Louis Sclavis: Characters on a Wall (ECM 2645)

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Louis Sclavis
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.

Louis Sclavis: Asian Fields Variations (ECM 2504)

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Louis Sclavis
Asian Fields Variations

Louis Sclavis clarinets
Dominique Pifarély violin
Vincent Courtois violoncello
Recorded September 2016, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 17, 2017

Although clarinetist Louis Sclavis has longstanding partnerships with violinist Dominique Pifarély and cellist Vincent Courtois in respective contexts, here they record for the first time as a trio. Each musician contributes to the overall compositional palette, and with each other’s greatest strengths firmly in mind. Sounding at times like chamber music, and at others like lullabies for an exhausted jazz fanatic, Asian Fields Variations is a robust thesis, fully proven.

Sclavis’s writing oozes atmosphere. Amid the arid currents of “Mont Myon,” throughout which drones metamorphose into melodies and vice versa, a melodic firmament switches places with an improvised fundament, and by that exchange speaks to the grander order of things in which this music unfolds. The bass clarinet monologue of “Pensée Furtive” likewise listens within to describe that which occurs without. But then “Asian Fields” opens a new window. There’s an open secrecy to its aesthetic, as if rendering a scene in charcoal normally done in ink. Courtois unpacks some particularly deep implications in his pizzicato solo, leaving Pifarély to bounce joyfully within each new geometric standard applied to the frame. And where “Cèdre” is a virtuosic showcase for all three, there’s nothing extraneous to hide its intentions. Here, as also in the closing “La Carrière,” a flexibility of emotion prevails, allowing every motif room to inhale, exhale, and inhale again.

The sound-world of Courtois is a graver mixture of dissonance and consonance. His balancing of the two in the unaccompanied “Done And Done” is absorption incarnate. “Fifteen Weeks” and “Les Nuits,” both for the trio, are mosaics of near-overlapping memories, each instrument an actor in idiosyncratic dramas. Pifarély’s “Figure Absente” is a violin solo of quasi-Baroque fascinations and Romantic exegeses. It is text and footnote in one. His “Sous Le Masque,” by contrast, is a play of hidden shadows and implications. Thus is left only the group improvisation “Digression.” Located at the album’s exact center, it speaks with the assurance of friends debating over issues that, while never resolved, make them closer for it all.

Louis Sclavis Quartet: Silk And Salt Melodies (ECM 2402)

Silk And Salt Melodies

Louis Sclavis Quartet
Silk And Salt Melodies

Louis Sclavis clarinet
Gilles Coronado guitar
Benjamin Moussay piano, keyboard
Keyvan Chemirani percussion
Recorded March 2014, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Romain Castera
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Silk And Salt Melodies draws on the well of Louis Sclavis’s Sources. The latter trio album showed the French multi-reedist and composer channeling the spirit of invention with guitarist Gilles Coronado and keyboardist Benjamin Moussay. To that band he now welcomes Iranian-French percussionist and goblet drum master Keyvan Chemirani in a characteristically recalibrated project of musical nomadism. Sclavis’s writing, of which this album is entirely composed, is obviously enlivened by the reinvention.

Louis Sclavis Quartet
(Photo credit: Olivier Degen)

The year 2014, when this album was released, was something of a golden one for the electric guitar on ECM, which found ambassadorship in the artistries of Wolfgang Muthspiel, Jacob Young, and Per Steinar Lie of Lumen Drones. Coronado is no exception, and adds his gold-leaf appliqué with more aplomb than ever. Like each of this band’s musicians, he cares less for soloing than solitude and accordingly explores the methods by which one can travel alone while still being in the company of others. The modal harmonies Coronado shares with Sclavis’s bass clarinet in “L’homme sud,” for example, would seem to indicate a total fusion of interests but, like a deck of cards fanned in anticipation of a spectator’s selection, his guitar waits for just the right moment to be plucked. Then there is his knife-edged interjection into “L’autre rive,” by which he pares a pianistic reverie down to a bite-sized blues. And one must also remark on Coronado’s geometric approach to “Cortège,” in which he takes his playing to a third dimension along a percussive z-axis.

And speaking of percussive axes, Chemirani draws them wherever he happens to be. His opening duet with Coronado in “Dance For Horses” shows a natural virtuoso at work and establishes the pulse by which piano and bass clarinet must reach their apex at the precise moment of abandonment. Chemirani connects his biggest constellations in “Dust And Dogs,” making it the album’s highlight for its ripple effect. From the groovy electric piano, twanging guitar, and beautiful reed work, one can sense a new door opening by the end of its 10 venerable minutes.

