Vincent Courtois: Love of Life (RJAL 397034)

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Vincent Courtois
Love of Life

Vincent Courtois cello
Robin Fincker clarinet, tenor saxophone
Daniel Erdmann tenor saxophone
Recorded June 26/27, 2019 in Oakland, 25th Street Recording Studio by Gérard de Haro, assisted by Gabriel Shepard
Mixed by Gérard de Haro at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Mastered by Nicolas Baillard at La Buissonne Mastering Studios
Produced by La Compagnie de l’imprévu and Gérard de Haro & RJAL for La Buissonne
Release date: January 31, 2020

The appropriately titled Love of Life is cellist-composer Vincent Courtois’s wordless tribute to writer Jack London. London is a fairly recent discovery for Courtois, who cites the semiautobiographical Martin Eden as a constant companion while on tour with reed players Robin Fincker and Daniel Erdmann. The trio began their travels on the East Coast and ended them in California, where they met with London’s great-granddaughter, improvised under the towering trees near his gravesite (as pictured on the album’s cover), and recorded this session on the author’s Oakland, California homestead. The result is music that brims with agency and verve and explores London’s empathy for the underrepresented, the spat upon, and the voiceless.

Each track title pays respect to a short story or novel from London’s oeuvre. His empathy for divided selves is reflected in two diptychs: one for Martin Eden and the other for “To Build a Fire.” Ranging from the former’s jaunty charisma (indicative of a fumbling naivety) to the latter’s crackling flames, Courtois leverages an emotionally naked tone in the contexts at hand. Before these deeply psychological forays, the title track sets the pace with its gentle procession of horns, as if to remind us that everything will be okay in spite of the struggles faced by all. This in contrast the fact that hope seems so far away in the period song “Am I Blue” (Grant Clarke/Harry Akst), which captures the angst of being a working-class subject in a bourgeois world. That same disgruntlement carries over into “The Dream of Debs” and “South of the Slot,” wherein wars are waged internally.

“The Road” is a marvelous highlight. Here the tenors provide a harmonious framework, almost like another cello playing double stops, while Courtois cries out with guttural fortitude by means of his own. Fincker and Erdmann throw their own shining coins into the compositional fountain with “The Sea-Wolf” and “Goliah,” respectively. Where one is stormy and dire, the other is delightfully sardonic. Courtois caps off with a solo “Epilogue” to restore credence to remembrance as the only viable coping mechanism in a world hijacked by self-interested materialists.

Vincent Courtois: West (RJAL 397021)

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Vincent Courtois
West

Vincent Courtois cello, vocal guide
Daniel Erdmann tenor saxophone
Robin Fincker clarinet, tenor saxophone
Benjamin Moussay piano, harpsichord, celesta, toy piano
Recorded September 1-4 and mixed November 20/21, 2014 at Studios La Buissonne by Gérard de Haro, assisted by Nicolas Baillard
Mastered Nicolas Baillard at Studios La Buissonne
Piano, harpsichord, celesta, prepared and tuned by Alain Massonneau
Produced by Gérard de Haro and RJAL, la Compagnie de l’Imprévu
Release date: April 21, 2015

Cellist-composer Vincent Courtois continues his traversal of original landscapes, this time heading West in the most metaphorical possible sense. That is, he isn’t so much interested in dividing the world into arbitrary hemispheres as he is in questioning the very notion of borders as delineations of sociopolitical division and hierarchy while proceeding in a continuous direction. This philosophy is most forthrightly expressed in “So much water so close to home,” of which his pizzicato backbone and multitracked arco accents paint a living picture of the here and now as a means of putting the past into relief. His movements are palpable and consciously articulated, as Courtois himself notes in this album’s press release: “Conceiving, writing and orchestrating notes, almost like they were a travel plan, has become the main axis of my work, one that I cannot do without. A recording studio is a place like no other, these musical roads unwind and come alive.” Where on his last album, he explored such territories with saxophonists Daniel Erdmann and Robin Fincker, this time he welcomes also the structural backbone of Benjamin Moussay on piano, celesta, harpsichord, and toy piano.

