Mais Oui, Louis

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

At 50, with five ECM CDs recorded over the past decade and others as leader and sideman that are mostly impossible to find here (including a highly regarded Ellington survey—an isolated look at standard American material—on IDA), Sclavis has become an increasingly uncategorizable light in European jazz, devoting as much energy to seamless composition as to extended improvisation, breaking down rhythms so that swing or rock or a kind of static Morse-code repetition (heard at the top of L'Affrontement and in passages of the film score) are options designed to stimulate specific emotional grounding, and exploring the often neglected legacy of French music; he is staking out his own precinct from which to pursue the jazz muse. His sound and attack on soprano sax, clarinet, and bass clarinet are distinct, and have been for at least 15 years—since his ensemble and solo work stood out amid the fireworks of Cecil Taylor's all-star 17-piece European Orchestra on Alms/Tiergarten (Spree), recorded in Berlin in 1988. His bass clarinet work in particular, fat and saturated in every register, is the most consistently impressive since Eric Dolphy's, and includes a trick that, sparingly used, enlarges the palette: blowing into the bore without benefit of a mouthpiece.

He has yet to repeat himself in the ECM cycle. The already hard to find Rouge (1991) is a quintet with Pifarély and a conventional rhythm section—including bassist Bruno Chevillon, an impressive, longtime Sclavis associate. The consonant chord periodically asserted in the dark "Nacht," along with its yearning closing melody and the waltz interpolated into "Rouge," look forward to the film score's melodic candor. "Les Bouteilles" showcases Sclavis's sensuous bass clarinet sound and comfortable phrasing along with the graininess he uses to emphasize notes. His ability to sustain drama is apparent on "Face Nord," where his clarinet is backed by Christian Ville's attentive spaced-out drums and François Raulin's synth chords. Acoustic Quartet (1993) is more chamber oriented, with guitar, violin, and bass used to craft plush backgrounds for solos—opulent on "Bafouée," edgy on "Rhinoceros."

Most impressive are Les Violences de Rameau (1996), an ardent recomposition of themes from the baroque composer's obscure opera Les Boréades, and L'Affrontement(1999), which appears as a companion, not because they were both released in this country two years ago, but because the violence of the first is underscored in the second—not by the usually strenuous perorations of avant-garde blowing, but through the scrupulous structural designs that blend free jazz, rock, and composition in a montage of jump cuts that suit the twitching quick-change aspects of Rameau as well as Sclavis. It might be noted here that the other jazz musician who did an album of Rameau was Bob James, the jazz-lite guru who overdubbed electric keyboards on a 1984 LP comprising performances he initially recorded to give as Christmas tapes. To Sclavis, Rameau is not Christmassy, but a key to the violence that underscores the polite ardor of baroque classicism. The violence underscores the element of political protest at the heart of "Hommage a Lounès Matoub" and other works on L'Affrontement des Prétendants, and can even be gleaned in the subverted nostalgia of Dans la Nuit. It's an inescapable part of a musical world that isn't quite as pretty as it sounds.

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