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Louis Sclavis / Dominique Pifarély / Vincent Courtois: Asian Fields Variations

John Kelman By

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Few artists on the ECM roster reinvent themselves as regularly—and with such consistent success—as Louis Sclavis. While it is true that the French clarinetist (and occasional soprano/baritone saxophonist) often draws (and re-draws) from a gradually expanding pool of musicians, there are few label mates who have released as many albums as Sclavis, where the lineups literally change with each and every album. In fact, the closest he's come to repeating the same lineup back-to-back has been with his most recent, evocatively titled Silk and Salt Melodies (2014), which fleshes the same Atlas Trio responsible for 2012's Sources—Sclavis, guitarist Gilles Coronado and keyboardist Benjamin Moussay—into a more propulsive quartet with the addition of percussionist Keyvan Chemirani.

But considerable time has passed since Sclavis last released an ECM album with fellow Frenchmen Vincent Courtois (2003's Napoli's Walls, whose quartet the clarinetist brought to Canada's renowned Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville for a terrific performance the following year) and Dominique Pifarély, who last appeared with Sclavis on 2002's equally superb soundtrack recording, Dans La Nuit.

That film score represents, in fact, the one and only time, prior to Asian Fields Variations, that Sclavis recruited both cellist Courtois and violinist Pifarély together for the same ECM session. That said, with its generally more scripted environs (composed almost entirely by the clarinetist) and a quintet lineup also featuring percussionist François Merville and accordionist Jean Louis Matinier, Dans La Nuit is a totally different beast compared to Asian Fields Variations' more intimate and, perhaps more importantly, intended egalitarian approach which, in addition to one fully improvised miniature (the layered and angularly constructed "Digression"), features five Sclavis compositions alongside three contributions from Courtois and two by Pifarély.

As much as Sclavis, Pifarély and Courtois are, indeed, a trio of equals on Asian Fields Variations, the clarinetist's five compositions not only dominate the album in number; they do in time as well, occupying 28 of its 47-minute runtime. But while this means his imprint remains definitive, it in no way diminishes the contributions of his trio mates...or of producer/label head Manfred Eicher, whose realignment of form and freedom throughout the sessions at Studios La Buissonne (an increasingly regular location for ECM recordings in recent years) is specifically credited by Sclavis.

Perhaps no better example of Sclavis' ongoing exploration of defined structure and unfettered free-play can be found on his eight-minute opener, "Mont Myon," a three-movement suite of sorts, where thoroughly liberated explorations are bookended by more composed (yet still freely interpreted) segments.

Beginning with a spare harmonic setting, as the clarinetist's haunting melody, filled with slight intervallic leaps, crests over a slowly shifting drone of violin and cello that unfolds almost imperceptibly as Pifarély, first, and then Courtois explore further points of juncture. A moment of silence introduces the second part of this miniature suite, as fluttering strings create more unsettled dissonances over which Sclavis trills in concert as the trio engages in increasingly frenetic interaction; a three-way conversation where each instrument continually alternates between dominance, support and equality as the dynamics build to a climax that dissolves, once again, into silence, The closing movement reiterates the opening's stronger script, as Sclavis returns to its theme—but this time, with his partners more actively engaged, as they orbit in, out and around the clarinetist's dark melody, even as it builds to a more dramatic conclusion...and a slow, final fade to black.

It's a track that explores a distinct nexus of indigo lyricism and skewed dissonances, setting the stage for what's to come and establishing the mitochondrial connectivity shared by these three renowned musicians.

In a clear reminder of just how astute Eicher is at sequencing tracks into a strong overriding arc that umbrellas the entire album, three individual solo performances—Courtois' "Done and Done," Sclavis' "Pensée Furtive" and Pifarély's particularly impressive "Figure Absent" (its remarkable harmonic development meshing seamlessly with its linear melodic evolution)—establish, in these relatively brief miniatures, the undeniable virtuosity of these three musicians, as well as their profound musicality and sense of compositional progression (even in improvised contexts)...all without ever sacrificing their allegiance to creating music rather than demonstrative gymnastics.