Sclavis, for his part, gives back that same inspiration with interest in “Sel et soie.” In his hands, the bass clarinet becomes an emotional portal, and it is all we can do not to get sucked in. Moussay is a suitable partner for that darker reed, as in the duo track “Des feux lointains,” which like a Jenga tower at the hands of skillful players maintains its structural integrity no matter how many pieces are removed. This same combination opens the album’s introductory “Le parfum de l’éxil” before giving way to the full quartet in all of its distorted integrity. From the beginning we jump to “Prato plage,” which caps off the album with a brief, minute-long field recording of amphibious night that suddenly leaves us suspended, grasping for the melodies that brought us here.

Louis Sclavis is like a sun that whips planetary bodies into harmonious dances of orbits. Or, better yet, a moon that draws melodies from the waves at any hour. Over the years he has narrowed his focus, unpacking the multifaceted implications of liner melodies rather than the linear implications of multifaceted arrangements. Leaning toward the former with experience and age has made his music at once edgier and more accessible. Because the improvising among these musicians is so well matured, the material along this Silk Road feels arranged right out of the box and awaits the manipulation of our listening to make it so.

(To hear samples of Silk And Salt Melodies, click here.)

Louis Sclavis Atlas Trio: Sources (ECM 2282)

Sources

Louis Sclavis Atlas Trio
Sources

Louis Sclavis bass clarinet, clarinet
Benjamin Moussay piano, Fender Rhodes, keyboards
Gilles Coronado electric guitar
Recorded September 2011, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
An ECM Production

Clarinetist-composer Louis Sclavis continues his journey of self-reinvention on Sources, in trio with keyboardist Benjamin Moussay and guitarist Gilles Coronado. In the album’s press release, Sclavis notes its singularity in his personal oeuvre: “It doesn’t resemble anything else, it’s really music conceived for this group and which couldn’t exist until we played it.” With the exception of the final track, an exploratory groove by Coronado entitled “Sous influences,” the album is comprised of Sclavis originals. While shades of his characteristic edges are detectable, there is indeed something fresh about the textures of what’s being put together there.

Atlas Trio

The combination of instruments may seem afield of anything else that ECM has produced. And yet, listening to “Près d’Hagondange” and “Dresseur de nuages,” I can’t help but think of Anouar Brahem’s trio work with Jean-Louis Matinier and Françoir Couturier. Despite a marked difference in style, there is affinity of temperament. The spiraling precision of through-composed passages between clarinet and piano gives way to a muscular sort of improvisation that maintains unusual economy of spirit through virtuosity, by which the musicians don’t so much show off as revel in the possibilities of their synergy. The second tune spotlights Moussay on Fender Rhodes, droning beneath Coronado’s circuitry in a postmodern rewiring.

Yet whatever the context, nothing can disguise the sonorous abandon of Sclavis’s bass clarinet, which tears through “La Disparition” as wildly as it beautifies “A Road To Karaganda” with gentler, modal arcs over Moussay’s deeper cartographies (the pianist also excels in “A Migrant’s Day,” for which he toggles between airborne to landlocked movement). Sclavis further enhances the microscopic electronic beat of the title track and evokes river’s flow in “Along The Niger” in a flurry of brushstrokes.

If Sources were a train, it would be balancing on one set of wheels, nearly toppling over but hugging the track at every turn. The trio fuels itself with the sustenance of invention, and with it puffs steam and song without looking back. This is the spiritual successor of Sclavis at his most abstract, a mind shed of its need for fixed identity and all the freer for it.

(To hear samples of Sources, click here.)

Louis Sclavis: Lost on the Way (ECM 2098)

Lost on the Way

Louis Sclavis
Lost on the Way

Louis Sclavis clarinets, soprano saxophone
Matthias Metzger soprano and alto saxophones
Maxime Delpierre guitar
Olivier Lété bass
François Merville drums
Recorded September 2008 , Théâtre de Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Assistant: Mireille Faure
Mixed at Studio La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines by Gérard de Haro and Louis Sclavis
Assistant: Nicolas Baillard
Recording producer: Louis Sclavis
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

“Beauty of music you must hear twice.”
–James Joyce, Ulysses

Lost on the Way brings together another fine ensemble from French reedman and improviser extraordinaire Louis Sclavis. Always game for a reshuffling, he surrounds himself this time with saxophonist Matthias Metzger, guitarist Maxime Delpierre, bassist Olivier Lété, and drummer François Merville. Sclavis fans will recognize Delpierre and Merville from L’imparfait des langues, and shouldn’t be surprised that the iconoclastic bandleader now turns his attention to Homer as a conceptual baseline. Each of Sclavis’s cohorts is well versed in both classical and jazz idioms, and all share a fervent interest in the possibilities of free improvisation.

