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Friday, March 29, 2024

Sylvie Courvoisier - Chimaera (Intakt, 2023) *****


By Stef Gijssels

The sole reason why this album has not been reviewed before, is due to a simple form of humility with the question of how on earth I can do credit to it without creating a suboptimal view to potential listeners of the quality of the music they will hear. I have been mesmerised by it since the first time I listened to it, and  I guess I've reached the milestone of one hundred times in the meantime. 

Throughout her musical career, Swiss pianist and composer Sylvie Courvoisier has explored the possibilities of smart and adventurous music in the space that covers composed and improvised idioms, including her recent take with Cory Smythe on Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps/The Rites Of Spring, a formal acknowledgement of the classical elements that always permeated her sound. 

"Chimaera" is a jump forward in my opion, and at the same time a logical though unexpected step in her career. 

First, there is the line-up, interesting because of the instruments, and fascinating because of the musicians who perform on them: Wadada Leo Smith and Nate Wooley on trumpet, Christian Fennesz on electric guitar, Drew Gress on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums and vibraphone, and of course Courvoisier on piano. Fennesz's guitar plays a critical role in the overall sound, yet it's as brilliant as the dual trumpet front of Smith and Wooley, who each with their individual sound and approach create something fully unique, Smith out there in the skies, Wooley solidly grounded in avant-garde and blues, the first time ever these two trumpet giants performed on record. Courvoisier adds: "I really wanted to write something special for these amazing musicians that I admire and respect so much. I had this band in mind when I composed.

Second, there are the compositions. These are incredibly complex even if light-textured, with lots of changes, themes disappearing and re-emerging, with sometimes short structural themes that last only for a thirty seconds in a very long composition, like unexpected fruit on long branch. The music shifts between moments of gentle shimmering to moments of dramatic power, sometimes moving gradually into one another, sometimes juxtaposed in harsh contrast, and even if you follow the logic after so many times of listening, it's still so full of unpredictable aspects, that you keep being surprised. Courvoisier adds "This music is really influenced by the ambient world of Christian Fennesz and the spirit of Wadada, Nate, Drew and Kenny". 

Third, there is the sound, obviously the result of the first two points: band and compositions, but surely conceptually there in the first place. The music is inspired by 19th Century French painter Odilon Redon, whose works of art are further described below. Redon is known for his transition from figurative to abstract art, but of course primarily for weaving mysterious dream aspects into our familiar world, of contrasting reality with illusion, or even stronger, as he described it himself: 

"I have often, as an exercise and as a sustenance, painted before an object down to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and with an unsatiated thirst. The next day I let the other source run, that of imagination, through the recollection of the forms and I was then reassured and appeased."

That is how the music sounds, like a dream from which the burdensome formal structures have been gradually stripped or subtracted only to leave the real quality of the sound intact, no longer burdened in scaffolds or structural supports, offering a sense of absolute freedom, fragility and and implicit sense of structure. Courvoisier adds "I had a pretty clear idea of the sound of the band when I wrote the music, but of course, they make it sound better than what I could imagine. So the end result is pretty much what I had in mind, even if it is developing at the rehearsal and performance, so I can’t wait to do more concerts with this band, as it will develop even more!"

The end result is multifaceted, unique, exceptional, precise and carefully crafted. 

The title refers to the strange animal from Greek mythology: "The term "chimera" has come to describe any mythical or fictional creature with parts taken from various animals, to describe anything composed of disparate parts or perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible, or dazzling. In other words a chimera can be a hybrid creature"(Wikipedia). At the same time, so is the sound of the music here, as are the compositions: "composed of disparate parts or perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible, or dazzling".

The first track is called "Le Pavot Rouge", illustrated below. The twenty-one minute composition is possibly the one that will be easiest to remember. It starts with a great solo bass intro, followed by Courvoisier's jazzy theme on the piano, and the mid-tempo rhythm guitar dragging the listener in the piece, easily, gently, building up to the beautiful core theme on the horns. After exactly one third of the track, the theme starts collapsing into its base ingredients, without clear arrangements, breaking up the existing reality into a weird dream world, where delight and fear live together, where cognitive control leaves the way for creative invention with no background but with the occasional anchor point to keep the continuity of the piece. Fennesz's guitar offers a dark undertone for the bluesy piano pieces, the light-footed vibraphone and the soaring trumpets. It's hypnotic. It's infectious. It's captivating. It's perfect.