These miniatures act as the perfect connection between Sclavis' episodic album-opener and his seven-minute title track. One of Asian Fields Variations' two most rhythmically driven pieces (the clarinetist's "Cèdre" being the other), Pifarély's irregularly metered pattern creates a strong context over which Sclavis swoops and soars with form-like but clearly open-ended/minded intent. When Courtois enters— doubling Pifarély a couple of octaves below (and pizzicato, as opposed to the violinist's arco)—to create an even more potent rhythm, a collective theme emerges as the lead-in to Courtois' a cappella pizzicato solo. His most impressive of the set, while commencing with a defined pulse Courtois gradually moves towards more complete liberation, albeit with a similar eye to improvising through a compositional prism. As Courtois concludes, Sclavis enters with a new, idiosyncratic pattern that provides Pifarély the basis for his own set-defining solo, as Courtois doubles, this time, the clarinetist's pattern and the violinist's ultimate move to a scripted line signalling the brief but compelling close to this impressive example of form as context for freedom.

Both Courtois and Pifarély can be heard on a handful of other label releases. Beyond his appearance on Sclavis' 1992 label debut Rouge, Pifarély, in particular, has been the busier of the two; collaborating with Italian pianist Stefano Battaglia on Re: Pasolini (2007), the violinist has also released three albums as a leader/co-leader since 1998, most recently 2016's quartet date Tracé Provisoire. Beyond his three prior recordings with Sclavis—dating back to the clarinetist's L'Affrontement des prétendants (2002)—and, in addition to appearing alongside Pifarély on Re: Pasolini—Courtois can also be heard on trombonist Yves Roberts' sole ECM outing, 2002's under-appreciated In Touch.

But considering the two undeniably fine ECM recordings in which Pifarély and Courtois have now collaborated with Sclavis, it's Asian Fields Variations that truly reveals the intertwining DNA strands of three major contributors to the French creative scene who share decades-long musical relationships across a multitude of musical settings. If Sclavis dominates this session in terms of compositional numbers and duration, it in no way diminishes the democratic nature of Asian Fields Variations: Courtois's two back-to-back contributions—the caliginous "Fifteen Weeks," its glorious weave of strings and reed moving from contrapuntal script to more extreme extrapolations; and the briefer, aptly titled "Les Nuits," whose confluence of pizzicato cello, bowed violin and bass clarinet once again find that meeting point where preconception meets musical prestidigitation—form an impressive focus on the cellist as a composer...and creator of extemporaneous possibilities.

Pifarély's sole group piece, "Sous La Masque," also posits the violinist's keen ear in composing for this trio, its slowly unfolding, orbital lines moving effortlessly between consonance and dissonance—implying, but never quite revealing, what is, indeed, beneath its titular mask.

Beyond the extremes of both written and freely conceived music of the moment, Asian Fields Variations is a challenging yet eminently impressive exploration of three instruments that mesh so seamlessly, at times, that they almost become a single voice born of an appealingly earthy, wooden timbre. An album that, more than any demonstration of individual acumen, fully meets Sclavis' intent in forming a trio of equals, Asian Fields Variations stands as a milestone in the clarinetist's discography for ECM. Eleven albums and a quarter century in, Sclavis' predilection for change and his instinct for what works remains consistently impressive. Perhaps, just this once, Sclavis will buck tradition and allow this exceptional and overdue trio to continue touring and recording.

Track Listing: Mont Myon; Done and Done; Pensé Furtive; Figure Absente; Asian Fields; Digression; Fifteen Weeks; Les Nuits; Cèdre; Sous Le Masque; La Carrière.

Personnel: Louis Sclavis: clarinets; Dominique Pifarély: violin; Vincent Courtois: violoncello.

Title: Asian Fields Variations | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: ECM Records


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