It is Merville who sets the bar of the album in “De Charybde en Scylla” with his forthright drumming, by means of which he lights a fuse. Sclavis on bass clarinet is a revelation: gorgeous, engaging, and perfectly chaotic he is amid webs of electric guitar. Sclavis wanders intact into a duet with bass in “La première île” before getting caught up in the title track, which like the first balances intensities with a magician’s eye for detail. The furious altoism from Metzger spits further fury, nonetheless inviting.

Lost on the Way is one of Sclavis’s most meticulous outings, spanning the gamut from straight-laced soundings (“Bain d’or”) to joyful noise (“Le sommeil des sirens” and “Des bruits à tisser”). Because of this constant push and pull, moments of regularity from Merville stand out for their sweetness. Overall, rhythmic structures are pliant, ebbing and flowing through gut-wrenching solos (take, for instance, Sclavis’s in “L’Heure des songes”) and cinematic turns (“Aboard Ulysses’s Boat,” with its whimsical surf guitar touches). Like bodies softening from hard slumber, each track stands at the edge of sleeping and waking and tries to hold on to both realities. Such tensions abound in the rhythm section, which combines ritual beats with fluid bassing in “Les Doutes du cyclope” for a focused vision indeed. After many comings and goings, we lose ourselves at sea on a vessel named “L’Absence.” This droning piece shakes off the need for skin and drifts instead toward the next horizon.

Exciting about this album is the obvious evolution in Sclavis’s compositional language, which grows more intuitive with time. Like a dance, it takes over the body before the mind is aware and leaves us as spellbound as a brush with the Sirens.

Louis Sclavis: L’imparfait des langues (ECM 1954)

L'imparfait des langues

Louis Sclavis
L’imparfait des langues

Louis Sclavis clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Marc Baron alto saxophone
Paul Brousseau keyboards, sampling, electronics, guitar
Maxime Delpierre guitars
François Merville drums
Recorded April 2005, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher

Ever the master of reinvention, Louis Sclavis is no stranger to challenge, and for this record he places himself in mostly unfamiliar territory. Long relationship with drummer François Merville aside, he allies himself with fresh talent: altoist Marc Baron, keyboardist Paul Brousseau, and electric guitarist Maxime Delpierre are all new to Sclavis and his sound-world. Listening to the music, however, one would hardly know it.

On the day this quintet was scheduled to make its concert debut, the death of Prince Rainier of Monaco forced the show’s cancellation. Undeterred, the ensemble traveled to Studios La Buissonne where, under the direction of engineer Gérard de Haro, magic was documented.

You’ve never really heard jazz bass clarinet until you’ve heard Sclavis play it, and one can always count on a range of expressions from the instrument whenever it’s featured in his playing. From the nightshade hues of “Premier imparfait” (reiterated later in the program with Brousseau’s electronic accompaniment) to the unbridled enthusiasm of “L’idée du dialecte,” he thrills in compositions nourished by equal parts control and abandon. On soprano saxophone, he stands out like a well-powdered acrobat, engaging Baron in sparkling contrasts above an irregular bottom end—likewise in “Le verbe” and “Story of a phrase,” which feel like James Joyce interpreted by John Zorn. The latter tune’s gritty electric guitar denouements draw attention to Delpierre’s contributions. His solo “Convocation” and wall-of-sound approach in “Archéologie” (notable also for Melville’s jaunty tread) reveal the Glenn Branca influences lurking within.

There is, of course, plenty of inspiration to go around, which finds purchase in stellar turns from all involved. The end effect proceeds diurnally between songs of shadow and season, seeming, like one track title has it, a “Dialogue with a dream.” Facet for facet, a cerebral gem.

Louis Sclavis: Napoli’s Walls (ECM 1857)

Napoli's Walls

Louis Sclavis
Napoli’s Walls

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.

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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.

EPE

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.

