NEW YORK — Jacques Loussier, a French pianist who led a trio that performed jazzy interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach, selling millions of albums and touring the world, died March 5 at a hospital in Blois, in France’s Loire Valley. He was 84.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Hélène Loussier Oziouls Toulouse. His son Julien said the cause was complications of a degenerative disease.
Mr. Loussier was classically trained, but he had dabbled in jazz improvisation for years when he formed the Jacques Loussier Trio in 1959. The other members were drummer Christian Garros, who had played with Django Reinhardt, and bassist Pierre Michelot, who had recorded with Miles Davis.
The trio played recognizable Bach melodies or pieces, such as “Air on a G String” and the Prelude No. 1 in C, then took flight into bebop improvisations. They quickly found a devoted audience and released a popular series of albums on Decca under the overall title “Play Bach” beginning in the early 1960s.
Many critics bridled at the idea of jazzing up the work of Bach. John Rockwell of The New York Times, reviewing a performance in 1975, wrote he was “actively appalled by the very notion of ‘popularizing’ Bach — or any classical composer, for that matter.”
“Mostly,” Rockwell added, the trio “stuck too close to Bach for jazz and too close to cocktail/salon jazz for satisfaction.”
In 2002, Mr. Loussier told the British newspaper The Independent that such criticism did not bother him. “Bach himself,” Mr. Loussier noted, “was improvising on these pieces for many years.”
Other critics were more positive about Mr. Loussier’s playful style, including Robert Sherman, who reviewed another Carnegie Hall performance by the trio in the Times in 1966.
“Mr. Loussier is a man with a fertile imagination, excellent musical instincts (given the basic premise of his transcriptions) and a powerhouse technique,” Sherman wrote. “The snippets he played ‘straight,’ or reasonably so, showed flair and intelligence, and even when poor old Bach was left far behind, Mr. Loussier’s volatile pianism was never less than compelling.”
The Jacques Loussier Trio broke up in the late 1970s, and Mr. Loussier went on to compose original works, including music for French films and television.
In 1985, the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth, Mr. Loussier rebuilt the trio with André Arpino on percussion and Vincent Charbonnier on bass. The new trio embraced other composers in its jazz adaptations, including Satie, Debussy, Ravel, Vivaldi, and Beethoven, and released more albums. His last new release, on the Telarc label, was a version of Schumann’s “Kinderszenen,” in 2011.
Mr. Loussier was born Oct. 26, 1934, in Angers, in western France, to Rene Loussier, who worked in a bank, and Marguerite (Duvat) Loussier, a homemaker. He started playing the piano at 10, and later said that his distinctive approach to Bach developed while he practiced the Prelude in G Minor.
“I played it 100 times or so,” he said. “Then one day I started to change the melody, then the left-hand harmonies. It was a natural instinct.”