Sellin’s Jazz Impressions of Debussy

Sellin cover

JAZZ IMPRESSIONS / DEBUSSY: Children’s Corner: The Little Shepherd; Doctor Gradus ed Parnassum. Clair de lune. Le petit Négre. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Images: Reflets dans l’eau. Petite Suite: Ballet.* Préludes, Book I: La fille aux cheveux de lin. Pour le Piano: Sarabande. La plus que lente. BEIDERBECKE: In a Mist / Hervé Sellin, *Yves Henry, pn / Indésens INDE107

It was Friedrich Gulda who said that much of modern jazz owed a great deal to Debussy, and he was right, but until now no one—not even Gulda himself—dared to improvise on the perfectly-constructed pieces of Debussy’s own music. Most jazz-classical performances focused on one composer, and that was Johann Sebastian Bach.

But here is Hervé Sellin, a renowned jazz pianist and leader of a famed Tentette, playing solo in his own personal explorations of Debussy’s music, adding one Debussy-influenced third stream piece by Bix Beiderbecke. According to the liner notes, this project had its gestation in 2012 when Sellin performed with classical pianist Yves Henry in a concert of Debussy’s music. On the present disc, Henry joins him in Sellin’s arrangement of the Petite Suite ballet. Otherwise, this is a strictly solo effort.

Sellin is not stranger to this repertoire in its legitimate form. He studied classical piano as a child and, at age 19, became part of Aldo Ciccolini’s class at the Paris Conservatoire. But he always loved jazz, and so pursued a career in that field, playing with such noted greats as Chet Baker, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton and Art Farmer. He has also received the Django Reinhardt Prize in 1990 and the Django d’Or, category of Confirmed Artist, in 2008—ironically, since Reinhardt himself never received a music prize in his life and died in relative obscurity.

Sellin’s method in approaching “jazz Debussy” is much like that of his countryman Jacques Loussier’s approach to Bach, i.e., to introduce the melody in the opening bars, sometimes play it through as written (and sometimes not), then take off on his own, adding lines and rhythms, and often chord positions, that Debussy never dreamed of.

For those who erroneously think that jazz pianists fall back on learned licks when they improvise, I urge you to explore this CD. There is very little here that sounds that way; indeed, most of the time Sellin is off on tangents that most pianists wouldn’t have thought of. Only occasionally, in certain right-hand keyboard runs, does he play what I would say are standard jazz patterns. With Debussy always clearly in focus, he needs to be thinking of the piece’s underlying structure even if he is rewriting it as he plays.

Occasionally, as in the famed Clair de lune, the stickler for classical form will not like what Sellin does because they consider what Debussy wrote, as they consider what Bach wrote, to be sacrosanct. But I liked it. Sellin is not pretending to be “presenting” Debussy, but using his themes as a take-off point for exploration, and if you view it from that perspective, there’s no problem. If you want to hear a jazz pianist play Debussy “straight,” there is always Gulda’s recording of the 24 Préludes, and that, too, is a fascinating document. This one is just different but, to my mind, equally valid.

The ragtime sensibilities of Le petit Négre may seem, in the opening, to be just right for Sellin’s ruminations, but he surprises you by slowing down the tempo and shifting harmonic gears to something far more complex than what Debussy wrote. To my mind, classical pedants give all too little credit to jazz musicians for expanding the harmonic palette of classical music by using suspended and extended chord positions. Yes, Debussy was a master of this in his own time, but his chord extensions only opened the door for musicians of a later era, particularly the great Art Tatum, master of harmonic suspense, and Bill Evans, master of harmonic extension, to take what Debussy (and Stravinsky) did into an entirely new universe of sound. What Sellin does is far from being a “desecration” of Debussy; rather, it shows what his harmonic experiments led to at the same time that he gives you what Debussy himself accomplished. It’s a way of combining the past with the future, so to speak.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a combination of Debussy, Tatum, Evans and pianists who extended what Evans did, like Keith Jarrett and Jack Reilly, creating an entirely new musical form. You can always go listen to others play this music as written. There are literally dozens of recordings to choose from. But there is only one recording like this, and it shows what a master jazzman can do by inserting “instant improvisation” into formal structure.

The other complaint pedants will have is that Sellin, like those jazz pianists who improvise on Bach, remove some of the original composition to impose their own ideas. Although it’s true that one can listen to the middle of one of these pieces, i.e. Reflets dans l’eau, and not have a clue what the original piece sounded like, Sellin re-introduces snippets of the original often enough that one gets an idea of what he is doing. And this is exactly what a jazz musician does when improvising on a popular tune. If you were to start John Coltrane’s performance of My Favorite Things three minutes in, and didn’t know the title, you wouldn’t hear that original tune, either. This is what jazz musicians do.

The duo-piano performance of the Ballet from the Petite Suite is perhaps closer to the original because Sellin is working with Henry, but the latter pianist sets up his own non-Debussy rhythm to play a few variants of his own, and accompany Sellin in others. In La fille aux cheveux de lin, he even tosses in short licks from Tea for Two and the opening chorus of Honeysuckle Rose as a bit of a joke. Musical blasphemy? No, just making musical relationships. This is also what jazz musicians do.

I won’t spoil the fun for listeners by tipping off what Sellin does in every track because the listening experience will tell you all you need to know, but suffice it to say that he has fun with virtually every piece in this collection. Debussy’s music is essentially used as the backdrop for his musical explorations. They’re not so much “variations on (fill in the blank)” as they are jazz pieces incorporating Debussy. I particularly liked the rocking motion he set up in the Sarabande, which he uses to fuse the two worlds, here quite successfully without sacrificing a connection to the original. Conversely, La plus que lente is the most personal performance, merely using the theme as a launching pad for extraordinary excursions into musical outer space. But perhaps the biggest surprise is that, aside from a few ritards and perhaps an extended chord or two, Sellin does almost nothing individual with Beiderbecke’s In a Mist. It’s a wonderful performance, don’t get me wrong, but just a few extra notes are added here and there to what Bix and Jack Teagarden—who added the contrasting theme in the middle just before the piece was published by Robbins Music—originally wrote.

Yet the extraordinary quality of this music and its performance will delight and surprise you. Sellin has achieved something truly wonderful here.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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