Impressions of Water and Light is the first album of The Masterworks Trilogy in which I explore the intersections between classical and jazz piano. It won "Album of the Year" in 2014 at SoloPiano.com.
Impressions was perhaps the most effortless of the three, since Impressionism has many things in common with modern jazz. When I began this album, however, I had no idea it would turn into a Trilogy...
After completing Midwinter Born, I had a few ideas leftover that I
thought might form the core of a new solo piano project. While playing a jazz chord progression, struggling to
decide on a melody, I realized Claire de Lune kept whispering over the top. It made me think back to when I was a kid.
Debussy was my grandfather's favorite composer and George Gershwin was my mother's. I have always thought of the
two together, not only because of this personal connection, but also because there are many jazz tendencies that
find their harmonic roots in the Impressionist music of Debussy and others.
Why not approach the music of the Impressionists as a contemporary jazz musician? I could explore this
connection as I lose myself in the music, spontaneously... let myself find my own impressions, as if the written
notes were light and my imagination was water.
I thought the project would turn into a jazz collection with Impressionist overtones, and some of
these pieces are. But mostly I found myself forging a balance between Impressionism and jazz, creating a
Neo-Classical post-Impressionist hybrid: Impressionist Jazz. Some pieces sound like re-arrangements, familiar, yet with a new
tonal setting. Some are fresh compositions that merely quote a few known passages. Some are theme and
variations, as old and new duel, collaboratively. All are Fantasies that explore the intimacy between jazz
and Impressionist music, between myself and some of my favorite composers. I hope you are able to go back to the
originals, to reconnect with them; the contrast will heighten your enjoyment. I know I'll never hear them
the same again.
Impressions of Water and Light is Mueller’s discourse with the great
Impressionist composers. Some of the tracks are variations on, or new tonal arrangements of, the
original melodies; others are new songs that merely quote the source as a departure point for exploration.
In every case, the listener has the sense that Mueller is having his personal conversation
as a composer and pianist with these great 19th- and 20th-century composers.
A good example of this is in Dance for a Princess Gone. Mueller sees the melody as a
“lullaby of care and loss,” and he alters the chords in a New Age jazz manner
to create an aching melancholy. Other highlights include: River God at Play,
based on Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, in which Mueller delivers the tinkling water in the treble
and the resonant deep in the bass; his virtuoso arrangement of John Alden Carpenter’s
Tango Américaine; Sitting with Satie, in which Mueller takes inspiration from Bill Evans’s 1963
Conversations with Myself. The sound is very live and sensitive to the nuances of the piano.
The printed booklet is a lovely addition to the experience. In it Mueller pairs a late
19th-century or early 20th-century painting with each of the tracks and adds his own
liner notes analyzing the musical and poetic themes of the melodies and their connection
to the visual universe of the painters.
I like to think of some Impressionist music as Pastoral pre-Jazz. Sophisticated modal harmonies and
playful improvisation give shape to fluid dissonance, yet avoid the urban agitations and twentieth century
displacements (syncopation) that energize much of modern jazz. Many Impressionist pieces flip from idea to
idea without conformity, like a catbird scatting. Idyllic, illusive running brooks pervade many of it's
melodies. Still meadows, gardens in full bloom, a sunrise over drifting waves, and the exultations of
springtime give much of this music dreamy context and inspiration. Sensual music, mythic yet tactile.
This poetic essence is what I've tried to illuminate in each of my interpretations, regardless of the
genre they (almost) fall into.
These piano realizations are inventive, as they creatively flower from the roots of familiar impressionistic
compositions. They are wonderfully played by Tobin Mueller with sumptuous yet carefree styling. A
beautiful synthesis of melodic tethers, pleasing harmonics and jazzy counterpoint."
- Richard Schletty
Debussy has been called "the determining factor in the music of the 20th century because of the doors he
opened and the restraints he cast aside." That is one of the reasons his works form the core of my explorations.
The other reason is my love for his music. What a fabulous cultural time. I've paired paintings of the era with
each of the pieces to add one more layer...
Impressions of Water and Light — Liner Notes by the composer
The first track is based on La fille aux cheveux de lin: Très calme et doucement expressif (The Girl
with the Flaxen Hair), Prelude #8 from "Préludes: Book 1" by Claude Debussy. Each book was written in
a matter of months, at an unusually fast pace for Debussy. Book one was written between December 1909
and February 1910, and book two between the last months of 1912 and early April 1913. I stick fairly
close to the original form during the opening (and ending), although only 6 chords use the actual
written notes. I hope my chord substitutions bring a fresh feel to the piece. I am ever mindful of the
composer's initial flow and intent, even in the bluesy section that deviates completely from the score.
