Sylvie Courvoisier’s Free Hoops

awardFREE HOOPS / COURVOISIER: Free Hoops. Lulu Dance. Just Twisted. Requiem d’un songe. As We Are. Birdies of Paradise. Galore. Nicotine Sarcoline. Highway 1 / Sylvie Courvoisier, pno; Drew Gress, bs; Kenny Wollesen, dm/Wollesonics / Intakt CD 351

French pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, whose music lies somewhere between conventional and free jazz, presents here a richly-written series of tribute pieces: to her bandmates Drew Gress and Kenny Wollesen, family members, her cats, and jazz figures Mark Feldman, John Zorn, Christine Matthey and, much to my surprise, 1930s & ‘40s jazz pianist-bandleader Claude Thornhill (Requiem d’un songe).

For those who have never experienced Courvoisier’s music before, she often opens a piece in a specific tonality but moves away from it as the music develops, In this respect she is much like Carla Bley, but less mannered and precious in her presentation. Lulu Dance, dedicated to her cats, nonetheless goes pretty far out on a free jazz limb, with percussionist Wollesen playing a myriad of discursive rhythms behind her atonal note-picking while bassist Gress tosses a few notes in here and there as accents. Just Twisted, dedicated to Zorn, is also quite a strange piece, consisting primarily of soft upward arpeggios in the right hand using extended chords while Wollesen crashes away in the background, before embarking on a series of edgy close chords, followed in turn by spectacular fast right-handed runs and two-handed arpeggios. Gress gets a fairly remarkable solo in this one, too.

Taking her cue from Thornhill’s soft-grained “gingerbread” piano in his theme song, Snowfall, she creates a truly magical pattern using the basic bass line of that piece as underpinning before going off on an extended chord tangent, then upping the rhythm as Gress plays his bass at four times the original tempo. What started out as a tribute to Snowfall becomes a descent into a maelstrom.


Sylvie Courvoisier

Each piece has its own character and form, no two pieces are alike, and yet all recognizably come from the same musical mind. Birdies of Paradise, dedicated to bassist Gress, is a delicate atonal work with an amorphous shape that mostly meanders along yet somehow makes musical sense as it does so. Percussionist Wollesen has fun playing around with electronic sounds in the background that he describes as “Wollesonics.” A good time is had by all.

Galore, written as a tribute to Wollesen, features Gress playing a sort of grumbling bullfrog pattern on his bass behind the pianist and drummer, who eventually settle into a sort of syncopated tango-like figure. Nicotine Sarcoline, dedicated to her brother Stéphane, is a fast-paced piece in a walking tempo but without a regular metric pattern until Gress comes in on bass to establish a walking 4, at which point Courvoisier strums a few strings inside her piano before returning to the keys.

This is quite a musical trip. Highly recommended!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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