I’m listening to Bach again now…

… and reflecting on how this music has so profoundly impacted on the way I think of music in general. There’s this line I’ve started playing lately in Deep End, one of the songs we play in my band, which is simply these arpeggios, and I commented about how hard it was to play these sustained arpeggios live, suggesting it might not be the best idea to attempt it live.

Myoung quipped something about it being something “common in jazz, isn’t it?” and I replied: “No, it’s Bach. It’s figured bass!” and that’s exactly what it is, melody and bass line and random arpeggiation to fill out the harmony. (It’s also some rhythm to add into the mix.) I insisted it was figured bass but later I realized this probably made about as much sense to the guys as my jabbering about bebop scales or the like.

See, the thing is, harpsichordists often have to improvise what they play as accompaniment to baroque music. They were usually provided with a bass line laying out the bottom pitches as a musical line… but all of the harmony was just kind of improvised according to bass figurations. It looks like this:

See those funny numbers under the chords? The harpsichordist is supposed to use the bass line for his or her bass line, and fill out the harmonies by using the tones indicated, diatonically, in the given intervals above the bass tone. So if you have 3s and 5s, your bass note is the root of the chord. If you have 6s and 4s, then the bass tone is the fifth of the chord, while 6s and 3s indicate the third is the bass tone.

Of course, harmony is more complicated than that. Back in University, I spent a few years learning all the complicated possibilities and meanings held therein. Here’s another glimpse at the madness of harmony:


The thing is, a harpsichordist can (at least in theory) use these little numerical markings with the skill of any jazz musician reading chords off the lead sheet of an unknown tune to know exactly how the harmony should fit together and progress, without needing everything written out on the page the way so much piano accompaniment music is written out these days. Free arpeggiation following a given chord structure and bass line: figured bass.

So anyway, what I was doing is not really so much of a jazz technique, or isn’t rooted in that in my mind, anyway. I’ve heard it used very successfully in jazz a few times, most notably by Steve Lacy’s quintet, live, in Saskatoon sometime in the late 90s—and that example was so outstanding that it makes the idea of using this technique in jazz very appealing to me (especially with a sax quartet or similar ensemble). But for me it’s a classical approach. A baroque one, in fact.

Interesting, though… no matter where it comes from, it sounds how it sounds and it seems to sound pretty good. Good enough for people to urge me to try find a way to play it even though doing so gets me so out of breath I could fall over. I’ll find a way, I suppose, probably by ghosting certain notes consistently or something, to make a clear pattern.

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