NL·Parkway Sessions

Bach on the bass: Ofra Harnoy and Mike Herriott reinterpret a classical classic

Cellist Ofra Harnoy says her and Mike Herriott's version of the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3  is 'just a little bit different.'

‘I wanted to approach it with a little more of a jazz sensibility,’ Herriott says

Mike Herriot and Ofra Harnoy perform in Studio F as part of CBC Newfoundland and Labrador's Parkway Sessions. (Lukas Wall/CBC)

Cellist Ofra Harnoy and multi-instrumentalist Mike Herriott both began playing music as young children, and have since made records that blend the sounds of classical, jazz and pop music.

It's this diverse approach that influenced their distinctive take on a popular piece of cello repertoire, the air from Johann Sebastian Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3.

"It's a very, very well-known and almost overplayed piece," Harnoy says. "Except this arrangement has the little bit of funky, jazziness created by the bass, which makes it just a little bit different."

Herriott came up with the foundation of the arrangement almost by accident. He said he was just fooling around one day, playing the bass line from the Bach air with the tone and feel of a jazz bassist.

Because it's such a familiar piece, I thought, why do we want to do it the same way everyone else does it?- Mike Herriott

Herriott said he liked the way the bass part sounded and combined parts of the orchestral score with the harmonic structures used in jazz to develop his own unique arrangement of the piece.

"I managed to maintain a lot of Bach's inner melodic movement, but I wanted to approach it with a little more of a jazz sensibility with the harmony," he said.

"Because it's such a familiar piece, I thought, why do we want to do it the same way everyone does it? And some people might think it's a little bit of sacrilege to reharmonize Bach, but I'm not the first one to do it, and I think it's a way of paying respect in a modern flavour to the piece." 

Check out Ofra Harnoy and Mike Herriott's performance of the air from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 from their Parkway Session:

'Good music is good music'

Herriott said he and Harnoy have both developed their broad musical abilities throughout their career.

"My life experience has taken me into the recording studio with rock bands and Latin groups and all kinds of different things, and then into the jazz world as well," he said.

"And Ofra, she was one of the first classical musicians to do the crossover thing with the Beatles' music in the '80s."

Harnoy said while classical musicians recording interpretations of pop songs isn't unusual today, it was much less common in the early 1980s, when she began doing it.

"When I was growing up as a kid, my parents didn't allow me to listen to anything other than classical, so the first non-classical music I listened to, almost rebelliously, was the Beatles. Then when I ended up doing the crossover album, I got a lot of flak from the critics, they say, 'Oh, she sold out to pop,' and 'She's not a serious classical musician.' Now everybody's doing it," she said.

"I feel like good music is good music and when something captures you, there's no reason why you can't expand the repertoire."

Parkway Sessions: Discover more music

Every two weeks, CBC Newfoundland and Labrador will bring you new performances from local talent, recorded live in Studio F in St. John's.

Tune into more Parkway Sessions on our YouTube channel.

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