The cover of “After Bach” is a perfect metaphor for the music within. It features an overhead view of a spiral staircase descending into a dizzying symmetry. What better descriptor of Bach’s amazing compositions? They do the same symmetrical dance, winding into the distance.
The album’s structure has Mehldau playing a song from Bach’s “The Well Tempered Clavier” and following it with an improvisation based on the Bach selection.
Let’s look at Mehldau’s take on the Bach, first. Perhaps the best thing about them is his restraint. He resists any impulse to jazz them up in any way. Frankly, they don’t need it. By playing it straight, he instead draws attention to the emotional content within. It’s a revelation for the listener.
The improv material is just as compelling, which is saying something. I earlier used the word “conversation” and that’s how it feels. It’s very possible to see the Bach at the center of them, but the pieces themselves range and spin in and out of dissonance, cavorting and pirouetting with the Clavier pieces in a distinctly modern way.
It all adds up to a sonic feast for the listener. A literal feast.