The cool counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach has tempted jazz musicians ever since Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and Eddie South put a swing into his D minor Double Concerto.

Since then, it's miraculously survived being transformed into finger-snapping a cappella by the Swingle Singers and played on everything from percussion tubes and wine glasses to the Japanese koto.

The latest tribute to the baroque master is a strings-only affair, featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello alongside Edgar Meyer on bass and Chris Thile on mandolin, colleagues whom Ma describes as "two special human beings who also happen to be great, versatile, open and curious musicians".

Open and curious listeners will be totally caught up in the irresistible weave of the very first track, an Allegro from a G major trio sonata, originally written for organ. Ma adds his own delicate lustre while Thile's mandolin sounds more than ever like a bonsai harpsichord (this top-class bluegrass musician and member of the Punch Brothers has already recorded a solo Bach album for Nonesuch Records).


There are two complete trio sonatas and one for viola da gamba, with trembling trills and criss-crossing tune trails. However, I suspect that Bach himself would have conscripted a harpsichordist to buff up the last work's rather lean Adagio, adding support to the players' beautiful and intricate ornamentation.

This problem is cleverly avoided in the shorter Erbarm dich mein by having Thile strum a guitar, in between pizzicato bass and a melody that, at times, floats away to little more than a tremor on the strings.

This coming together of artistry and ingenuity is endlessly fascinating, especially in an E minor prelude and fugue in which the rushing, final pages have the heart-stopping propulsion of a baroque bluegrass breakdown.

What: Bach Trios (Nonesuch)
Rating: 5/5
Verdict: A baroque master is spruced up with taste and style

Affetto (Atoll, through Ode Records)

The five musicians of Affetto borrowed their collective name from the Italian word for mood, emotion or affect and they aim to take us on a roller coaster of ups and downs, from plaintive to passionate and serene to sensual.

They've been doing just this for almost two decades, building up a loyal audience base with cleverly devised concerts that earned them two Auckland Fringe Festival awards for the best musical production.

This CD is an attractive sampling of what they do, with music drawn from the vast storehouse of the Renaissance and Baroque; familiar composers such as Monteverdi and Caccini sit alongside Cazzati, Mudarra and Sances.

Most tracks feature Hamilton soprano Jayne Tankersley, who navigates baroque coloratura with the skill of a daredevil pilot; yet, in a gorgeous Caccini love song she is tender, tremulous and tremendously moving.

Tankersley engages with the instruments around her as a jazz singer might share the spotlight with a soloist from the band. In one Monteverdi offering, originally written as a vocal duet, she's partnered by Peter Reid's cornetto, in the equivalent of a lively 17th century jam session.

Dealing with scores that are sometimes little more than shorthand, it's fascinating to hear how ingeniously they are realised by Rachael Griffiths-Hughes on harpsichord and organ and Brisbane-based Philip Griffin, plucking, strumming and bowing his various instruments.

There's a real sense of infectious joy in this album, so much so in the Spanish-styled stroll through one Diego Ortiz piece, that you'd be happy for it to saunter well beyond its 1'40" running time.

The final track anchors us in Aotearoa in 2017 as Griffin's Whaia te iti kahurangi puts music to an old Maori proverb, introduced by the clarion call of Reid's conch shell trumpet. The text, "Seek the treasure you value most dearly; if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain", inspires a delightfully catchy setting; four centuries ago, on the other side of the world, its ancient wisdom could well have fuelled a Monteverdi madrigal.

Rating: 5/5
Verdict: Local early music group navigates the centuries with charm and style.