It says something about pianist Sylvie Courvoisier
's current profile in creative jazz that she could assemble such a distinguished ensemble for her latest release, Chimaera
. Augmenting her usual trio of bassist Drew Gress
and drummer Kenny Wollesen
are trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith
and Nate Wooley
, and with the always interesting Christian Fennesz
completing the group on guitar and electronics, one would expect extraordinary results. And so they areworthy of a lengthy, two-CD treatment, in fact.
Courvoisier's work with Gress and Wollesen goes back to 2014, on Double Windsor
(Tzadik). Since then, she's made two others with this trio, D'Agala
(Intakt, 2017) and Free Hoops
(Intakt, 2020), both of which are superb showcases of Courvoisier's prowess, with rhythmic intensity and improvisatory imagination galore, and with a telepathic rapport with her partners that always characterizes the best piano trios. And that is no less true of Chimaera
, although listening to it the first time requires adjusting one's immediate assumption that it will be a display of the musicians' undeniable chops. What we get instead is something much more subtle and elliptical, in which mood and atmosphere are the objective rather than overt virtuosity. Indeed, part of the pleasure of this recording involves appreciating just how readily these formidable players subordinate themselves to Courvoisier's vision. Smith, Wooley, and Fennesz are outsized presences in their own right, but here their goal is to create something beyond their individual artistry; and although all six compositions are Courvoisier's, the album feels very much a group endeavor, and a superlative realization of a collective concept.
With four of the album's tracks coming in at over 13 minutes (and the first, "Le pavot rouge," a riveting 21 minutes), Courvoisier's music takes shape gradually, but with an emphasis on sustained development. This is music to get lost in, as ostinato passages and serpentine grooves meander through each cut, with a transfixing aggregative quality. Smith and Wooley are frequently at their most lyrical here, with a patience in articulation that matches the music's predilection for tempered restraint. The two engage in a gorgeous back-and-forth on "Le pavot rouge" with just a few perfectly placed notes; and when the rhythm ceases altogether for an even more muted segment as Wollesen takes up the vibraphone, the fragility of the music is striking, highlighted all the more when the captivating groove resumes. The group's use of space throughout the album is pivotal, allowing even the smallest gestures and flourishes to speak volumes.
Also crucial is Fennesz, whose crafty guitar and judicious use of electronics add indispensable texture to the music. Sometimes he floats in the background, almost imperceptibly, as on "Annâo," where he gently goads Courvoisier and the trumpets with occasional interjections. Elsewhere he is considerably more gregarious, particularly on "Partout des prunelles flambolent," easily the most dynamically enticing track on the album. Here Fennesz drives the music forward with beautiful distortion, fueling the leaps and flurries that give the piece its energy and verve. Courvoisier takes full advantage of the chance to stretch out here as well, with a glimpse of the sheer power and creativity she brings to her craft. Yet by the album's conclusion, the mysterious hold of "Le sabot de Venus" is finally released, and it is not the musicians' skill that most impresses, but rather their ability to cast a sustained spell for over eighty glorious minutes. A triumphant recording, and one of 2023's highlights.
Le pavot rouge; La joubarbe aragnaineuse; Partout des prunelles flambolent; La Chimère aux yeux verts; Annâo; Le
sabot de Venus.
Kenny Wollesen: vibraphone.
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