Leur chanson se mêle au Clair de Lune (Claude Debussy)
"Leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune" (Their song mingles with the moonlight) is taken from the
French poem Clair de Lune written by Paul Verlaine in the year 1869. It is the inspiration for the
third and most famous movement of Debussy's 1890 Suite bergamasque of the same name:
Clair de lune. Debussy commenced the suite in 1890 at age 28, but he did not finish
or publish it until 1905. I had written this chord progression long before I knew what melody it would accompany.
Debussy's Clair de Lune haunted me, and, thus, after I wed the two, the "Impressions
of Water & Light" project was born. The waterfall-like arpeggiated section in the middle is the only section of
the piece in which I play (mostly) the notes as written.
Pavane pour une infante défunte (Dance for a Dead Princess) was written by
the French composer Maurice Ravel in 1899 when he was studying composition at the Conservatoire de Paris
under Gabriel Fauré. I first played this song when I was a teenager, during the last year of my sister's
life. Although Ravel wrote this as a romantic song, I have always interpreted it as a lullaby. Romance
and loss, tragedy and beauty, nostalgia and longing are all included. Most of the chords have been
subtly altered by a note or two, blending in hymn-like New Age jazz timbres. The inserted middle section
represents a dream sequence I imagine playing inside the surviving mother's mind as she recalls her
lost child. The fallen final note was added to signal that the lullaby is over and real life has, again,
intruded. The illustration: Frédéric Bazille's The Terrace at Meric, with the
seemingly unfinished sketch of a young woman haunting the shadows.
Maurice Ravel wrote on the 1901 manuscript of Jeux d’eau, "Dieu fluvial riant de l'eau
qui le chatouille..." a quote from Henri de Régnier's Cité des eaux, translated as "River
god laughing as the water tickles him..." which inspired my title, "River god at play." Jeux
d’eau is a marvel of flowing impressionistic perfection, dedicated to Gabriel Fauré and
inspired by Franz Liszt's Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este. My variations grew out of the
rehearsal process, moments when I'd let myself get lost in the musical imageries and find
my way out onto new harmonic seascapes. I love the way my internal fantasies lay alongside
Ravel's own passages. Claude Monet's “Japanese Bridge” beckons, with its flaring colors and
fluid motions, just as Ravel’s music, to find, as Monet said, “that perfect moment we spend a
lifetime trying to capture, hoping to experience.”
Le Petit Négre (1909, Debussy) was originally intended to be the sixth composition
in a collection "The Children's Corner" loosely based on things in Debussy's daughter's room.
Le Petit Négre is about a black doll belonging to Debussy's
daughter employs ragtime rhythms associated with African-American composers who had just come into
fashion, like Scott Joplin. It was replaced in "The Children's Corner" by "The Golliwog's Cakewalk"
(track 10) and "Le Petit Negre" became a stand-alone piece. I went further into the future history
of jazz than ragtime for my set of variations. Yet, even the frenetic boogie woogie section is based
on riffs used in Debussy's original music. I deviate so far from the original score, I felt it necessary
to add "variations" to the title.
Rêverie (1880/1884) is one of Debussy's most beautiful and loved works, even
though the composer was dissatisfied with it. "I very much regret your decision to publish Rêverie,"
Debussy testily wrote to publisher Eugène Fromont. "I wrote it in a hurry years ago and purely for
commercial purposes. It is a work of no significance and, frankly, I consider it absolutely no good."
Aside from the introductory section, altered transitions, and liberties with tempo and timing, I play
this piece mostly as written; although I hope my interpretation and occasional harmonic additions
transforms it into something new. Rêverie is animated by romance, spontaneity and daydreaming. It
represents the earliest known instance of Debussy working in the "impressionistic" musical vocabulary
that would become his trademark, and, thus, has great significance, no matter what the composer believed.
The Studio Boat by Claude Monet depicts Monet's converted boat from which he studied light and reflection.
Tango Américaine (1920) is an elegant example of American
composer John Alden Carpenter's ability to apply Impressionistic stylings to other musical genres,
in this case, the Tango. Carpenter was born in Park Ridge, Illinois, and educated at Harvard University
(where he was president of the Hasty-Pudding Glee Club). After studying under Edward Elgar (composer
of "Pomp and Circumstance"), Carpenter earned a comfortable living as vice-president of the family
business, a mill supply company from 1909 to his retirement in 1936, writing music throughout his
life, especially after retiring. I play his Tango much slower than marked and use a light, staccato
touch, which I feel brings out a sense of restraint and grace. And though I let my imagination lead
the melody on a few improvised side steps, for the most part I stick to the original structure and
progressions. I chose "Etude pour Tango" (Sonia Delaunay-Terk) as a visual accompaniment because of
its combination of swirling motion and chic boldness.