Le Pavot Rouge (1890)

The second track is called "La Joubarbe Aragnaineuse" (Sempervivum arachnoideum) also a plant whose name is slightly and creatively altered by Courvoisier, because it sounded more fun ("aragnaineuse" instead of "araigneuse" (spider-like) because, according to Courvoisier "it sounds more mysterious"). It starts with a very dark undertone of the guitar, a slow piece, with implicit compositions yet obvious structure, more volatile and ethereal than the opening track, again setting darkness and light against each other, or weight versus weightlessness. It flows, it progresses, it surprises, it shifts in gradual sonic colours. 

The third track is called "Partout des prunelles flamboient", (meaning "Everywhere Eyeballs Are Ablaze" from The Temptation of Saint Anthony), inspired by the drawing below. It's a strange composition, with sudden changes and brusque moves, alternating almost quiet moments with angular themes full of high excitement and volume, possibly as if Saint Anthony has moments of burning lust and deep regret or resignation. It's fun. It's unpredictable. It's odd. 

Partout des prunelles flamboient (1888)

The next pièce de résistance is "La Chimère Aux Yeux Verts" (The Chimaera with the Green Eyes), also from the same portfolio on the Temptation of Saint Anthony). It starts with a strong and solid rhythm section with piano and guitar, that dissipates into thin air after a few minutes, giving Wadada Leo Smith the floor for his typical spiritual sound, singing over the shy piano and guitar in the background, but then, without warning, the fast speed picks up again, with the entire rhythm section playing for just twenty seconds when it disappears again into a meditative trumpet moment for Smith, soaring, jubilating. It's grand. It's special. It's ominous. 

Odilon Redon | La Chimère aux Yeux Verts (1888) | Available for Sale | Artsy

La Chimère Aux Yeux Verts (1888)

"Annâo" is again a slow piece, floating somewhere in imaginary dreamscapes, with beautifully light-touched piano sounds, implicitly following some inner logic that is hard to grasp yet sounds coherent and planned, and Nate Wooley gives one of the most moving and bluesy trumpet phrases that I've heard in a while. 

The album ends with "Le Sabot de Venus" (Cypripedium calceolus) (Lady's Slipper), like "La Joubarbe Aragnaineuse", the name of a flower. Courvoisier comments: "These names are my own derivatives from plants, names that sound 'good' to me, but they also do sound like names of paintings by Odilon Redon. I like to imagine how Odilon Redon would paint these plants … and I like to imagine that the listeners imagine a painting by him that is called "La Joubarbe Aragnaineuse" or "Le Sabot de Venus".  This last track is equally completely unpredictable, a kind of an imaginary sonic landscape, dream and nightmare at the same time, with slow moving sequences, and brutal moments full of harsh sounds that shock and recede, giving space back to quiet, beautiful, precise and subtle interactions. It's a place you want to be for its intense beauty, yet equally afraid of what might come next. 

In sum, the whole album oscillates between solid and free forms, between material and immaterial worlds, between patterns and the unexpected, between the familiar and the imaginary, between waking and dreaming, between peace and angst. It is a fascinating album by many measures as I mentioned. The unique musical vision of Courvoisier works incredibly well in the hands of these master musicians, whose playing is wonderfully adapted to create her dreamworld. Brilliant!

Don't miss it. 

Further explorations: 

The black and white drawings presented above are part of a portfolio of work by Odilon Redon, called "The Temptation of Saint Anthony". The entire portfolio can be viewed here on the website of MoMa. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

It is also interesting to watch one of the first live performances of the album, here at Roulette, New York on Nov 16, 2022, before the second trumpet part for Wadada Leo Smith was added and recorded the next year. 


Anonymous said...

I fully agree with the reviewer. 2023 had another fine crop of jazz albums but Chimaera keeps drawing me back after many listenings. It has a wonderful sense of mystery yet feels very grounded. The use of two trumpet soloists, each with a distinctive role feels inspired. Bravo to all concerned!