Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier Pays Homage to Her Heroines and Heroes


One morning last June, Sylvie Courvoisier logged onto Facebook in her Brooklyn apartment and, like much of the jazz world, was profoundly saddened to learn that Geri Allen, the visionary pianist, composer, and educator, had passed away unexpectedly at age sixty.

Courvoisier, one of the most consequential pianists to emerge from the downtown free-jazz scene in the last few decades, had been a longtime admirer of the older musician ever since seeing Allen perform at the Jazz Festival Willisau, in Courvoisier’s native Switzerland, when she was sixteen.

Her father, Antoine, a travel agent by day and amateur boogie-woogie pianist on weekends, filled the Courvoisier home with music and taught Sylvie to appreciate swinging rhythms and melody, though he never encouraged a career in music, and certainly not in free jazz. Still, she went to the conservatory in Lausanne at eighteen, where she was raised. Courvoisier père never came around to his daughter’s kind of exploratory jazz entirely, but they remained close, and in April of last year she took him to see Geri Allen perform in Cully, just down the road from their hometown.

“She sounded amazing,” says Courvoisier. “And I talked to her a little after the gig. I had no clue she was sick. When Geri passed, I was so shocked. She changed my way of seeing the music and was also kind of a role model, being a woman, a pianist.”

Courvoisier had finished recording her latest album days before the somber news, and, as an homage, dedicated one of the nine tracks to Allen, naming it “D’Agala,” which she also titled the album, out January 19 on Intakt. The name comes from a Sicilian red wine, Terre d’Agala, and Courvoisier has always loved the name (and the wine, too). The song, a kind of abstract ballad, and the album, is vintage Courvoisier, a thoughtful admixture of earthy, supple writing and astringent improvisation, all of a certain New York terroir.

Courvoisier recorded the collection with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen, fellow veterans of the downtown scene who date back to the original Knitting Factory on Houston Street, and became mainstays at Tonic on the Lower East Side and the Stone on Avenue C, where Courvoisier plays a residency at the Stone February 6–11. The downtown scene was defined by a free-leaning eclecticism, descendant of the Loft era in the 1970s. It’s where the David S. Ware Quartet would play one night, John Zorn’s Masada the next. By 2000, Courvoisier was playing with Mephista, an improvisational trio with drummer Susie Ibarra and electronics master Ikue Mori. The music, and the sensibility, stood in opposition to the traditional revival going on at the time in the more staid jazz clubs and at Lincoln Center. Since then, those rigid walls have slowly crumbled.    

Wollesen, in the free jazz tradition (read: Henry Threadgill and Cooper-Moore), constructs homemade instruments, and two of his “Wollesonics,” as he calls them, are overdubbed on the plaintive title track, where he creates a slow, rhythmic squeaking sound.

“He sounds fantastic on this tune,” Courvoisier says. “He’s not swinging at all, but at the same time he’s really swinging a lot, because it’s this weird machine he constructed with a crank, and he’s cranking it. It’s nothing the way Geri plays, it’s just a thought for her.… I didn’t want to do something with an ostinato for Geri, I wanted to do something very poetic, and very simple with my right hand.”

Besides the piece for Allen, Courvoisier dedicates each of the other eight pieces to those she’s drawn inspiration from, like John Abercrombie, the jazz guitar giant, and Simone Veil, the French politician, women’s rights advocate, and Holocaust survivor, both of whom also died last year.

On the postmodern opener, “Imprint Double,” for her father, Courvoisier reimagines his favored shuffle style into something buoyant but avant-garde — her left hand thunderous, while her right tinkles — before returning to her off-kilter shuffle. It’s a stunning seven-minute tour de force. Ornette Coleman is remembered on “Éclats for Ornette,” where Courvoisier comes out swinging and then turns the piece into something freer, with a technique that recalls the signature flourishes of one the most original pianists of the last quarter of the twentieth century, Don Pullen. On “Bourgeois’s Spider,” for the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Courvoisier plays the inside of the piano with, she says, whatever happened to be within arm’s reach: a drumstick, tape, or her own fingers, plucking it pizzicato. What could’ve been a conceptual mess holds together beautifully, thanks in no small part to Wollesen and Gress, her triomates of four years.  

“They both listen to what you really want,” she says. “It worked from the beginning when I played with them. I think we’ve developed our own way of improvising, and we’ve begun to have the sound of a group. I’m really bad at talking” — she’s not, by the way — “and I think I don’t need to say one word with them. We understand each other.”

This year, Courvoisier will turn fifty, midcareer for sure, but one of the many qualities of jazz is that it doesn’t age-discriminate; musicians often get better, and proper due, as they get older. And she’ll be as busy as ever in 2018. She was at Winter Jazzfest last week, and besides her upcoming residency at the Stone, she’ll tour Europe in the spring. She’ll also be appearing on two new releases — one with Ken Vandermark, Nate Wooley, and Tom Rainey; another with Rainey and Ingrid Laubrock  — and will also record an album with the superb violinist Mark Feldman, her husband, whom she collaborates with frequently, as on their splendid 2013 album Live at Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne. “I think we share the same aesthetic,” she says. “He’s clear in his mind of what works and what doesn’t work.”

Feldman was a major reason Courvoisier moved to New York in 1998, and looking back, she says, she’s glad she made that move. “When I was young, I had all these ideas, but now I think I have the tools to do those ideas. I think in my piano playing, I feel that I can express what I want to say. And also, the writing is getting clearer. I’m happy I moved to New York because that obliged me to work with different musicians, and great musicians — always different styles. I grew up a lot living here.”

Sylvie Courvoisier will perform at the Stone from February 6 to 11.

Most Popular