Perhaps one of the reasons why classical and jazz music have had such a long relationship is that classical players find the freedom to express themselves through jazz improvisation.
Matt Herskowitz, a Juilliard School-trained pianist, arranges, performs and records jazz arrangements of classical works by composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin. “I’ve always been attracted to jazz,” he said.
Herskowitz began his studies at the age of 13 at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, one of the top schools for classical musicians in the United States. He was at the institute for eight years and received his bachelor’s degree in music at 21. In Philadelphia, he spent evenings jamming with jazz musicians at clubs and restaurants.
“As a child, I always improvised and composed, but did that within the classical language. In my teens, I started learning the jazz language,” Herskowitz said.
One of his compositions, “Bach à la Jazz,” was featured in the 2003 Oscar-nominated film Les Triplettes de Belleville. The piece was conceived when he was hired to play Bach’s “Prelude in C Minor” in the style of Glenn Gould. At the recording session, he started doing a jazz improvisation of it, which ended up being used in the movie.
“Bach à la Jazz” begins with the prelude and then segues into a jazz arrangement. “The idea that classical audiences aren’t into new and funky music is not what I’ve seen,” Herskowitz told the Juilliard Journal.
He has since recorded two albums of Bach, Bach Re: Imagined, featuring flutist Andrea Griminelli, and Bach XXI, with violinist Lara St. John. “It was great. You can get lost in the world of Bach,” Herskowitz said.
On his new release, a solo album called Mirror Image, Herskowitz reconciles his jazz and classical sides. “I’ve been blending elements of both for a few years now, but one always seemed to favour the other. I wanted to explore this fusion as it relates to my own music, as well as through classical compositions, but this time just me and the piano, pure and simple,” he wrote on his website.
The album features several tunes that Herskowitz wrote during his early forays into jazz, when he was on the cusp of his transition from classical to jazz.
“Back then, I wasn’t a good improviser. I didn’t have enough of a harmonic language vocabulary and experience to do it in the way that I wanted to. Now I do, and it seemed like a good time to record those pieces,” the Montreal-based pianist told The CJN
Mirror Image includes his first jazz composition, a tribute to John Coates, a jazz pianist with a classical leaning. “He was the first jazz pianist I heard live and he really spoke to me,” Herskowitz said.
Another one of Herskowitz’s early tunes on Mirror Image is the lovely “Song for Katya,” which he wrote when he visited Moscow in 1994 as a competitor in the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. The song was inspired by a young woman’s knowledge of music, art and literature, and her brilliant playing.
The new album also features compositions by Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and Franz Shubert, on which Herskowitz weaves solo piano improvisation throughout the structure of the classical piece. He improvises in the middle of a Ravel concerto (“Piano Concerto in G: Adagio Assai”) and then comes back to the concerto and then improvises again and returns to it. The improvisation never sounds as if it doesn’t belong in Ravel, Herskowitz said. “That’s the idea, is to really be inside of it.”
In the album’s Schubert piece (“Ballade”), he heard a tango. “That’s a good thing about having played jazz in a lot of different styles and a lot of world music, including Middle Eastern, Cuban and Argentinian,” Herskowitz said. “All of these genres and styles are at my fingertips, so if I hear Schubert as a tango, I can do that.”
To watch Matt Herskowitz’s videos, visit mattherskowitzpiano.com, or search for him on YouTube. Mirror Image and his previous recordings are available on Spotify.