A review by Göran Nilsson

We highly recommend the remastered version of Sarabande, available from Purple Records.

Sarabande is regarded as Jon’s masterpiece by a lot of people, including Jon himself. I think that it is a brilliant album, although not necessarily the outstanding one of Jon’s works. One reason why it has become so popular might be that it, to some extent, is a more normal album compared to those he had done prior to it.

Unlike those albums this doesn’t use the orchestra as the foundation of the songs but rather as an extra colouring to the arrangements. Nor is it as demanding as his previous albums, Windows in particular, occasionally were. Not that it in any way is slick or boring, but other rock/classical keyboard heroes from the period could have made a similar record.

The album is based on the theme of a baroque dance suite and it contains eight ‘dances’ in different tempos. I am not the right person to judge how much this form has influenced the music, but I think that I can hear influences from other sources that are at least as strong as those from Bach & co. I would describe the music as a wonderfully integrated mix of romanticism, jazz and rock, all flavoured with what we today might call world music. One possible influence that the dance concept might have had is that the album is more focused on rhythm than Jon’s work usually is. Some of the tracks are built around rhythmic figures and there is a lot of percussion involved in the music. Just like Windows this is a collaboration with German conductor Eberhard Schoener and the featured orchestra is the Philharmonia Hungarica.

The record starts off with a very powerful intro reminiscent of the romantic period that dominated the charts a hundred years ago. For some reason it reminds me of the sunset in Richard Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, a theme that Jon keeps coming back to. After the intro the music stops for a second before this dance, Fantasia, continues with the most subtle and beautiful woodwinds. Eventually the music becomes more powerful again and there is a string riff that reminds me of ‘Big Country’ (the cowboy tune – not the highland band). The first dance of the album is also one of the best, even if I might choose something slightly more funky to dance to!

Fantasia is followed by the title dance, Sarabande, which actually might be easier to dance to since it is one of the tunes that are based around an apparent rhythm. It starts off with a jazzy beat, played by Pete York on the drums, soon followed by Paul Karass (Rare Bird) on the bass and Jon on piano. But the main instrument on this dance is the guitar, which is played by the then rather unknown Andy Sommers. Andy eventually changed his name to Summers and became one of the people who changed the sound of rock guitar, making soundscapes with The Police. From that perspective it is quite interesting to hear his sound on this record, since it is very much the sound of a traditional guitarist of the seventies. Andy and Jon trades solos on most of the song, but occasionally the Hungaricas come in and replaces the jazzy feeling with some fateful moods that sounds like they could originate from some gypsy camp on the great plains of their homeland.

The third dance, Aria, sounds like it is all played on keyboards. The piano is playing the lead role with the A.R.P. synthesisers, especially the string synth, struggling for attention in the background. This one is very calm and melancholy and it does have a very fragile feeling to it. It reminds me of as different composers as Mozart, Satie and Wakeman. Very beautiful!

Gigue is, as the name suggests, one of the more rythmic tunes. It is also one of the lengthier and more bombastic pieces, offering the listener some musical pyrotechnics! Apart from the fireworks supplied by the orchestra we also get some solos, starting with the guitar. For those of you who don’t mind if Jon makes some use of his old Hammond, the second solo is a lengthy feast blending classical and bluesy flavours. Jon also takes the next solo, this time with a well-tempered piano piece in such an apparent baroque style that even I can’t help noticing. The last solo is perhaps more of a duet from Pete York and the percussionist Mark Nauseef (Elf, Rainbow). Finally the orchestra comes back and joins the band for a very powerful ending reminiscent of the great Slavonic composers.

Side two, if you’re lucky enough to have a good old LP, starts with the dance Bourée that in a lot of ways is quite similar to Gigue. It is a long, rythmic piece involving a lot of solos from Andy and Jon. It starts off with a beat played by Mark Nauseef on his bongos. Jon joins in on the piano and the orchestra follows and an oriental theme is taking shape. Jon plays some of his best and certainly grooviest solos on the album and Andy makes some fierceful sounds on the guitar. Nauseef is also having a feast in the background playing just about every percussion instrument you can think of, except one that is. The Indian feeling of the tune makes you expect that he is going to pick up the tablas any second, but he doesn’t seem to have that particular instrument in his repertoire. The orchestra comes in for the climax and the Indian feeling of the song gets even stronger. This is a powerful dance and it is also the one track from this album that Jon still tends to play on his solo live performances.

