Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier’s new album D’Agala, with her trio – streaming at Spotify – is a characteristically dark, rich, gorgeously melodic tour de force. Courvoisier has been one of the most vivid tunesmiths in jazz for a long time. Here she takes that translucent sensibility to new levels, along with plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle humor, jaunty interplay and extended technique. She’s played as many Stone residencies as any other member of John Zorn’s circle, and she’s got one coming up starting tonight, Feb 6 at 8:30 PM, running through Feb 11. Cover is $20; the full list of ensembles she’s playing with is here. The Feb 8 show, a duo set with her violinist sparring partner Mark Feldman may be the most intense of all of them.
Impish upper righthand fragments peek over a muted, sotto-vocce ba-bump groove amid pregnant pauses as the album’s opening track, Imprint Double – written for her pianist dad Antoine Courvoisier- gets underway. From there she follows a steady, ominously lingering stroll, Janacek’s tortuous overgrown path dotted with Satie-esque belltones. Then she brings back the opening groove, drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Drew Gress matching the playful suspense.
Courvoisier opens Bourgeois’s Spider – dedicated to sculptor Louise Bourgeois – with chiseling inside-the-piano figures, then pedals down a long runway, the rhythm section matching her increasingly gritty intensity all the way. More of those Satie-esque close harmonies give way to starlit peek-a-boo phrases as Wollesen and Gress hang back, steady and distantly relentless.
All of the tracks here are dedications as well. With its loopy riffs, subtly dancing variations and cat-chasing-the-yarn piano, Éclats for Ornette isn’t hard to figure out. Simone (for Simone Veil) has an aptly rapt, mystical sensibility, cached within Courvoisier’s scampering lines and brought to the forefront by Wollesen and Gress’ looming presence.
Similarly, he and Gress swing the icepick Andriessen changes of Pierino Porcospino (for Charlie), the blues hidden away in Courvoisier’s blips, bleeps and circles bringing to mind Myra Melford in a particularly animated moment. The title track – a salute to Geri Allen – pairs Courvoisier’s somber minimalism against the rhythm section’s insectile scrapes and rustles, Gress adding mutedly brooding blues. Courvoisier weighs that gravitas against lighter, more carefree sounds and opts for an elegy: Allen would not doubt appreciate this.
Circumbent (For Martin Puryear) is the album’s most overtly improvisational number, Courvoisier’s disappearing-ink chordlets and staccato accents grounded by a steady, almost trip-hop sway from bass and drums. Fly Whisk (for Courvoisier’s fellow Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer) interchanges judiciously spaced piano clusters amidst Wollesen’s misty ambience, tersely accented by Gress. The ending is too good to give away, and is vintage Courvoisier. She and Gress switch roles, with her shadowing him throughout the album’s concluding cut, South Side Rules (for John Abercrombie), bass punctuating its resonant, immutable unease as Wollesen builds a cumulo-nimbus backdrop. This record’s going to be on a whole lot of people’s best of 2018 lists.