Louis Sclavis: Dans la nuit (ECM 1805)

Dans la nuit

Louis Sclavis
Dans la nuit
Music for the Silent Movie by Charles Vanel

Louis Sclavis clarinets
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Louis Sclavis violin
Vincent Courtois cello
François Merville percussion, marimba
Recorded October 2000, Studios La Buissonne
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Louis Sclavis

Louis Sclavis, who had by this point already left indelible footprints in the ECM trail with such memorable recordings as Acoustic Quartet and Les Violences de Rameau, surely surprised many with the release of Dans la nuit. The album foregrounds the French multi-reedist’s visionary composing via incidental music commissioned for a new print of Charles Vanel’s tragic 1929 silent film of the same name. One of France’s last silent pictures, Dans la nuit needed a soundtrack. Says Sclavis of the task, “I had to compose music that takes into account the period, the atmosphere of each sequence and their cinematic aesthetic. The music, at times, should have an angle on the action, an attitude, especially during the dramatic passages, should be almost as it were out of synch, giving it a distance that allows the tempo and the light to play their part. On the other hand there should also be a play of simple proximity to the characters and their feelings, realist or expressionist passages; all of this without too many sudden breaks.” In addition to his meticulously timed score, he included improvised passages in response to the images, thereby underscoring the Vanel’s spontaneous mise-en-scène.

The film itself is an almost forgotten gem of silent cinema, as attested by the intensity of its acting, the expressionism of its lighting, the creativity of its camera work, the brutality of its storyline, and the confrontational ploy of its denouement.[*] Its opening shots introduce us to an unnamed French mining village, a place rife with the very brand of contrast borne out by the protagonists. Scenes of industry clash with the gaiety of a rural wedding party.

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Friends and family drink and are merry, their revelry buoyed by the obvious happiness of the newlyweds in whose honor they have gathered.

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Meanwhile…

Recurring shots of an accordion player give Sclavis an easy clue into the album’s instrumental spread, from which Jean-Louis Matinier’s bellows stand out for their fluid narrative power.

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A dramatic cut sequence, however, upsets the certainty of the couple’s outlook as shots jump between a dolly pan of the wedding party and a crowd of miners headed for the local carnival. It is in the latter’s confines—the cacophony of which is palpable despite the lack of ambient noise—that these two worlds collide, and gives first indication that the husband is, in fact, a miner himself and is enjoying a rare reprieve from his toil. The happy couple rides into town by carriage, throwing bride (Sandra Milovanoff) and groom (played by the director) into a storm of activity. The ensuing whirlwind is expertly and descriptively captured by Vanel. Frantic overheads of swings and other amusements frame the bride in a blur of flesh and flowers, further unsettling her chances at happiness.

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Before the newlyweds consummate their marriage, their faces are singled out by the camera in a montage of longing gazes, each a placeholder for the twist of resolution to be dropped like a lemon peel into the film’s martini glass in the final act.

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Time passes, and wedded bliss has pervaded the wife’s daily routine. Viscous liquid flows down a sheet of glass placed before the lens, reverting us to the mine, where workers are preparing to dynamite the rock.

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“Fire in the hole!”

Children play in a nearby field, reinforcing Vanel’s penchant for contrast and painfully letting us in on the inevitable: the husband is buried by rocks dislodged from the blast.

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He returns home, a disfigured man.

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He bids his wife to fetch a mask from his belongings, which he wears to give his appearance at least semblance of normalcy. Life wanders on, but so do the wife’s passions, landing her in the arms of an illicit lover. The latter finds another mask (presumably a spare) in her husband’s likeness and puts it on. When the husband comes home unexpectedly early, the two men tussle for her hand. Vanel’s choreography makes it seem as if the husband has been killed. The wife and who she believes to be her lover dump the body, but when they return home, the man reveals himself to be her husband.

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“Yes, it’s me!”

Even as she feels her entire world crumbling around her, she wakes up to find it was all a dream.

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One could hardly dream of a more fitting score for this melodrama. Sclavis has forged no mere accompaniment, but rather a living entity that balances the film’s morbid undertones with a harmonious sheen. Two recurring motifs, “Dia Dia” and the title theme, lend the album a narrative arc all its own. Together, the former’s pairing of bellow (Matinier) and cello (Vincent Courtois) and the latter’s Yann Tiersen-like breezes lend a feeling of symmetry.

