From Hymns to Hip: Composer Phillip Keveren Brings JS Bach into the Jazz Age


Composer/pianist/teacher Phillip Keveren, who earned his musical pedigree from Cal State U and the University of Southern California, was driven to re-interpret the fugues and cantatas of Bach into jazz. Sample it here:

Why morph JSB into jazz, one may ask? Phillip says to blame it on the Swingle Singers.

This early acapella group from the 1960s sang the classics. “They captured my imagination,” says Phillip. He decided to blend Bach and bop, and the result is the instruction book “Bach Meets Jazz.”

What is your early training in – classical or jazz?

I was trained in classical piano through my high school years. I played in the jazz band in high school, but didn’t receive any formal training until my college years.

Have you always ‘heard’ classical through a jazz lens?

I have always loved jazz, and when I listen to classical music I am especially drawn to the harmonic progressions and colors.

Why did you choose these pieces for your book?

The song list grew out of trying to find pieces that would respond especially well to a jazz-centered point-of-view. I considered whether a harmonic progression was applicable, and if the melody seemed to float well over a jazz tapestry.

How does one translate from classical to jazz; how do you find your groove if your primary training is in classical?

The intellectual part of the translation process is not that long of a road. The “groove” aspect is difficult. If one hasn’t listened to a lot of jazz and soaked up that rhythmic world, it’s difficult to learn.

Why did you write this book?

I have always been a fan of this kind of thing. The Swingle Singers captured my imagination decades ago.

You also work in liturgical music. What inspired you to compose music in this genre (as in the piece “Seasons”)?

My writing in the church music world dates back to the founding of my musical journey. I learned to improvise in church; accompanying singers, filling in the “empty spaces” between sections of a worship service.

Who have been your musical influences?

I grew up in a rural area of the northwest, and hearing live music was a rarity. I listened to LP’s of all flavors – classical, jazz, pop, rock. I loved it all. I discovered Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 early on. I was a huge Maynard Ferguson fan!

What is your favorite way to perform: solo, in a small chamber orchestra, or full orchestra?

I love to accompany a great singer.

Have you performed with any jazz ensembles?

I was part of the jazz program at Mount Hood Community College in my first two years of college. Jazz band and vocal jazz (pianist). That is where I found my true love, writing.

Who is your favorite jazz artist?

Artists who can live in both worlds (classical and jazz) have always been important to me. Wynton Marsalis. Leonard Bernstein. I love vocalists like Diana Krall who are solid jazz musicians, but also have a great sense of keeping a melody intact that doesn’t need embellishment.

What are the challenges in publishing music? How did you break into Hal Leonard?

I was very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time very early in my career in regards to Hal Leonard. That relationship dates back nearly 30 years, and it centered around one particular person who noticed and promoted my work. The publishing business has changed mightily in the last 10 years or so, and will continue to evolve. The internet has made it possible to self-publish, and that is a great thing.

Additional comments?

I hear young musicians nearly every week who completely inspire me, take my breath away, even. The beat goes on!

Photo supplied by subject

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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