Sylvie Courvoisier Trio: D'Agala
Intakt Records

If Sylvie Courvoisier's group doesn't quite redefine the jazz piano trio tradition on D'Agala, it undoubtedly offers a refreshingly original take on it. Here's a case where conventional trio rules are rewritten, resulting in flexible playing where the rhythm section exchanges strict time-keeping for a freer style, where double bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen contribute colouristically to the whole, and where the balance between the three musicians is shared more equally than the norm.

The bar for D'Agala was set high by its predecessor, with 2014's Double Windsor—the Swiss pianist's first album with Gress and Wollesen—receiving 'Album of the Year' honours by both Slate and the New York City Jazz Record. The Lausanne-born Courvoisier, who emigrated to New York in 1998 and has called Brooklyn home ever since, is hardly an upstart: D'Agala is her eleventh recording for Intakt Records, and she's been either a co-leader or side-person on fifty albums. A New York fixture, she performs regularly solo and with violinist Mark Feldman, but regardless of context her adventurous jazz sensibility's always enriched by her European chamber-music roots. If she sounds fast on her feet on D'Agala, she is, and stints playing in a number of John Zorn's groups certainly can't have hurt in that regard. Calling it a concept album, by the way, is a tad misleading, though its nine pieces do share a common theme: each is dedicated to an individual that the pianist both admired and was influenced by, with three of them—fellow pianist Geri Allen, guitarist John Abercrombie, and French politician, women's rights advocate, and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil—passing away during the time of the album's preparation.

The opening “Imprint Double” illustrates the impressively high level at which the trio's operating. Its shuffle beat and boogie ostinato aren't arbitrary choices but instead overt nods to Courvoisier's dad Antoine, an amateur jazz pianist specializing in swing and dixieland. But though the piece feels light-hearted, jovial even, there's devilishly serious work in play once the trio digs in, and the transitions from the theme to the freer central exploration and back again transpire so seamlessly they almost go unnoticed; it's fluidity of this kind that distinguishes the project as much as anything else. Not only that, the music's loping groove is infectious, and the little ping that briefly arrests the flow's a sweet touch, too. Elevating the performance further, Gress and Wollesen are anything but bystanders; on the contrary, their contributions are responsive and integral to what's going on around them.

A dramatic adjustment is made for the subsequent track, “Bourgeois's Spider,” Courvoisier's homage to sculptor Louise Bourgeois, known for her monumental metal spiders. Gress and Wollesen here settle into a fixed groove, its low-end, neo-funk feel an anchor for the wrestling match performed by the pianist on the instrument's insides. There are as many strums and plucks as there are keys in this bold, take-no-prisoners take, but one imagines Bourgeois, were she still with us, would be delighted. Surprising too is “ Éclats for Ornette,” less for paying tribute to the late master than for how much more it plays like a Monk homage, especially when the pianist's trinkle tinkle is accompanied by a walking Gress and a Ben Rilley-esque Wollesen.

Don't get the wrong idea, though; Courvoisier's playing is more like Monk by way of Cecil Taylor, so to speak, and rarely does she settle into anything remotely conservative during the nine performances. She's all over the keyboard and splashes are as common as melodies, while the also-versatile Wollesen exchanges sticks for brushes and hand percussion when the material calls for it; in the title track, for example, a dirge-like homage to Allen, he opts for the soft rustle of beads and other strange, creaking noises. If the album never settles into conventional swing, it's not without rhythm-propulsive moments, “Fly Whisk,” the album's homage to Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer, a case in point. Here and elsewhere, Courvoisier's partners are with her every step of the way, making this trio outing a special one.

February 2018