Framed by two versions of “1852 mètres plus tard,” this sonic itinerary cushions every step in its picturing of time. Throughout “Modalités,” Fincker plays clarinet, later weaving with Erdmann’s tenor into a dramatic finish. From the brooding and distant (“Nowhere” and “L’Intuition”) to the whimsical and dramatic (“Freaks” and “Tim au Nohic”), every mood blossoms photorealistically. Moussay’s keyboards, especially the celesta and harpsichord of the title track, provide a Steve Reich-esque backdrop as multiple cellos dot the landscape with travelers. All of this funnels into the insistence of “Sémaphore,” throughout which the cello, divided into itself, draws an orthography of the soul for wayward ships to follow when lighthouses have used up their remaining oil. Moving ever forward yet glancing back to make sure that every footprint is a worthy record of what came before, each vessel docks safely to ensure our safe return.

Vincent Courtois: Mediums (RJAL 397015)

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Vincent Courtois
Mediums

Vincent Courtois cello
Daniel Erdmann tenor saxophone
Robin Fincker tenor saxophone
Recording and mixing at Studio La Buissonne by Gérard de Haro
Mastering at Studio La Buissonne by Nicolas Baillard
Release date: October 23, 2012

Mediums brings together an unprecedented trio of two tenor saxophonists (Daniel Erdmann and Robin Fincker) and cellist Vincent Courtois. Described by the latter as “the story of music I’ve conceived then written, out of my childhood memories and the happiness I experienced in the fantastic world of fairgrounds and the people who work there,” it accordingly welcomes us into a fantastical world replete with colors, lights, and sounds as tensions and harmonies come together like a storm of forces. Though it takes a little time to get settled in, once the parameters are clear, we are taken on an epic childhood tour.

The pizzicato arpeggios of “Mediums” speak of a lyrical core, while the reeds unleash a guttural filigree around them. “Une inquiétante disparition” is in two split parts. From the insistent pulse of the first to the muscular bowing of the second, it turns cries into songs and back again. Between them are the whispering haunt of “Regards” (the album’s most graceful) and the locomotive exuberance of “Jackson’s Catch.” Virtuosity is applied sparingly throughout, and only for the effect of underscoring a primary sentiment.

The tender “Rita and the mediums” and “La nuit des monstres” share studio space with the programmatic (the three-part “Bengal”) and the abstract (“Entresort”). Like “The removal” that wakes us from this dream, we can take each as the beginning of another until rest seems like the memory of a life no longer lived.

If Courtois can be counted on for anything, it’s the integrity of his sonic scripts, wherein most characters are played by himself. New faces shine like the sun—melodies without any other purpose than to cast the listener’s shadow.

Vincent Courtois: L’imprévu (RJAL 397010)

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Vincent Courtois
L’imprévu

Vincent Courtois cello
Recorded and mixed April 1-3, 2010 at Studios La Buissonne by Gérard de Haro
Mastered by Nicolas Baillard at Studios La Buissonne
Produced by Gérard de Haro and RJAL for La Buissonne
Release date: January 20, 2011

L’imprévu (The unexpected) is an album of unaccompanied short stories written and performed by Vincent Courtois. ECM listeners will know the French cellist from his work with Louis Sclavis. After toying with the idea of a solo album for more than 15 years, he and producer Gérard de Haro at last found a coincidence of schedules that brought them into the studio together. From the opening title piece, we can hear not only that Courtois is a player of sensitivity and poise but also that de Haro is a most suitable engineer to emphasize the nature of his sound.

The comfortable vibe established by such intimate borders as “Alone with G” (a pizzicato gem that treats the cello as a horizontal rather than vertical instrument) is occasionally broken, as by the scraping arpeggios of “Amnésique tarentelle” and “Skins” or the freely improvised strains of “Suburbs kiosk” and “No smoking,” so that no single mood never dominates. Neither is Courtois afraid to play with the idea of a solo project by multitracking himself into an orchestra. Such instincts feel not like additions from without but extensions from within. In the stretched-out chords of “Colonne sans fin,” “Sensuel et perdu,” and “Regards” (the latter two sounding nearly like lost tracks from David Darling’s Dark Wood), his experience as a composer for film bears deepest fruit. The one compositional outlier is “La visite” by Sclavis, a highlight for its thoughtful reading and tenderness, and its ability to say so much with so little. This is music for those who want nothing but.