SYLVIE COURVOISIER

Abaton
ECM 1838/39

Few CDs sum up as well the constant crossover that’s now taking place between players comfortable with notated music and improvisers as ABATON. That’s because the three performers involved are stylists so comfortable in either idiom that the concepts of so-called jazz and so-called classical music don’t fit into the picture.

Leader is Swiss-born, New York-based pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. Her trio is filled out by Americans, violinist Mark Feldman and cellist Erik Friedlander, both of whom have extensive experience in genre jumping from serious to improv to rock and back again, most notably with John Zorn.

Much less strident than the average Zorn session however, the two CDs here, no matter their origin, are still performed in classical chamber music trio style. Especially with the written material on the first disc, the lack of dynamics and abundance of technique often makes the sounds frigid and the listener feeling as if he or she has wandered into a very large, very cold, concert hall.

All and all, the most impressive notated piece is the title track, which was also written most recently. Perhaps it suggests that Courvoisier, who composed everything here, is becoming more assured at this departure form her studies in European art music to create something that isn’t really jazz and is certainly not pure improv.

“Abaton”, the composition, features more drama than the other notated tracks with Feldman and Friedlander alternately producing brief melodies as Courvoisier chords. Freer than elsewhere, the violinist double stops and bends notes in a manner definitely not part of the European classical tradition, while at the bottom the cellist confines himself to evenly paced arco insinuations. Beginning with a metronomic full-keyboard exhibition, the pianist downshifts to tinkling grace. Helping to create an offbeat rhythm, Courvoisier nudges the piece along until Feldman’s expansive tone fills the gaps with smooth portamento movements.

Besides this though, the other compositions are wedded a little too closely to recital tradition, with elongated pauses in many places seemingly more awkward than atonal. Feldman has a beautiful tone all right, but the condensed note pinpricks he often produces can come across as affectation. “Ianicum” includes an introductory section made up of weeping, augmented violin tones, but when played at tempi ranging from adagio to largo it starts to drag. Midway through Courvoisier abandons her high frequency interpolations and begins exploring the piano’s insides with string plucks, pedal pressure and percussive stopped hammers, while Friedlander plays largo behind her. With an ear-splitting upsurge the violinist reenters the area, causing her to match his strings’ falsetto tone with right-handed chiming.

If the first disc is less than satisfying because the compositions go on at too great a length, the second CD of 19 [!] improvisations suffers from the inverse problem. With only seven of the tracks more than three minutes in length, idioms and ideas aren’t fully developed. Courvoisier ends the disc aimlessly noodling on the keys. Can something more be read into this?

Earlier on “Brobdingnag”, pitchsliding, she sounds a note on the keyboard then stops the action with internal dampers. This way she turns the un-prepared instrument into something resembling a player piano — all in about 90 seconds. Despite this, however, those tunes that give the musicians more scope to express themselves work best.

“Spensonia”, for instance, is built around a swift discordant line that passes from one player to the next. Sounding as if he’s creating at the top of the fiddle’s scale, Feldman’s free exposition is soon joined, then doubled by the others, until the pianist begins funereal runs that turn into a smooth Iberian line, backed by simple string snatches from the others. “Archaos” includes freeform, pitchsliding glissandos from Feldman that vie for aural space with Friedlander’s legato continuum. The fiddler then soars into the treble clef as the cellist reconfigures a basso melody. “Icaria” features piano chording and a high-pitched, four-string swoop leading to Yiddish music-inflected, double stop echoes and screeches.

On “Sonnante”, as the cellist and violinist polyphonically embellish two themes simultaneously, Courvoisier almost petulantly slaps at the piano’s wooden sides and putters around in its innards, stretching and hitting the strings like a child in a sandbox with a pail and shovel.

Here and elsewhere the three prove that technically they’re comfortable in many idioms. Perhaps, though, the formalism of the Oslo studio helped create musical circumspection on both discs. The result is less than perfect improv-tinged classicism on one and discouraging classically weighted freeform on the other. Crumbling the pieces into inseparable loam would work better next time out.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: Four Compositions: 1. Ianicum 2. Orodruin 3. Poco a poco 4. Abaton CD2: Nineteen Improvisations:1. Icaria 1 2. Imke’s 3. Icaria 2 4. Clio 5. Nova Solyma 6. Spensonia 7. Octavia 8. Icaria 3 9. Sonnante 10. The Scar of Lotte 11. Turoine 12. Archaos 13. Ava’s 14. Brobdingnag 15. Calonack 16. Precioso 17. Sekeln 18. Izaura 19. Narnia

Personnel: Sylvie Courvoisier (piano); Mark Feldman (violin); Erik Friedlander (cello)