When it comes to popularising the classics, few have made more impact than Loussier. Not only did his soundtrack (“Air on a G String”) make the Hamlet cigar adverts iconic, but that in turn influenced Procol Harum in creating “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
Celebrating his 80th birthday, two double-disc sets of his best work, selected by the pianist himself, are on release.
My Personal Favourites begins with “Air on a G String” and does what it says. Bach’s snappy pieces seem designed to hold attention and their melodious themes suit improvisation. Loussier’s style can emphasise Bach’s classical origins, but normally places the accent strongly on jazz.
Apart from “Toccata and Fugue” and “Brandenburg Concerto No. 5,” which each pass the 10-minute mark, these are concise works. With Bach’s sound so well defined, both discs flow well together. With tunes as popular as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the Bach release is bound to be a crowd-pleaser.
The second set, Beyond Bach: Other Composers I Adore, begins with his strengths, but takes a dip in form at the end. Already owning his excellent album based on Satie’s “Gymnopedies,” I was excited about the possible gems on this collection. Satie’s work is under-represented here at eight minutes, but is superb while it lasts.
Unlike Bach and Satie, the Vivaldi pieces are so freely improvised that much of the composer’s style is lost (apart from the striking “Summer” theme). Ravel’s “Bolero,” the longest piece at 17 minutes, also has a powerful theme that allows for both strong riffing and very free improvisation.
Loussier is often at his best with more delicate pieces and his re-working of his French heritage with Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” succeeds well.
The disappointing end is his take on Chopin’s “Nocturnes.” Intended as a set that suggests swinging jazz, it almost sounds like someone practising. It is completely out of character with the rest of this generous compilation.
As a celebration of some 60 years of a groundbreaking approach to genre, this assured collection reflects his taste and work well. Largely recorded since the early ‘90s, it also keeps it nicely up-to-date.