Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier Delivers Darkly Intense, Kinetic Individualism with Her Trio at Roulette
It’s hard to imagine a more darkly distinctive pianist than Sylvie Courvoisier. She’s a longtime member of John Zorn’s inner circle, which makes sense considering her blend of moodily resonant neoromanticism, jazz squall and fondness for extended technique….not to mention the often noirish sensibility and rich vein of sardonic, sometimes grim humor that runs through her work. She can sell out the Stone whenever she feels like playing there; it was good to see a much larger crowd than the Stone can hold watching her raptly last night at Roulette, in a vividly conversational set with her long-running trio, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen. The latter didn’t bring his gongs, but he often used his ride cymbal in tandem with mallets on the toms for the same lingering, otherworldly effect. Gress didn’t walk the changes as much as he danced them, when he wasn’t supplying ambered washes with his bow, or trading off jauntily with the bandleader.
When she wasn’t inside the piano, Courvoisier alternated between carnivalesque, dancing lines, grittily insistent minimalism, broodingly lyrical, resonantly chordal passages, and the occasional flight into frenetic hard bop. When she went under the lid, she muted the strings, then played them with her fingers, with the keys and with mallets, like a vibraphone. Other times she’d rub the strings for a resonance similar to what Wollesen did when he got a keening ring out of a cymbal or two, scraping them with his sticks. The best number of the night was a lengthy, suspenseful triptych incorporating all of those tropes.
Most of the humor involved good-natured jousting, although Gress’ “are we really going to take this to the very top of the fingerboard” jape was a lot of fun. Courvoisier threw elbows at her rhythm section and they threw back; the cleverest of these moments was when Gress hit a minimalist, pedal passage and Courvoisier doubled him….but with her strings muted, adding a ninth interval for extra creepiness. It would have been one thing just to play it on the keys, but the muted effect really drove the sinister effect home.
Qawwali-like, tensely circling low-register riffage expanded into austerely steady, coldly biting Louis Andriesssen-esque bell-tones, then stygian low lefthand pools, then a Lynchian ba-bump roadhouse theme. A sad minor-key waltz awash in cymbals decayed to a muted, mimimalist deep-space pulse that became a clenched-teeth Mission Impossible. Hushed, dusky, misterioso minimalism gave way to upper-register icicles. Phantasmagorical Frank Carlberg-like tumbles sandwiched a defiantly clustering Wollesen solo, followed by flitting, sepulchral piano motives rising to an agitated vortex. Name another pianist who does all of this in about an hour and fifteen minutes onstage.
Courvoisier’s next show is back at the Stone at 8 PM on April 22 in a duo performance with reedman Ned Rothenberg.