If you define jazz strictly as evolved four-bar blues with rhythm at its heart, the fact that Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier cites jazz as an influence on Abaton, a two-CD effort with her trio of that name, may well drive you to seek refuge in a glass of fine cognac. But if you think of jazz as that perfect free moment when improvisers see possibilities and fulfill them in one motion, you'll see proof of her statement in this album.
On the first disc, Courvoisier, with the help of violinist Mark Feldman (who's also her husband) and cellist Erik Friedlander, creates her own sound-world with four original compositions. She often selects imaginary place-names as titles-"Orodruin," from Tolkien or "Abaton," which means "the place not to be entered unbidden"-and her works appropriately feel spacious yet full of incident. Silences are as important as sounds here, whether the music is fast or slow, but the pauses never imperil the music's momentum. Between the pauses, the Abatonnaires make the exotic ornaments of extended timbres, like strumming and plucking piano strings or playing the violin or cello with the wood of the bow, into essential building blocks. And though clusters of notes and detached (but impassioned) phrases do the most to push the music onward, Courvoisier always guides us to heights where we can hear real, gorgeous melody: the medieval tune that climaxes "Orodruin" or the unexpected, blistering cadenzas in "Abaton."
Producer Manfred Eicher encouraged the Abatonnaires to explore Courvoisier's sound world with improvisations on the second disc, and they do it with both gusto and sensitivity. Each musician gets to show off his or her ample chops above eloquent silences demarcated by the other players in the three "Icaria" pieces. "Octavia" and "Archaos" find Feldman and Friedlander viciously attacking motivic cells they've just created, with sensitive support from Courvoisier, while "Narnia" is an appropriately tender solo lullaby from Sylvie. It's rare to hear modern classical music forged anew in the heat of improvisation, but that's exactly what Abaton does. Jazz fans with a thirst for something strange yet fresh should ask ECM to pass the Courvoisier.