By J.D. Considine | Published June 2020
The relationship between Debussy and jazz goes way back. The composer is said to have been inspired by the harmony and rhythm of African American musical forms, and numerous jazz musicians—most notably pianist Bill Evans—have cited his work as an influence on their ideas, particularly about harmony. Even so, while jazz arrangers have been more than happy to repurpose works by such contemporaries as Ravel, Albéniz and Stravinsky, there’s been precious little in the way of Debussy-jazz on the market.
Impressions Of Debussy attempts to correct that, albeit in a somewhat roundabout fashion. At the suggestion of Daniel Gustin—director of the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan—Lori Sims’ 2016 performances of Debussy’s Preludes, Books I and II, were sandwiched around a separate concert of Debussy-derived improvisations by soprano saxophonist Andrew Rathbun and pianist Jeremy Siskind. The idea was to contrast a straightforward classical interpretation of the work with a jazz-informed expansion of the composer’s ideas. Impressions Of Debussy compresses those three concerts into 78 minutes of music, with Sims’ excerpts from the Preludes followed by Rathbun and Siskind’s elaborations and improvisations.
Sims’ readings are a delightful surprise, offering solid but understated technique and an impressive control of tempo and dynamics, a combination that brings out the coloristic depth of these pieces. Siskind and Rathbun, by contrast, put less emphasis on technique, stressing instead the harmonic and melodic language of the material. They don’t do jazz “covers” of the preludes. Instead, they sometimes rework Debussy’s ideas into improv-friendly shapes, and sometimes riff on specific phrases to pull the music more toward the jazz vocabulary. Their take on “Minstrels,” from Book I, is perhaps the most successful example of the latter, with Rathbun seizing on a simple, ascending phrase and working it until it leads the two into an interpolation of Monk’s “I Mean You.” Siskind then expands that into a stride figure that winks back to Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” and then things explode from there. It’s lovely, erudite fun, though not obviously Debussian.
Elsewhere, their efforts are less exuberant, in part because there isn’t as much rhythm to play with. Take “… des pas sur la neige,” also from Book I. It’s given a gorgeous reading by Sims, who makes much of its leading tones and moody, rubato phrases; Rathbun and Siskind, however, can’t really follow that route, and instead offer a more romanticized extrapolation on the melody’s path through Debussy’s chords. Their take is pretty enough, but can’t quite muster the urgency to make its ideas sparkle.
Impressions Of Debussy delivers an attractive balance between classical music and jazz, but it doesn’t quite solve the problem of how to translate Debussy’s music into jazz. Perhaps even the best improvisors can only offer impressions.