonio Salieri expected. I’m not sure hearing the piece as a recording was an improvement over a live performance, although, as a corollary, I was certainly happy to see that no SummerFest musicians were psychologically damaged by having to play Loussier’s artless arrangement in concert.

Using classical compositions as a basis for a jazz arrangement is an extremely difficult feat to pull off. Many have tried, few have succeeded—Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite and Miles Davis’s solos over Gil Evans’s re-interpretations of Falla and Rodrigo come to mind as musical victories. The rest of jazz history is littered with stillborn Songs of India and Dvorak Humoresques, perhaps popular for a week or two, and then promptly and justly forgotten.

There are jazz musicians today who have found working with classical materials extremely fruitful. Why not invite Uri Caine or Matthias Rüegg to SummerFest? San Diego’s own Anthony Davis, while not exactly dipping into the 19th-century classical European tradition, nevertheless has forged a unique vocabulary that deftly inhabits the cracks between classical music and jazz. Any of these gentlemen have more talent in the last phalanx of their fifth toe than Loussier possesses in his entire being.

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