Characters on a Wall
Louis Sclavis clarinet, bass clarinet
Benjamin Moussay piano
Sarah Murcia double bass
Christophe Lavergne drums
Recorded October 2018, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 20, 2019
This 13th ECM leader date from Louis Sclavis takes its inspiration from pioneering urban artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest, with whom the reed virtuoso and composer has been friends since the early 1980s. Although similar in theory to Napoli’s Walls, the album could hardly be more different in practice. And while Sclavis isn’t usually one to compose with images in mind, for this project he did just that, referencing paintings on walls from as close to home as Paris to as far away from it as Palestine.
For this, Sclavis trusted the talents of pianist Benjamin Moussay, bassist Sara Murcia, and drummer Christophe Lavergne. Despite having played with Moussay for a decade and with Lavergne some years back, he first convened this particular quartet in the context of another project called “Loin dans les Terres” (Far Inland) in 2017. The present effort strikes me, for lack of a better word, as one of Sclavis’s “jazziest” to date, although Moussay gives it his own classical touch. Much of it feels balladic, elegiac, and nocturnal. As Sclavis tells me by email, “When I compose I don’t think ‘jazz,’ but try to find the best way to express my inspiration, so sometimes the world of classical music feels appropriate.”
The tune “L’heure Pasolini” blends these signatures and more into a savory mélange. Like a wall crumbling from neglect, bass clarinet, piano, and bass suggest the remnants of a border. Moussay is downright gorgeous, while Murcia digs deep but also flies when thermals reveal themselves. Between this shadowy piece and the concluding brightness of “Darwich dans la ville,” the situation of every image is taken into account. The piano intro of “La dame de Martigues” stirs a kindred heart before bass clarinet moves like a figure in sheer clothing. Sclavis notes his affinity for this low reed, which sounds more soulful than ever: “I’ve been playing bass clarinet since 1972. It’s my go-to instrument. More and more, it has become my natural voice, to the point where I can now say exactly what I feel through it.” That said, the standard clarinet in “Extases” yields some of his most alluring textures on record, singing with fortitude and emotional release. Just as visceral is Murcia’s bassing in the groovier “Prison.”
In consideration of its strong conceptual foundation, I wondered how the music changed on its way to the studio. “In concert,” Sclavis responds, “we played more compositions. The record, however, is a strong collaboration between us and [ECM producer] Manfred [Eicher]. He knows what we want and how to achieve it, and by his suggestion we kept only my original music of our repertoire.” The sole exception to that model is Moussay’s own “Shadows and Lines,” in which bass clarinet returns like a specter in stone-laden scenes. The band ramps up its energy, just as quickly devolving into a pianistic unraveling that leaves Sclavis to roam unbound by idiom. His improvisations showcase a master at work. Then again, technical flourish takes a back seat to emotional acuity, especially in two group improvisations that came out of Eicher’s suggestion. As Sclavis tells it, “I decided to call these ‘Esquisse’ [French for “sketch”], in the manner of Ernest preparing for a painting.” All of which leave the walls of our minds as listeners bare and primed to receive images of vivid imagination and political relevance.