My absolute favourite on this album, perhaps of all Jon’s tunes, is Pavane. This one starts off in some of the green fields of England with an extremely beautiful awakening of the strings. The theme is soon taken over by some very nice classical guitar from Andy. Jon’s piano then accompanies him and eventually the guitar stops and all of a sudden we find ourselves no longer in an English green field but in a smoky jazz club in Harlem. Jon is transforming the theme into a jazz melody with some very blue notes. Jon does some of his most sensitive playing ever on this blue melody. The strings come back in and it almost starts swinging, before the guitar eventually brings us back to the green field. The songs then ends as it started with the strings slowly settling down in the green field.

Two things strike me when I listen to this dance. The first one is that I would really like Jon to play more of this jazz stuff, since it’s so emotional and breathtakingly beautiful. The other thing is that Andy’s classical guitar is not that different from what Steve Morse has been doing over the years, although Steve admittedly tend to play more notes! I would love if the two of them started to do some of this chamber rock stuff together. I can’t see what’s stopping them!

Caprice is in my opinion a very untypical Jon Lord tune. Maybe it is because it is so jolly and humorous, almost as if Jon were making fun of himself and his music. Maybe this is the reason why it reminds me so much of Rick Wakeman, who, despite his rumour of being pretentious, does that all the time. In fact, every time I listen to this one I have to pinch myself to remind myself that it is Jon and not Rick I’m listening to (it would have been perfect on Rick’s G’ole album)! The feeling of the dance is kind of Spanish or Latin American and it involves a lot of percussion and even sound effects. The groove also reminds me of Santana and Jon’s Hammond does have some resemblance with Gregg Rolie’s from the good old days.

The last dance on the album is appropriately titled Finale. This is the only track that I’m not that keen on, but then it’s perhaps not that much of a track anyway. It is more like a mix of samples from the other themes on the album popping up one after another. The funny thing with this ending is that competing keyboard hero Rick Wakeman used exactly the same idea on the finale of his ‘Music Reincarnate’ suite, on his great record ‘No Earthly Connection’ which came out earlier the same year. First I thought that Jon had just nicked the idea from Rick, later I realised that even if Jon’s record was released after Rick’s, it was recorded before. So, it seems like the two came up with the same idea independently from each other. Does that sound highly unlikely? Well, there is a third possibility. As I said Rick’s piece of music is called ‘Music Reincarnate’ and it deals with God, UFOs and reincarnation of souls and music among other things (did I say he wasn’t pretentious?). If you consider that, it is quite obvious that Rick’s musical idea has reincarnated on Jon’s record, or vice versa, probably without the artists even realising it! It is very satisfying to have sorted out that mystery.

But even if I’m not all pleased with the Finale, I would have preferred it to end with Bourée or Pavane, it is undoubtedly a very good album and one of the classic fusions of rock and classical music from this era (or any era for that matter). If it represents the peak of Jon’s composing ability or not, as many people seem to think, is not a matter that I have a strong opinion about. But it is certainly one of his strongest works and probably the one that he has got the most recognition for. I keep mentioning Rick Wakeman here, and it is perhaps not very surprising that I can find similarities considering Rick’s enormous success in the mid seventies, but this is probably the only record of Jon’s where I can find any stronger resemblance with Rick’s music. Otherwise, Jon seems to have more in common with the other person who always seems to be mentioned in connection with Jon (and Rick); Keith Emerson. Jon and Keith both have more of a blues feeling and they both occasionally indulge in classical concertos.

The companionship with Eberhard Shoener proves very successful on this recording, perhaps even more successful than on Windows, and it is a mystery why they never recorded together again. In fact it is a mystery why Jon more or less stopped making solo records for the following six years. I can only guess that the breaking up of Deep Purple and the general attitude towards this type of music in the music industry might have had something to do with it. Jon might have suffered from the fact that this type of music didn’t benefit from using a disco beat and normally wasn’t played by people who wore a safety-pin in their cheek. Speaking of the musicians, it is interesting to note that they, although all doing a good job, don’t shine as much as they normally do on a Jon Lord album. Maybe this was Jon’s intention or maybe it’s just because they all were a bit inexperienced at the time. The exception is of course Jon himself, who, I would say, shines more here than he usually does on his own recordings. So, all things taken into consideration this album is a must for anyone interested in Jon Lord and/or the fusion of classical and popular music. Moreover, it might actually be an eye-opener for people who seem to think that any music outside of one particular genre is of no interest.

Do you agree or disagree with the author? Please do let him know.