Louis Sclavis clarinets, saxophones
Vincent Courtois cello, electronics
Médéric Collignon pocket trumpet, voices, horn, percussion, electronics
Hasse Poulsen guitar
Recorded and mixed December 2002, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro, Gilles Olivesi
Recording producer: Louis Sclavis
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Napoli’s Walls is Louis Sclavis’s reigning masterwork. More than a portrait of its titular city, it’s a city unto itself—an urban web with its own personages, economies, and philosophies. Known for paving future paths even as he redefines the ones he treads at any given time, the French reedist has never sat comfortably in one idiomatic chair. Heavily schooled in free jazz, as attested by the wingspan of his bass clarinet, he also grips his talons comfortably around classical music and, in the context of this album, visual art, taking as a starting point the work of Ernest Pignon-Ernest: a painter who, like Banksy, leaves echoes of his thoughts on streets and buildings, with a fixation on that fine line between integrity and crumbling.
Cellist Vincent Courtois will be familiar to Sclavis listeners from his last appearance on L’affrontement des prétendants. Less so perhaps are Danish guitarist Hasse Poulsen and Médéric Collignon, who plays pocket trumpet, sings, and provides electronic commentary throughout. The haunting slab of introduction that is “Colleur de nuit” would seem to say it all. It parses the night like some half-lit grammarian, drunk off the infinite possible interpretations of speech. The chamber aesthetic fogs windows accordingly as palimpsests for the hungry, enablers of diffusion for the self-absorbed. The cello is potent in this regard and adds a flavor of wanton necromancy. Percussive jangling and distant whistling recall the folk-infused landscapes of Luciano Berio’s Voci, while bass and drums put a strange sort of traction into play.
The title track is equally and deeply cinematic, laying curiously syncopated soprano lines over a spider’s web of electric guitar and amplified pizzicato from Courtois, building into a screeching pinpoint that punctures new stars into the sky with every lick and flick. This is music of remarkable subtlety that changes organically, following lines of flight long obscured, only now exposed.
Much of the album similarly teeters between ascent and descent, between sacred and secular, choosing instead the truth of entanglement. Two pieces marked “Divinazione Moderna”—one a duet of bass clarinet and cello, the other a prismatic setting for the full quartet—embody this entanglement to the utmost, interested not so much in politics as in the fractured lenses through which we view them. The effect is such that an overt historical reference like “Kennedy in Napoli” rings strangely alien for all its chronological specificity. (How appropriate that, during his 1963 visit to Naples, the President should quote Shelley’s characterization of Italy as a “paradise of exiles.”) Eerie, too, the Django-esque nightmare of “Guetteur d’inaperçu,” replete with torrential baritone and droning undercurrents.
Other pieces (e.g., “Porta segreta”) combine composed and intuitive elements in a brilliant mélange of feeling and physicality. All of which brings us back to the art of Pignon-Ernest, whose figures are as much a part of the stone into which they fade and from which they appear. In those traces we can find those same dilapidated edges, those same postcard reflections turned to incitements of anarchy at mere touch of mortal instruments. The careful attention paid to production at vital pressure points along the way sets this nervous system aglow, necessarily leaving us with the rough in a diamond, not the other way around.