Mais Oui, Louis

Yes, French Music—or Should We Make That Freedom Music?

A certain kind of melody is embedded deep in the DNA of silent movies. It's a melancholy diatonic waltz, the love child of "After the Ball" and Charlie Chaplin, whose genius extended to sentimental themes that prod us to smile through our tears. The living master of the idiom, which is not so much composed as recycled, is born-and-bred New Yorker Carl Davis, a workhorse of '70s British cinema who scored several new films while finding his true métier in re-scoring silents and TV series about the silents. The last place you expect to find an outstanding example of that kind of melody, which has done more for Kleenex than the flu, is in the work of a musician and composer closely associated with the European jazz avant-garde. My first response to Louis Sclavis's Dans la Nuit, his commissioned score to Charles Vanel's obscure 1929 film, was indifferent disappointment. Arriving after the double-whammy 2001 releases of Les Violences de Rameau and L'Affrontement des Prétendants, its retrograde nostalgia seemed peripheral, a Gallic detour or ECM indulgence. Many jazzmen have scored films and prepared corresponding albums, yet in this case there was neither an available film to boost interest nor enough elaboration to give the album a life apart.

Then, on March 7 and 8, Sclavis and his new quintet made a rare appearance in New York, accompanying a screening of the film at the French Institute Alliance Française and playing selections from L'Affrontement at Tonic. The latter confirmed and expanded my admiration. The former, however, puts me in the odd situation of wanting to rave about a score that can exert only limited enchantment on those who can't see the film. Still, I find myself listening repeatedly to the 16 concise episodes that vividly recapitulate key events in an exceptional "lost" movie for which Bertrand Tavernier has loyally campaigned, wisely recruiting Sclavis (who had scored one of Tavernier's pictures). I can suggest how Dans la Nuit fits into Sclavis's growing canon, amplifying melodic ideas in his earlier work and rounding out an intense scrutiny of French musical practices that makes him a formidable figure in French jazz and not merely an imitator of American customs. (Can I hear an amen?) What I can't do is argue that the film is incidental to the CD, or vice versa.

If Vanel's name is unfamiliar, you might recognize his face. He starred in hundreds of movies, including several international productions: A favorite of Henri-Georges Clouzot, he was the craven Jo in Wages of Fear (named best actor at Cannes) and the proto-Columbo detective in Diabolique, which may have led Hitchcock to cast him as Cary Grant's betrayer in To Catch a Thief. Dans la Nuit, a meditation on fate, infidelity, fear, and loneliness, pays homage to his father's Lyonnais mining village and Soviet-style montage, wielded with brio and auguries that emerge on a second viewing. With the advent of sound, a silent film had no chance, and though Vanel directed one other picture (Le Coup de Minuit, 1935), he never recovered from the fate of the first, which he had financed himself. It belongs to the realm of fascinating one-shots by actors—including Laughton's Night of the Hunter, Lorre's The Lost Ones, and Brando's One-Eyed Jacks—and, though little seen, adumbrates setups, images, and ideas in 1940s films as varied as How Green Was My Valley, The Face Behind the Mask, The Woman in the Window, and Phantom of the Opera.

An increasingly uncategorizable light
photo: Cary Conover
An increasingly uncategorizable light

Sclavis scored the film for his clarinet and bass clarinet; Dominique Pifarély's violin; Vincent Courtois's cello, which has a Hendrixian reverb attachment; Jean Louis Matanier's accordion; and François Merville's drums and marimba. At Gould Hall, they sat in a semicircle before the screen, following the action with the mostly through-composed pieces. Aside from an introductory theme, which Sclavis borrowed from an earlier work (called "Dia Dia" on the CD), the movements were newly composed to complement the action, either by explicit musical rhyme (a percussive train-like rhythm in sync with the mechanics of the mining machinery) or in deliberate contrast (a rubato moodiness to underscore an astonishing fight between masked doppelgängers). The recurring title theme is Sclavis's diatonic waltz, a 32-bar melody arranged by Pifarély, whose violin adds a glimmer of dissonance in the variation chorus; the brisk tempo and combination of clarinet and accordion places it in the tradition of French scores that milk a jazzy banality—that is, a melodicism unrelated to jazz proper, but influenced by its rhythms, economy, and instrumentation (think Tati). Sclavis, who has called nostalgia "a beautiful prison," skirts that and other traditions, as he did the baroque in Les Violences de Rameau, juicing the DNA to better emphasize the film's provoking modernism. In a sequence that occurs as the nightmare mounts, the title theme is recast with enveloping, ominous gravity.

At Tonic, Sclavis and his musicians were unfettered, though the change in personnel from the recording of L'Affrontement des Prétendants—violin and accordion instead of trumpet and bass—dramatically cast the selections in a new, at times unrecognizable light. The first set included the chamber improvisations of "Distances" and the rocking hard bop complete with cello reverb of "Contre Contre" and closed with an elaborate performance of the album's flashpoint, "Hommage à Lounès Matoub," involving backbeat rhythms, Middle Eastern rhythms, and eggbeater rhythms (also rhythms played with little bells and what appeared to be ping-pong balls), and instrumental techniques that ranged from violin col legno to a grunting bass clarinet cadenza, topping out with Sclavis's rapturous soprano saxophone improvisation and nifty accordion-cello exchanges, before the abrupt precision ending. The overall effect conveyed the pleasure the five musicians derive from the freedom of virtuosity and how content Sclavis is to give them all room; at one point, when Pifarély hit a fresh vein of ideas, Sclavis postponed his own solo, glanced at his watch, and squatted on the floor to listen.

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