Bach of ages

Local jazz pianist Markus Burger has a new lease on life

Several sides of Markus Burger

Several sides of Markus Burger

Markus Burger plays Aces, 5321 Date Ave., every Thursday through August 30 at 7:30 p.m. Cover charge is $4. Call 348-5656 for info.

There are times when beauty goes right over some people’s heads.

It’s a strange thing to observe: A booth table with a party of 10 or 12 people, half of them blondes, are jabbering away in the middle of a large club, oblivious to the 25 other people in the room whose attentions are focused toward the stage. And on that stage are a pianist, a bassist and the drummer who are busy illuminating a Baroque number, “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo by the composer Georg Händel.

The music swells.

The blondes compensate by raising their voices.

The other people in the room try to tune them out by dialing into the music.

Onstage, Markus Burger kicks a leg out from his piano bench, finishes framing the composition’s opening section and launches into an extended improvisation. His ever-changing facial expressions indicate he’s being transported to another, more heavenly place. And if the music he’s finessing out of the baby grand, eased along by the nuanced standup bass playing of Joe Davancens and the supple drumming of Mat Marucci, is any indication, he’s there.

Welcome to Thursday night at Aces, a swing/jazz club on the back end of a Holiday Inn near Madison Avenue and I-80. Burger’s gig is part of something called “Cool Jazz for Hot Thursdays,” and he and his trio are in residency there every Thursday through August.

It’s a nice way for Burger to introduce himself to the community. The 34-year-old native of Germany’s Moselle valley region, who originally visited America as a high-school exchange student in Zephyr Cove, Nevada, in 1983-4, returned last year. He’d been running an independent jazz record label in Germany, and he and saxophonist Jan von Klewitz had recorded two volumes of Spiritual Standards, which contain jazz versions of Bach compositions and German liturgical music.

According to Burger, what we know as the music of Bach is really transcriptions made by students while old Johann Sebastian was jamming on the keyboard. “I realized that the body of improvisational music is a lot older than what we think of jazz,” he says. “Because when they wrote down the first melodies in Gregorian chants, basically, Bach had a sketchbook where he just rewrote all the tunes as general bass for the chamber hall players. He never would read a full chart; he would read bass notes with numbers on it,” he says, adding, “They are all improvised.”

Two years ago, Burger was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After several people directed him to the same source, he went to southern India, where he underwent a regimen of diet and meditation to bring the disease into remission. He pursued all avenues of healing aggressively, and one of those led to contacting a sweetheart from his exchange-student days, a Brazilian woman named Cibelle who was employed at Sutter Cancer Center. Burger moved here, their romance was rekindled, they were married.

Illness and healing, naturally, have made Burger’s approach to playing music more urgent. “The sad thing is that we all expect our lives to be on an average of 75 years,” he says. “But we all can die tomorrow on the street. If somebody tells you that you have a disease that can end badly, it just changes everything. I’m just doing everything now. I don’t know if I’m going to be here next year.”

Right now, Burger is explaining to the audience at Aces how he titled the next song his trio will play, an instrumental called “Bonk.” “The ‘B’ is for Burger, the rest is for Monk,” he says. The sharply angular tune that follows recalls its half-namesake; it moves sideways like a banana peel on its back before it begins to ricochet around the room.

It’s true freedom. You had to be there.