One of many interesting things about Hotel du Nord, an album co-led by pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, is how consistently this challenging program, with its strong overtones of North African and Arabic music, is characterized by a powerful jazz pulse. For example, as deeply lyrical as the title track is, the bedrock underpinning by bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerry Hemingway encase the wistfulness of Feldman’s violin and the delicacy of Courvoisier’s piano in a kind of tensile steel. The leaders each work within an extraordinarily broad dynamic range, moving from near silence to powerful outburst, from notes of indeterminate pitch to technically taxing unison passages; this rhythmic core strength is essential as scaffolding to the music’s structure and embellishment.
I don’t mean to imply that Morgan’s and Hemingway’s functions are solely supportive. Each does much more than establish foundation and meter. Morgan plays a solo on “Plan A” that’s worthy of Charlie Haden. And to continue that historic jazz lineage, Hemingway’s small unaccompanied statement on the same composition might easily be mistaken as coming from Paul Motian. These guys have listened, and they have learned. Another interesting thing: As daring as the music heard on Hotel du Nord is, there’s not a moment’s recklessness, no waste, no excess. During “December 2010,” Feldman plays a brief unaccompanied solo of great focus. This leads into a kind of four-way conversation that maintains the purposefulness of the solo. There’s then another shift — an incredibly subtle one — that brings the music into a near dialogue between piano and violin. It’s a remarkable piece of extended group concentration. This quality of concentration is put to the test in “Little Mortise,” a work comprised of miniscule gestures. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this piece is that, for all the tightrope qualities required of its players, there’s never the sense that the musicians are improvising on tiptoe; the playing is committed and confident. “Inceptions” is a tour de force by Feldman. His mastery of the violin is nearly unequalled in Western improvised music. Courvoisier plays with commensurate skill and assurance during her solo. Fleet fingered and possessed with a crystalline tone, she moves from abstraction to jazz comping effortlessly (there’s even a hint of Monk for a brief moment). The album closes with “Gowanus,” a dark, tough as nails, dancelike composition. It’s amazing that something so uncompromising can be so simultaneously funky. Listen for yourself; you’ll hear what I mean. Hotel du Nord succeeds at every level — it’s a difficult, sophisticated, beautifully written and performed, profoundly accomplished album.