Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Sylvie Courvoisier Trio
Double Windsor
Tzadik 4002

Sylvie Courvoisier-Mark Feldman Quartet
Birdies for Lulu
Intakt 230

Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, having lived in the United States for nearly two decades, is something rare: a musician who’s sustained her European identity and become an integral part of the American scene. That dual nature is captured on Double Windsor and Birdies for Lulu. On both of these excellent albums, Courvoisier sticks to a space she’s explored since the beginning of her career stateside – somewhere between written and improvised music, a hybrid of contemporary classical music, jazz, and the avant-garde. Years ago she married into New York’s creative-music community (her husband is violinist Mark Feldman), but she’s carved out her own spot on what was once the Downtown Scene, that now disparate crew of players who, despite splintering across the boroughs, are still routinely found in the East Village, especially at John Zorn’s room, the Stone. You might lump Courvoisier (who’s 45) in with the generation between, say, drummer Tyshawn Sorey (34) and guitarist Marc Ribot (60).

In conventional jazz parlance, Double Windsor is her first piano trio. There have been other three-pieces in her career – including Mephista, with Ikue Mori and Susie Ibarra (see Tzadik 7704 and 7711), and Abaton (see ECM 1838), with Feldman and Erik Friedlander – but after experimenting with a number of different combinations, she called on Drew Gress (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums), a formidable pair.

Double Windsor is a rich and exciting debut – a just off-center, and wonderfully fertile version of what a more orthodox piano trio might be. Courvoisier’s nine compositions fuel this idiosyncratic point of view. There’s the through-composed. There’s material that straight away opens up to improvisation. There are melodies in the jazz tradition and spare, barely notated bits that fuel complete freedom.

Nothing stays still for long; there’s a lot of writing. The pieces are often packed with jumpy lines and little detours (Courvoisier calls them “interruptions”). The opener, and title piece, nearly contains it all: the dense, driving pulse (an ostinato in 10/8), constant forward motion, tightly wound figures, and a series of sections framed by improvisation. Each motif and mood feels embedded in the overarching design, rather than – again, in conventional jazz parlance – returning to a head.

This push and pull, this elastic relationship to time, form and drama seems second nature to Gress and Wollesen. The little pathways between a line and an improvisation aren’t stitched: they’re an organic part of things. In other hands, Courvoisier’s music could easily feel overwritten – as a lesser rhythm section clunks toward another programmed bit. But it never does.

So “La Cigale” goes from neat, French-flavored post-bop, to a Courvoisier improvisation (and extended technique) which folds into a three-way conversation, the pulse bending, as Gress and Wollesen follow. Or “Corto,” with its collective declaration immediately turning into a real cooker. Everything is in motion, even in something akin to a meditation, “To Fly to Steal”: a short line, bass alone, enter piano and drums, and Courvoisier steps out front, her colleagues now with her, turning the piece inside out.

With its layers of writing and improv, Birdies for Lulu, the third disc from Courvoisier’s quartet with Mark Feldman, is an equally complex artifact. To my ears, however, it often feels freer and, oddly, even more in line with the jazz tradition. Drummer Billy Mintz and bassist Scott Colley are, like Wollesen and Gress, powerful foils, but Courvoisier outdoes herself on the real swingers here – Part 2 of Feldman’s suite, “Cards for Capitaine,” “Downward Dog,” or “Shmear,” Mintz’s sole contribution. Birdies for Lulu is the first date with a refashioned lineup (Colley in for Thomas Morgan, Mintz for Gerry Hemingway). It’s a real boon.

What binds this music together? In his excellent liner notes, Kevin Whitehead characterized it this way: “frequent unisons involving three pairs of players, the use of pure sound within or alongside tonal play, enigmatic shifts in direction, and Mintz’s birdlike brushes.” There is a backstory to much of the program. Feldman’s suite is written for a late Swiss friend and ancient languages scholar. It was written quickly on index cards. When they went to record, Feldman shuffled them. Courvoisier’s title piece was conjured up after she was asked to write bird calls for two mechanical birds. Courvoisier’s “Travesuras” alludes to an especially inspiring Mario Vargas Llosa novel.

If Double Windsor is terrifically alive, Lulu is, too, though it’s also filled with longer, more contemplative stretches. “Travesuras,” which shares Windsor’s jumpy edges (unison lines, multiple interruptions), still feels lighter, less intense.“Birdies for Lulu,” the piece itself, is more like new music: fragments and whole tones, formal, through-composed terrain. It is also immensely fluid.

To my mind, Feldman’s “Natarajasana,” is at the heart of things. The Sanskrit title alludes to the “Capitaine” suite. Beginning with gorgeous piano clusters, and a simple, hanging phrase, Courvoisier is joined by Feldman, near silent, a wisp of a line. It is now a duo, and it grows, Colley and Mintz join, gorgeous color, and Feldman returns with a passage of spartan poise and beauty. If Birdies for Lulu is often delivered in a fever, the stillness here is breathtaking.
–Greg Buium

Aum Fidelity

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