Jazz artists have been having fun with classical themes since before jazz existed, per se: Scott Joplin sat down with a Schubert score one day and said to himself, “I’m better than this dude.” The new album Impressions of Debussy, by pianists Lori Sims and Jeremy Siskind along with arranger and soprano saxophonist Andrew Rathbun – streaming at Spotify – follows in that irrepressible tradition. It’s a concept record. First, Sims will play a solo Debussy piece, with thoughtful expressiveness and often surprising dynamics. Then Siskind and Rathbun follow with a new chart which is often considerably more improvisational but sometimes not, as Rathbun carries the melody line very straightforwardly some of the time. It’s a win-win situation: Debussy’s gamelan-influenced compositions vamp a lot and make good lauching pads, and this crew have an infectious affinity for the material.
Les Sons et les Parfums (for consistency’s sake, English title case is being used here) sets the stage. Rathbun plays the second part over Siskind’s puckish, ragtime-inflected staccato, evincing hints of flamenco until the two strut playfully off the page.
Likewise, Sims spaciously builds La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin up to a rapture – and then you realize that, hey, that’s Pictures at an Exhibition! The duo section follows a more immediately triumphant tangent: in this version, Debussy gets the girl.
Minstrels gets a jaunty, emphatic interpretation from Sims and a hilarious conversation from the other two players: that little medley of other famous tunes is priceless. Sims really brings out the underlying morbidity in Feuilles Mortes (better known to some as Autumn Leaves), while her comrades kick those piles around a little before realizing the gravity of the matter.
The three go deeper into less iconic material as the album goes on. Le Vent dans la Plaine gets an unexpectedly steady, straightforward attack from Sims followed by a duo version that’s actually more of a piano gamelan piece, and more airy than stormy, with some of Rathbun’s most acerbic playing here.
Sims’ muted, careful steps through the snow in Des Pas Sur la Neige create a magically nocturnal ambience; Rathbun’s expertly arpeggiated paraphrases introduce a more understatedly determined approach from piano and sax.
Sims’ take of La Puerta del Vino comes across as a nocturne with echoes of Satie along with the flamenco. Siskind and Rathbun, on the other hand, bring the Spanish tinge front and center: this is a party.
The two versions of Canope are a carefully articulted, enigmatically shimmery one from Sims and then a tongue-in-cheek, tropical reinvention by Siskind and Rathbun. The three close the record with Danseuses des Delphes, more of a Chopin prelude when played solo here, Rathbun’s version making lively ragtime out of it.