Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson – It Takes Two to Tango

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With or without vocals, there are no other instruments but the piano and the guitar, which musicians can perform solo for hours to enraptured audiences, whether classical, jazz or pop music. Possibly since they can each stand alone with such confidence, duos combining piano and guitar are not so often. In jazz, at least a few notable attempts should be cited including Bill Evans and Jim Hall, in the early 60s, and at least one duo in contemporary jazz that cannot be overlooked is Julian Lage and Fred Hersch.

However, the piano and guitar duo that Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson have with now two recordings to incorporate into their live performances is on a different plane for its experimentation. This could also be simply expected since both Courvoisier & Halvorson are best known for their experimental approaches on their recordings over decades, as leading improvisers in modern jazz.

The duo Silvie Courvoisier on piano and Mary Halvorson on a “plugged-in” acoustic guitar, in other words with a swarm of effect pedals, will be touring Europe in October. 2023.

Of the two, Halvorson (born 1980 and raised in Boston) is the more established on the avant-garde jazz scene, currently based in New York City, and following in the traditions of Marc Ribot or Sonny Sharrock. She has been getting high praise from critics since her quintet’s second release “Saturn Sings” (2010), which garnered placement on many top 10 lists by critics. Halvorson also won Best Guitar in DownBeat’s International Critics Poll in 2017, 2018, and 2019. As a former student of Anthony Braxton’s, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, her compositions are firmly outside the mainstream, but with a curious lightness to her complex music that typically abrasive free jazz doesn’t have, recalling the breezier and nuanced West Coast experimental jazz sound of the late 1950s, Jimmy Giuffre 3 with the guitarist Jim Hall or cross-genre masters Lenny Breau or Johnny Smith. Then there is her harder side that reflects her earliest rock influences from experimental psychedelia of Hendrix to proto-punk or the heavier side of punk (Ron Asheton of the Stooges or Greg Ginn of Black Flag).

Halvorson conjures up an unlikely blend of these influences for her own inimitable sound, but possibly best explained (even on acoustics) as a futuristic electric lady-land gone down an avant-garde jazz lane. She traverses the fretboard like a slow-moving spider across an expansive web with dashes of fury.

Meanwhile, Silvie Courvoisier, born 1968 in Switzerland, but based in Brooklyn, NYC for the past 25 years has a different mix of musical worlds, by combining the classical and the contemporary classical music scene, with free jazz (playing with musicians of both the mainstream and the avant-garde). Other collaborators of hers from the jazz world include drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Drew Gress (as a trio), and violinst Mark Feldman (as a duo), and for this, playing John Zorn’s Masada compositions.

Her avant-garde jazz influences (or at least precedents) that can be noticed include at the very least Cecil Taylor and Carla Bley, but it seems that it is her classical influences that she brings into her jazz collaborations that give her (and/or any musicians she plays with) a new spark for intergroup dynamics.

On their latest (and second) recording “Searching for the Disappeared Hour” (2021), Courvoisier & Halvorson within each song get entangled then separate; then they rejoin for another delicate dance of opposites (meaning what they bring from their respective and complex musical worlds). Each song, by combining composition and improvisation, is like a match-up or meeting at an unknown place, then off to a journey and into a labyrinth with interlocking curiosity, odd challenges and playful surprises.

Silvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson are performing in Europe, in October, at selected venues below.

Saturday, October 21—BASF-Feierabendhaus Festsaal, Heidelberg, Germany
Monday, October 23—Music Is Festival at Jazz Dock, Prague, Czech Republic
Wednesday, October 25—Conservatori del Liceu, Barcelona Jazz Festival, Spain
Thursday, October 26—Nasjonal Jazzscene, Victoria, Oslo, Norway
Friday, October 27—Luxembourg Philharmonie, Luxembourg
Monday, October 30—Café Oto, London, UK

More information can be found here at Sylvie Courvoisier’s website.

Last modified: October 16, 2023