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Sounds and scents turn in
the evening air) was inspired by the poem by Charles Baudelaire, "Harmonie du soir" (Evening
Harmony). The poetry suggests many images and muted yet colorful moods. This is the fourth
of the Preludes that comprise Book I of Debussy's Préludes for piano. My interpretation greatly
simplifies the darker and darting original, creating a moody yet coy jazz-blues groove that
emphasizes the brief Gershwin-like moments in the score. Baudelaire often combined erotic and
aesthetic themes, and would’ve loved jazz, I think. He was an important innovator of prose
poetry. I've chosen Picasso's "Blind Man's Meal" (1903) to illustrate both the music and
poem, calling this fantasy "Blue Prelude."
Pavane, written in 1887 by the French composer Gabriel Fauré, was
originally a piano piece, but became better known after Fauré arranged it for orchestra and
optional chorus. Devastatingly simple, with a gorgeous melody, it inspired both Ravel and
Debussy to write a pavane of their own (see track 3). My first verse speaks to the "romantic
helplessness of man", which is the subject of the choral lyrics. My left hand plays 16th notes
instead of 8ths, giving me more room to explore lush minor key variations. When the jazz
progressions kick in during the later verses, they serve as examples of uncertainty, of struggle,
of searching. I quote Fauré's original piano in my final verse; I thought it dramatic to
place it last, as a cleansing statement of purity, as if innocence survived. I chose
Degas' The Tub I (Woman Bathing in a Shallow Pan) to illustrate.
Golliwog's Cakewalk is the final of six movements from Debussy's "The
Children's Corner", published in 1908. It is dedicated to Debussy's daughter, who was three
years old at the time. The golliwog was a black character in children's books in the late 19th
century usually depicted as a type of rag doll. My take on the song evokes more the magic of
"stepping out on the town" than a child's room. This is why I used the fantastical Portrait de
Félix Fénéon (Paul Signac) to illustrate. I hope you enjoy the way I took Debussy's youthful
melody and made it swing just a bit. Harmonically, I embellish Debussy's playful dissonances
and completely replace the left hand rhythmic framework with chromatic syncopation. As in a few
other arrangements, I expand the main themes and edited out secondary ones, shaping the song into
more of a jazz standard format.
A Giddy Girl, published in 1922, is the 4th movement of "Histoires",
a 10 piece song cycle by the French composer Jacques Ibert (1890 – 1962), the "youngest"
composer I've included in this collection. My arrangement of A Giddy Girl
is the only one in which I play every measure of the original score, without editing out any phrases or
sections. I have added passing notes throughout that act like counter melodies,
transforming the piece while maintaining the original simplicity and 1920s charm. I
also take great liberty with tempo, trying to capture the dizzy romantic swoon of the Giddy Girl. Mary
Cassatt's contemplative yet reeling portrait, Lydia Leaning on Her Arms, illustrates.
La cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) was published in 1910 as the 10th
prelude in Book I of Debussy's Préludes. This piece is based on an ancient Breton
myth in which a cathedral, submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys, rises up from the sea on
clear mornings when the water is transparent. Incorporating Debussy’s melodic theme into a jazz groove made
me feel like I was walking the streets of Rouen, synthesizing everything around me. I have renamed this
fantasy "Risen Cathedral," imagining the cathedral already risen as I pass, my present distractions
contrasted against its ancient magic (when the chordal section arrives at 2:48). Choosing one image from
Monet's "The Rouen Cathedral" series proved difficult, but I settled on Morning Effect.
I thought the contrast of colors best fit the music.
I saw Frank Sinatra on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson many years ago.
With an impish grin, Johnny asked him, "So, when you're entertaining a young lady in your home, do you play
Sinatra (to try and seduce her), like the rest of us?" "No," Frank replied, "I put on something classy, like
The Sunken Cathedral."
Sitting with Satie: Conversation & Life (Erik Satie)
Sitting with Satie: Conversation & Life was conceived as a medley in which I
play the main piano interpretations and then overdub a second part, similar to "Conversations with
Myself" (1963) by pianist Bill Evans. Instead of separating the differing performances by panning them
left/right, as he did, I separate them spatially via reverb. Satie's Trois Gymnopédies
(1888) and Gnossienne (1890), Debussy's Prelude 6 and my own
music (inspired by Satie) are combined. The medley begins with Satie's simple purity, evolves into tumult
and trauma, then returns to try (in vain) to capture that initial simplicity. Satie is a master of creating
space, and I hope the use of extra reverb during the "conversation" helps to fill it with a sense of homage.
The transition out of 1 ére Gymnopédie is done with the help of Debussy's
Footprints in the Snow (Prelude 6), although many additional notes are added. I play the melancholy
Lent from 1 Gnossienne with a near violent un-Satie urgency
and completely new chords that become more jazz oriented as they are repeated. It eventually gives way to my
own transitional section inspired by Satie's 3 ére Gymnopédie. The recapitulation
of 1 ére Gymnopédie includes a new melodic duet, which I imagine accompanying the
lone man sitting on the bench in Paul Signac's Place des Lices. Surely, those trees
are swaying with music all their own...