François Couturier : French pianist + Tarkovsky Quartet make genre-defying music

François Couturier

“I believe that the music belongs to the true interpreter, the true artist,” said 20th century Spanish composer and pianist Federico Mompou. “Here is the music. What does it suggest to you?”

German cellist Anja Lechner and French pianist François Couturier took that challenge head-on in their album, Moderato cantabile.

coverThough Moderato cantabile is Lechner and Couturier’s first recording as a duo, they have worked together over the past 10 years in music projects such as the Tarkovsky Quartet, created to celebrate the works of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and Il Pergolese, in which they reimagined the music of Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi as improvisational works.

For their first album together, the two carefully selected a rich palette of pieces featuring elements of folk melodies, Eastern music, spiritualism, minimalism, improvisation, and even jazz. It’s unusual to come across an album with such a vast range of musical inspirations, yet “Moderato cantabile” spins them together seamlessly. (Maggie Molloy writing in Second Inversion)

Couturier began learning piano at the age of six. After studying classical piano and musicology, in 1978 he joined the quartet of Jacques Thollot, bassist Jean-Paul Céléa , with whom he formed a duo. Between 1981 and 1983 he toured with John McLaughlin, with whom he also recorded. Over time, he played with French jazz musicians such as André Ceccarelli , Eddy Louiss , Michel Portal , François Jeanneau and Daniel Humair . Since 2001 he has frequently toured with the oud player Anouar Brahem.

Following their sublime duo outing, Moderato Cantabile, cellist Anja Lechner and François Couturier reunite in the pianist’s quartet responsible for two-thirds of a recorded trilogy for ECM Records, with the group the Tarkovsky Quartet.

Bookending Couturier’s second album of the trilogy, 2010’s solo piano session Un jour si blanc, 2006’s Nostalghia—Songs for Tarkovsky and 2011’s Tarkovsky Quartet established Couturier’s quartet as a chamber-like group with increasingly deep chemistry, a particularly profound allegiance to the value of space and significance of decay, and an ability to improvise and/or interpret with equal parts discretion and taste, whether it’s vividly lyrical or more jaggedly angular, thoroughly scripted or completely open-ended. (John Kelman writing in AllAboutJazz)

“What kind of world is this if a madman tells you you must be ashamed of yourselves? Music now!”

So espouses Erland Josephson as Domenico in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 masterpiece Nostalghia, of which this album by pianist François Couturier takes the name. Domenico is, in many ways, himself a musical figure. As the very madman he admonishes, one who shackled his family in their own home for seven years as protection against an imperfect world, he is constantly refolding his own psyche in a leitmotif of fixation, building reality from blocks of fanciful impulses, each more poetic than the last. Yet as Tarkovsky himself once averred, art exists only because the world is imperfect. Music thrives on insanity.

That said, the even keel of Nostalghia presents the listener with such an expressive compass that even the most elemental sound becomes a northward tug. Anyone who has followed Couturier’s ECM travels will know that he is a musician of many directions. From the taut classical forays of Poros to the border-crossing trio recordings with Anouar Brahem (see Le pas du chat noir and Le voyage de sahar), he is anything but predictable. Counting cellist Anja Lechner, accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier, and saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché among the present company, he darkens Tarkovsky’s blueprints with the press of every key until they are ashen with wayfaring. (Tyron Grillo writing in ECM Reviews)

francoiscouturier_tarkovskyquartet_nuitblancheWith Nuit Blanche, Couturier’s trilogy becomes a quadrilogy, as his quartet expands its horizons even farther than ever before on an album that explores ambiguous nether-regions of time, space and consciousness.

What most differentiates the largely dark, contemplative Nuit Blanche from its predecessors is the amount of group improvisation. The quartet’s previous two albums had two or three collective improvs adding up to a small percentage of each record’s run time; Nuit Blanche, on the other hand, includes eight spontaneous compositions, occupying a quarter of its hour-long program. However, the majority of Nuit Blanche‘s remaining compositions are miniatures, most in the three-to-five-minute range.

No matter what direction Tarkovsky Quartet takes, the music of Nuit Blanche is largely more suggestive than it is explicit. A finely hued combination of melody and texture, scripted form and unfettered free play, and a distinctive group sound that has nevertheless expanded, album after album, as the quartet has continued to embed more and more touchstones in its music, Nuit Blanche is this exceptional chamber group’s finest album to date … and with the trilogy now a quartet, the hopes that Couturier will continue his winning streak with more cinematically inspired work with this wonderful ensemble. (John Kelman writing in AllAboutJazz)

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