Baroque and bluegrass make not-so-strange bedfellows with C.E. (Christopher) Jones’ adaptation of The Goldberg Variations, J.S. Bach’s 30-piece suite bookended by two arias. Though they were originally scored for a harpsichord-led ensemble, Jones, a music professor and bluegrass player, has adapted the pieces for mandolin, banjo, and guitar.
It works, because baroque and bluegrass music are both based on improvisation and counterpoint, and like bluegrass instruments, the harpsichord is plucked, not struck like its musical descendant the piano. Jones replaces that high-end harpsichord with mandolin, the mid-range violins and violas with banjo, and the low-end cello and bassoon with guitar, which is plucked and never strummed. Jones’ acoustic instruments, all of which he plays, add separation to the compositions that harpsichord and piano, which blend into one harmonic texture, cannot.
All of Bach’s variations are in the same key and use the same chords as the opening aria, but there all similarities end. Jones’ guitar winds through each variation in different ways. On “Variation 3,” the labyrinthine guitar entwines with rippling banjo and brittle mandolin. By “Variation 21,” descending guitar grounds the of pointillist fairy-land mandolin and the banjo’s fluttering ornamentation. Mandolin dominates the “Aria Capo” that concludes the album, but Jones’ guitar slides into open spaces and asserts itself with a swaying melody.
With The Goldberg Variations, Jones has embraced the shapeshifting nature of the compositions by making even more changes. In his hands, the variations are only waiting for more variations.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.