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Musical magic when Bach met Michael Miles and his banjo

Separated by centuries but bound together by music, Johann Sebastian Bach and Michael Miles had a difficult but fruitful relationship that continues to evolve and give us a magnificent new album called “American Bach Revisited.”

Bach, the great figure of 18th-century music, has been dead since 1750. Miles is very much alive and remembers “met” Bach in 1977. While he was a student at the University of Illinois, he stopped by one day that year. Classical guitar recital featuring the playing of the Gigue movement of Bach’s Third Cello Suite.

“I thought it was the most beautiful piece of music I had ever heard,” Miles says. “And that moment changed my world.”

The Oak Park boy played guitar in a rock band as a teenager, but when his father died, he and his four siblings were given $500 each in life insurance money and their mother told him, “Go buy something in your honor.” father.”

Miles purchased a banjo and that has been his musical focus ever since; Bach was in his mind and music became a part of his life while he was pursuing graduate studies in England and at Northeastern Illinois University; where he earned a master’s degree in music performance. and pedagogy.

He then embarked on an extraordinarily diverse career marked by a long association with the Old Town School of Folk Music as a teacher, programmer and performer. The great Pete Seeger’s early encouragement was inspiring and empowering. Miles had bravely sent Seeger (the two had never met) a letter and a copy of his first recording, “Counterpoint.” Seeger responded with a letter: “I was only able to listen to your tape of clawhammer banjo duets today, and I hasten to write again to let you know that this is one of the finest tapes I have heard in my 70 years.”

Seeger and Miles remained in contact until Seeger’s death in 2014; Miles made more recordings, produced both musical and theatrical performances, and traveled the world to teach. He has performed at venues such as the Kennedy Center, Smithsonian Institution, Ravinia Festival and Harris Theatre, American University of Beirut, and the Royal Theater in Marrakech, Morocco.

He became close to Bach in the late 1980s. “It became a haven for me because I was going through some bad personal problems,” Miles says. “It was such a relief to be in my practice room and face to face with Bach, who offered an energy and magnificence that eclipsed all the challenges outside.”

It took almost a decade of hard work and some false starts for Miles to release his 1997 album of Bach’s two cello suites, “American Bach,” which he transcribed for Miles and played by Miles on his five-string banjo, which he has played for a long time. in the aforementioned clawhammer style.

It was met with some surprise and great praise. My former colleague Howard Reich wrote that Miles “dared to undertake some of the most dramatic and profound music ever written and accomplished.”

Although there were a few purists who argued that this Bach music was for the cello only, Miles would retort: ​​”When you see an audience influenced by this music on the banjo, how can you argue with that?”

Much as Bach was revered, he was always aware that he was not what could be called a hot commodity. “Let’s say ‘Bach and banjo’ doesn’t make my phone ring with calls about concert halls,” Miles says in his charmingly self-effacing style.

Yet during the pandemic he was brought back to Bach, or as he put it, “had to go back to the holy grail.”

In doing so he found “a deeper perspective, a growing magnificence.” I realized that I was breathing new life into ‘American Bach’, making discoveries, taking new risks, feeling a new confidence.” He wanted to record a new album and asked the famous cellist Jill Kaeding to join him.

“As humbling as my experience with Bach was, it ultimately served to open the door to composition for me,” he says.

His compositions make up the album’s five movements, the “Chicago Suite,” which, needless to say, reflect the various avenues and spaces that are meaningful to Miles. “I’ve spent most of my life in the city and ‘Chicago Suite’ is my instrumental attempt to capture the spirit of some streets, instrumental music that tells a story,” he says.

When asked to elaborate on one of the movements, “The Alley,” he says: “‘The Alley’ is special in the sense that the streets are places where children play, places of danger and magic. It’s the place where you get into fights and where you kiss a girl for the first time. It’s fun, it’s dangerous, and it’s ours.”

Miles lives with his wife, Nina Newhouser, on a street that inspired another of the “Chicago Suite” movements. Her husband will be in the audience at Space in Evanston this weekend as he and Kaeding celebrate the official release of “American Bach Revisited.”

Miles has traveled many different musical paths in his life with great success and tremendous self-actualization. Although he and Kaeding plan to throw in “maybe a Stevie Wonder song or two” on Saturday, he’ll happily tell you that “playing Bach will take forever,” and that remains a very good way to go.

Michael J. Miles and Jill Kaeding will be at Space, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston, on September 17 at 1 p.m.; tickets $12-$20 evanstonspace.com

rkogan@chicagotribune.com

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