With her idiosyncratic mixture of mystery and mirth, and a seamless conjoining of jazz and classical musical vocabularies, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier has carved an enviable niche for herself. She not only possesses impeccable technique, but her voice as a composer is just as formidable, whether in partnerships with fellow mavericks like Mary Halvorson, Evan Parker, or Mark Feldman, or in her blue-chip trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Their D'Agala (Intakt) was a widely hailed highlight of 2018, and now they are at it again with Free Hoops. Unsurprisingly, it is every bit as good as its predecessor.
Courvoisier always keeps her listeners guessing, with a wide scope of approaches up her sleeve to enliven her knotty compositions. Sometimes this involves a raw muscularity, as on the album's title track, where her pugnacious solo builds steady energy in conversation with her partners; and in other moments it is a hard-driving propulsion, with cresting waves of notes which startle and provoke, as we hear on the fierce "Just Twisted." But that is not all: Courvoisier also offers an abiding sense of rhythm, digging into a sinuous groove on "Galore," and she possesses an uncanny intuition for finding space in the music for her colleagues. Never one to overplay, Courvoisier is just as potent in restraint as when she is out front, and "Highway 1" is a case in point, as the air of mystery is palpable, with Gress able to showcase his own impressive range, from perfectly plucked notes to atmospheric arco, and Wollesen providing moody interjections with his patented "Wollesonics" enhanced percussion.
Each of the nine tracks is a gem, but perhaps the best encapsulation of the trio's distinctive magic is "Lulu Dance." Fueled by an enticing left-hand ostinato which allows Gress to roam freely while Courvoisier and Wollesen elevate the intensity, the music suddenly breaks off, opening up a playful middle section in which all three players frolic semi-independently, seeking a way to re-converge, which they finally do, bringing the piece to a satisfying conclusion when Courvoisier once again resumes that ostinato groove. There is abundant creativity here, but it is channeled so skillfully that it never feels gratuitous or self-indulgent. It is just another ideal opportunity for three masters to display their craft in close communication and genuine rapport.
An exemplary working unit and a superlative piano trio, this group is at the top of its game, and how delightful it is to see it produce such a satisfying sequel to D'Agala. Current fans of Courvoisier will certainly not be disappointed, and hopefully she'll gain many new ones as well.
Free Hoops; Lulu Dance; Just Twisted; Requiem d’un songe; As We Are; Birdies of Paradise; Galore; Nicotine Sarcoline; Highway
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