October 2000

Jacques Loussier Trio - Plays Debussy
Telarc CD 83511
Released: 2000

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Put a gosling into a bottle; feed him until he grows big enough to no longer fit through the bottleneck. How can you free him now without breaking the glass? This Zen koan has frustrated countless earnest meditators throughout the ages. Listen to Jacques Loussier’s Plays Debussy for the first time and you might likewise find yourself stuck inside a bottle with no way out.

Debussy’s aural language, as in his famous "Clair de lune" presented here, is literally as ephemeral as moonlight. It’s as weightless as afternoon dreams of fauns and dryads -- call his music free-associative tone poems. They are filled with the refracted colors of an otherworldly palette, arrived at through his creation of unique harmonic progressions quite outside convention or predictability. Debussy, the impressionist tone-painter, lingers somewhere in the ether of imagination. He remains unmoored from the constraints of gravity that plague lesser mortals -- his is a spirit untethered. The crux, of course, is that, in music, nothing is more earthbound and subject to the law of gravity than rhythm -- especially the rigorous internal structure of jazz that’s the concealed basis for all its swinging syncopations. This hidden beat is the very antithesis of the temporal fluctuation of rubato, those flexible hesitations and rushes in the linear fabric of time that are in defiance of the orderly regularity of jazz rhythms but are essential to Debussy’s inner-space zero gravity.

Do you begin to appreciate the opening image? How does the French master of jazz-Bach propose to translate Debussy’s transcendental magic into the earthiness of jazz without causing poor Claude to turn over in his grave and weep? To drive home this potential nail into Debussy’s bottle-coffin even further, think of his Polish rival, Chopin, whom we shall briefly call Monsieur Rubatissimo to make our point. Could you turn this most excessively romantic piano music into jazz? The regular-beat underpinnings are in utter conflict with the performer’s state of con emozione that expresses itself through the very suspension of gravity. To turn such wafting progression of the lightness of a Chopin waltz towards purely subjective strata of feelings into jazz? It seems well neigh impossible, doesn’t it? But perhaps Jacques Loussier and his ensemble will find a way one of these days. After all, they managed to do so quite splendidly with their Debussy.

Am I contradicting myself to confuse you? No. To perceive the light here merely requires overcoming an inherent challenge that took me a day to contemplate: You must categorically leave behind any easy familiarity with Debussy’s originals. Ban them from consciousness. Approach Loussier’s vision entirely on its own grounds. This demand is naturally on hold with his entire jazz-Bach repertoire. That allows and welcomes simultaneous appreciation and recognition of the original in the jazz version, and vice versa, without conflict. Not here though! You must bury and forget the historic Debussy. Only then can you relate to his resurrected likeness -- which isn’t quite a perfect reflection, but it’s close -- and embrace it on its own terms by eschewing all comparisons. If you can effortlessly fall into this state of forgetfulness, you’ll arrive at a lesser but nonetheless liberating version of the meditator’s temporary enlightenment of Satori: The goose is out!

It’s patently apparent that the Loussier struggled valiantly with the inherent imperative of style -- contemplating how best to approach Debussy successfully. No careless nonchalance here, but rather considered ensemble adjustments. These include decisions concerning technical matters as well as meter and the transcription of voices, colors and rhythms into other registers or passed over to the bass and drums, cymbals and brushes. Most importantly, the psychic interaction between the performers seems to have grown ever more preternaturally organic, as though one single entity expressed itself through three bodies. This latter point bears repeating. Tremendous subtleties were brought to bear on this admittedly challenging stylistic transcription from impressionism to small-ensemble jazz that, in certain movements, actually turns symphonic. The Jacques Loussier Trio, in the now familiar formation of the last Telarc releases -- Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac on bass, André Arpino on drums -- had to raid some new tool chests of musicians’ tricks to meet the demand. The results are mostly pure poetry, a dreamy yet very sophisticated chamber-jazz that ventures into far-out harmonic spaces that are not usually the providence of straight-ahead swing outings. This aural poetry veritably oozes blue in subtle shades of periwinkle, cobalt and azure. In "La Fille aux cheveux de lin," a thematic break-out leads into a Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown-flavored episode that fades the track out and surprises us with both its charm and ease.

The limitations of the jazz format do occasionally impinge. Take "L’isle joyeuse" -- a serious stylistic clash is circumvented only when the trio embarks on a radical free-form improvisation, switching tracks to avoid derailment. However, as the return to the very pianistic thematic motives shows, this particular approach is less suited to Loussier’s style. "Rêverie," which follows it, however, is an immaculate exercise in subtle and very shifty timing that retains the dream-like floating gestalt. The famous "Cathédrale engloutie" is, in many ways, the farthest departure from what could reasonably be thought of as jazz. For lack of a better term, call it simply a modern piano piece with bass and drum accompaniment. Once you make this small but important distinction, the gears mesh and you’re en route to a unique and very memorable destination.

In closing, the Jacques Loussier Trio’s Debussy is not easy listening fare -- Mon Dieu, do we really need any more fluff? Rather, this is a grand event that makes certain requirements that aren’t in the least insurmountable or even difficult. Don’t put this beast on a leash, but let it run wild, as it will. You’ll find yourself marveling at the multiple dimensions of achievement of Plays Debussy. I’m inclined to call it one of the Jacques Loussier Trio’s very best and most surprising albums to date.

The bottle is empty and the goose roams the sky leaving no footprints....