Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier’s music can be dark and pensive, but a puckish sense of humor often pops up unexpectedly. Free Hoops, her latest album with one of the few consistent, long-running trios in jazz, featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, is one of her most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums. Streaming at Bandcamp, it’s one of the high points in what’s been a long, ceaselessly creative run for her since the zeros. For jazz fans who might miss Kris Davis’ work from when she was exclusively a pianist, Courvoisier is a bracing breath of fresh air.
Marionettish, low-register scrambles alternate with saturnine, latin-inflected chords and playful, flitting exchanges throughout the album’s title track, Wollesen getting to wryly circle the perimeter. Similarly phantasmagorical, circling riffage kicks off the second number, Lulu Dance, Wollesen again volleying colorfully around the kit as Courvoisier runs the riff against Gress’ muted rhythm, up to another coy game of tag from the three musicians and then back.
Just Twisted is exactly that: crepuscular glimmers, a bit of a grim boogie, cold low accents, slashes and rattles from the whole ensemble. The three coalesce flickeringly into Requiem Pour Un Songe. imagine Bill Mays playing a vampy David Lynch set piece by Angelo Badalamenti, with a dancing bass solo followed by a slightly crazed piano break in the middle.
Courvoisier’s eerie, glittering phrases follow Gress’ clave in As We Are, before the rhythm comes apart and elbows start flying. Then in Birdies of Paradise, the bass, atmospheric cymbals and Wollesen’s tongue-in-cheek avian flickers follow Courvoisier’s poltergeist neoromantic flourishes. Finally, six songs into the record, Gress hits a tritone or two.
The insistent intro to Galore is the album’s most overtly macabre interlude, then the trio hit a slow, stark, funky, swing: this Frankenstein walks on tiptoe. Bits of Lynchian stripper swing and icy Messiaenic climbs mingle in Nicotine Sarcoline, Wollesen luring Courvoisier to a vengeful crescendo. They close the record with Highway 1, rising out of an ominously rumbling, shivering nightscape to a grimly minimalist, ghostly analogue of a Rachmaninoff prelude and then back, sinister waves gently eroding the coastline. A strong contender for best jazz album of 2020.