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Louis Sclavis: Lost on the Way

John Kelman By

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Over the course eight albums, French clarinetist/saxophonist Louis Sclavis has carved his own niche on ECM. Every album possesses a different complexion—from the acoustic free play of Acoustic Quartet (1994) and aggressively open-ended variations of composer Jean-Phillip Rameau's work on Les Violences de Rameau (1996) to the more structured soundtrack for Charles Vanel's 1929 film, Dans La Nuit (2002) and outstanding writing on the oftentimes knotty but always captivating L'affrontement des prétendants (2001). As different as each project is—including 2007's L'imparfait des langues, where Sclavis largely surrounded himself with first encounter players—the woodwind multi-instrumentalist has managed to evolve a very personal vernacular, a linguistic approach to music that's unmistakable, regardless of context.

Eschewing L'imparfait's greater electro-centricity, Lost on the Way brings back electric guitarist Maxime Delpierre and longtime musical partner, drummer François Merville, alongside newcomers Matthieu Metzger (saxophones) and Olivier Lété (bass). The line-up may appear more conventional—a two-horn frontline, plus guitar doubling as both third frontline member and key rhythm section component—but Sclavis' remarkable duality, approaching both chamber music in construction and rock group in edge, aggression and, occasionally, groove, ensures that there's nothing predictable about the music or how it's performed.

"Charybde en Scylla" opens the disc on a buoyant note, with as near a singable theme as Sclavis has written, though it's still a knotty construction that has the two horns acting in counterpoint to the bass and guitar, while Merville's brushwork ensures a consistent pulse. Sclavis possesses one of the most distinctive bass clarinet tones around, seconded only by Bennie Maupin and John Surman, but even those illustrious players don't match Sclavis' virtuosic ability to develop solos of both firm shape and endless latitude, qualities mirrored by Metzger while Delpierre creates a foundation that blends quirky, contrapuntal lines with lush chordal swells.

On this all-original set largely composed by Sclavis, there are moments of completely freedom, his brief duet with Lété on "La première île" segueing into the bolero-like title track, where Merville's thundering toms and a repetitive, irregularly metered pattern underscores a melody that's all long tones, weaving its way through the complex foundation before Merville opens the solo section up like a blossoming flower and Delpierre's overdriven guitar encourages the increasing intensity solos from Sclavis and Metzger.

Sclavis and Metzger may dominate as soloists, but Lété is featured impressively over the tribal rhythm of "Bain d'or." Delpierre's accompaniment is so key to the complexion of every track that when he finally does solo on the sharper angles of "Le sommeil des sirènes," his combination of jagged chords and oblique lines seem like an inevitable offshoot.

Sclavis' recondite beauty may be skewed, but it's exquisite nevertheless, with the dark chamber vibe of "L'heure des songes" an elegant yet abstrusely lyrical interlude that makes the relentless build of "Aboard Ulysses's Boat" all the more potent. There may be stylistic markers to Sclavis' music, but they belong exclusively to him, making Lost on the Way another personal journey into the deepest realms of syntactical possibility.

Track Listing: De Charybde en Scylla; La première île; Lost on the Way; Bain d'or; Le sommeil des sirènes; L'heure des songes; Aboard Ulysses's Boat; Les doutes du cyclope; Un vent noire; The Last Island; Des bruits à tisser; L'absence.

Personnel: Louis Sclavis: clarinets, soprano saxophone; Matthieu Metzger: soprano and alto saxophones; Maxime Delpierre: guitar; Olivier Lété: bass; François Merville: drums.

Title: Lost On The Way | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: ECM Records

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