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Impressions of Water and Light
solo piano fantasies based on music of The Impressionists
Cover of Impressions of Water and Light
Impressions of Water and Light
available on Spotify, YouTube Music, Apple Music, Amazon and Qobuz

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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.

- Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, Fanfare Magazine, 2014.

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
Young Girl With Straw Hat
Fantasy Girl with Flaxen Hair (Claude Debussy)
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.
Starry Night
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.
Bazille Terrace
Dance for a Princess Gone (Maurice Ravel)
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.
Monet - Japanese Bridge
River god at play... (Maurice Ravel)
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.”
Picasso - Maya Doll
Le Petit Négre variations (Claude Debussy)
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.
Monet - Boat Studio
Rêverie (Claude Debussy)
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.
Etude pour Tango - Sonia Delaunay-Terk
Tango Américaine (John Alden Carpenter)
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.
Picasso - Blind Man's Meal
Blue Prelude (Claude Debussy)
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."
Degas - The Tub I (Woman Bathing in a Shallow Pan)
Pavane (Gabriel Fauré)
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.
Paul Signac - Portrait de Félix Fénéon
Golliwog is Steppin' Out (Claude Debussy)
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.
Mary Cassatt - Lydia Leaning on Her Arms
A Giddy Girl's Fantasy (Jacques Ibert)
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.
Monet - The Rouen Cathedral
Risen Cathedral (Claude Debussy)
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."

Paul Signac - Place des Lices
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...

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