Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman’s Saturday night set at the 2011 Undead Jazz Festival was a virtuosic departure into the classical avant-garde, and with all of the surprising spontaneity these two performers offer. Drawing inspiration from composers like Messaien and Bartok, Courvoisier and Feldman improvised using the full range of their instruments in dazzling, improvised chamber music that featured wide-open improvisations and through-composed pieces.
There is an interesting contrast between compositions penned by each member of the duo: Courvoisier’s compositions balance wild improvisations, packed with nebulous melodic runs, with unexpected unison passages that emerge unexpectedly from the chaos. For example, her piece “Messiaenesque” used short unison passages to punctuate the improvisations, providing a harness to restrain the exploration. Feldman’s compositions provided the calmest moments of the set, in which folk and jazz influences come into play more strongly. His “Five Senses of Keen” set an atmospheric mood. Courvoisier brushed softly directly on the piano strings, creating a whisper resembling an auto-harp being played in the distance. Feldman’s improvisation ranged the furthest into fiddle territory, and added a satisfying contrast to the harder-edged music of the rest of set.
The last piece sounded like it was through-composed, which would have been a nod to the classical sensibilities of the two musicians. However, it very well could have been improvised, and that’s really the point of this duo’s music. Courvoisier and Feldman show the possibilities that lie in the convergence of classical and jazz music. Improvisation, like composition, is an art developed through dedication and hard work. The duo presents these two disciplines as different but equal modes of expression offer a set of possibilities unavailable to either discipline on its own. Feldman and Courvoisier capitalize on this potential, and use it to make captivating music.
The Undead Jazz Festival’s relaxed and intimate setting was a good fit for this group. The small room at Littlefield in Brooklyn, and the amplification of the instruments allowed every detail of the music to be heard and felt. More importantly though, the common elements of the duo’s music with the other bands on the festival, who all feature a blending of composed and improvised elements, show how jazz’s ability to assimilate different ideas of music-making is a source of its expanding vitality.