The descriptiveness of each tune speaks in the language of cinema, so that François Merville’s light percussive appliqué in “Le travail” gives just a hint of the labor it names. (The stark textures here recall Philip Glass—and indeed, one may wish to explore the American composer’s own scoring for silent films for more in this vein.) “Fête foraine” (Fairgrounds) lays tightly wound strings over martial snare, shifting midway through to mallets before returning to the procession. Such changes beguile throughout. The full import of the wife’s “Mauvais rêve” (Bad dream), for example, finds perfect introduction in the clarinet and cello duet (“Retour de noce”) that precedes it. Fantasy (“Amour et beauté”) changes hands with reality (“Le miroir,” in which violinist Dominique Pifarély sounds like a ghost), excitement (“La fuite”) with comeuppance (“Les 2 visages”).

Two of the album’s finest moments occur in “La peur du noir” (Fear of the dark), which expresses itself through a nervous heart murmur of solo accordion, and in “L’accident,” a two-part fragmentation of the film’s underlying tensions that works its corkscrew into a bottle long emptied of its hope.

Meticulously composed, arranged, and performed, Dans la nuit stands tall in the Louis Sclavis lineup—not because it is relatively “accessible” (which it is), but because its storytelling is so enmeshed with its source. It’s brittle continuity maintains shape even in the emotional push and pull in which it finds itself caught. Like the nameless wife’s nightmare, the music carries in its breast a hint of its own anxieties, reliving them for as long as there are mirrors, smoke, and light…

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[*] I regret that I was only able to obtain an untranslated VHS library copy of the film, from which I could only extract stills by photographing the screen with my iPhone.

Louis Sclavis Quintet: L’affrontement des prétendants (ECM 1705)

L'affrontement

Louis Sclavis Quintet
L’affrontement des prétendants

Louis Sclavis clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Jean-Luc Cappozzo trumpet
Vincent Courtois cello
Bruno Chevillon double-bass
François Merville drums
Recorded September 1999, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Assistant engineer: Sylvain Thevenard
Produced by Louis Sclavis
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Multi-reedist Louis Sclavis unveils a new quintet with L’affrontement des prétendants, retaining only bassist Bruno Chevillon from his previous ECM sessions. Along for the ride are newcomers Jean-Luc Cappozzo on trumpet, Vincent Courtois on cello, and François Merville on drums. With them, he forges a distinctive jazz that never fails to titillate with its artful blend of composed and free elements. Like the wonderful Acoustic Quartet disc before it, this date immerses the listener in a refreshing, driven sound.

Despite the album’s title (one might translate it as “The clash of contenders”), the dynamics within the band are anything but contentious. Sclavis’s staid formula of spiraling, precisely notated bookends only serves to foil the brilliant unraveling occurring between them. Take the 17-minute “Hommage à Lounès Matoub,” for example. The masterpiece of the set, it honors its eponymous protest singer through an epic development of mourning into celebration. Bass shadows the solo cello that begins the piece before trumpet threads an alluring stretch of politics. Merville takes an indulgent look at the landscape before paving the way for Sclavis’s soprano. Like Dalí’s famous moustache, which the artist is said to have reserved for only the minutest detail, that pliant reed renders individual leaves, glints of sunlight, and footprints in the sand. Also indicative of the band’s unity is the opening title track, in which Cappozzo is the glue that binds. From growling catharsis to klezmer touches, its idiomatic merry-go-round hinges an exemplary doorway.

Despite the sometimes-dire associations, Sclavis surrounds himself with an eminently joyful milieu. The listener may feel this especially in brightness of “Possibles” and “Contre contre.” The latter’s groove-laden vista is a particularly fluid feature for Sclavis, who over a light percussive backdrop sparks a noteworthy exchange between cello and bass. Even more memorable is that between Sclavis and Courtois in “Distances,” as outgoing as it is crumpled to a pliant core. Yet another duet, this of clarinet and bass, develops full-bodied dances from merest whispers in “Le temps d’après.” Chevillon goes rogue in “Hors les murs,” a packed solo that stomps and pirouettes in turns, and links chains of forward-thinking energy into the stratosphere. Sclavis offers his own monologue via soprano, introducing the swinging “Maputo,” for which he switches to bass clarinet, running along a distinctly swinging backbone with fortitude and oddly graceful sibilance. Last is “La mémoire des mains,” a freely improvised spate he shares with Merville and Courtois: three birds in a cage chattering themselves to sleep.