Louis Sclavis: Maps of the Mind

Ian Patterson By

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I am more interested in the people than in the instruments.
"My music? I know what it is, and I don't know what it is. It's a paradox." Now entering his fifth decade as a recording artist, multi-reedist/composer Louis Sclavis may not have a clear handle on the music he makes, but he has absorbed the lessons of all the music he has turned his hand to, from free jazz to film scores, from African music to neoclassical composition. Listening to Sources (2012), Sclavis' ninth release on the ECM label—and his first with his exciting new Atlas Trio—what is most striking is how, after all these years, Sclavis refuses to revisit past glories. Instead, the search goes on for new sounds and textures. "Like everybody, I have some influences," Sclavis says, "but the influences are not direct. I have been composing for 40 years, so when I do my own projects it's only my music. It's not pop, not jazz, not ethnic music. The music I play is Louis Sclavis music."

Few artists succeed in creating new sounds with each new recording, but this creative restlessness is something that has marked Sclavis' tenure in Manfred Eicher's ECM stable. It's probably no accident that—with the exception of a few long-standing, ongoing collaborators—Sclavis habitually uses different musicians for each project, forcing himself into personally uncharted territory in the process. Whether writing the soundtrack for Charles Vanel's 1932 silent movie on Dans La Nuit (ECM, 2000) or combining brass, string and reed instruments with guitar and electronics to sonically represent the street art of Ernest Pignon-Ernest, on Napoli's Walls (ECM, 2002), Sclavis remains uncategorizable yet instantly recognizable. Just don't try hanging a name on the music.

Sclavis is no stylist, but he has his own style, preferring to create music in the twilight between the fringes of jazz and contemporary classical composition. "I don't like to put influences that are too clear in my music," he explains. "I want to exist at the border of many different kinds of music. Sometimes the influence could be from classical music, like Olivier Messiaen, and sometimes from Indian music, but sometimes it's just a game between me and my instrument, and between me and my memory."

This seemingly simplistic, organic approach to composition is well exemplified by the opening track of Sources, the hypnotically minimalist "Pres d'Hagondange." "This piece is only a simple game with the clarinet," Sclavis says. "You have 'boo dab a dap, be dab a dop'—these two things. It's like a kid with a very simple game. What can I do with this?" The music on Sources was conceived for this group, and this particular setting of clarinet, piano/keyboards and electric guitar was something completely new for Sclavis: "It's very new. I've never had a trio with just piano and guitar. I chose the musicians first because I had already played with them a little, and I was sure with them that it would work.

Louis Sclavis Atlas Trio"It wasn't that I needed a guitar and a piano," continues Sclavis. "It's just that I wanted to work with these two guys. It was interesting for me to have this combination of instruments, because I was obliged to compose in a new way. You cannot compose for guitar and piano as you do for saxophone. I just proposed some very simple material and then waited to see what would happen with the musicians. I am more interested in the people than in the instruments."

Though Sclavis' music on Sources may be simple musical sketches in essence, the inner pathways of the compositions reveal an almost paradoxical complexity. Certainly, the tunes weren't just hammered out in a three-hour studio blitz but instead were nurtured and grown with care and discipline. It's a compositional process, which Sclavis explains in simple terms. "For me, it's a little bit like a theatre piece," Sclavis expands. "I like to have a kind of dramaturgy. Even if the musicians are very free, I like to have strict direction, but not in the beginning. I begin with small things, and we rehearse. Then I come back to the composition, and I try to find a good way for each musician. We rehearse again, and then I come back again to the composition. It's a long process."

Sources has been in the incubator for a year, the time that Sclavis, pianist/keyboardist Benjamin Moussay and electric guitarist Gilles Coronado have been performing the music live, developing the compositions all the time. "After one year of concerts, we play more freely," relates Sclavis. "But the structure of each tune stays the same. When we perform live, we try to push to the maximum the form of the piece. Each tune has its own personality, and in concert we really push very far the personality of each piece.

"The recording is just a moment in the music," explains Sclavis. "But I know that afterwards we will do a concert, and the music will change as we push. A few concerts after recording, you think, 'Damn it! It's much better now. We should have waited two concerts more, because now we've really found the best way for this composition.' It's always the same old story," Sclavis says, laughing at the futility of searching for the perfect recording.

In Moussay and Coronado, Sclavis has employed two musicians who push the music, and themselves, as far as they are able to go. "I like Gilles very much," says Sclavis of his guitarist. "I did a special project with a dance company with Gilles, and I know that he's very strong rhythmically. He's not really a jazz musician, and he's not completely a rock musician. He's on the border of many types of music, and I like this. He's a very open musician. He can play very free or very strict when the music needs it. He brings something really different to other guitarists."

Moussay ticks similar boxes: "Benjamin has followed more of a classical jazz route, but for the last couple of years, he has started more to work on his own things," Sclavis explains. "He's also very strong rhythmically. It was very good to have two musicians with a strong sense of rhythm, because there are no drums and no bass, but there is some groove in this music. It was very interesting for me to make music without a rhythm section but with a lot of rhythm."

It's rare to find a group minus a rhythm section that grooves quite as much as Sclavis' Atlas Trio. Album opener "Pres d'Hagondange" pulses with the fugato fires that are the trademark of fellow ECM ensemble Nik Bärtsch's Ronin. There's a smoldering, brooding funk-rock groove to Coronado's composition "Sous Influence," with just a hint that the guitarist was writing while under the influence of Miles Davis' On the Corner (Columbia, 1972). At just under nine minutes, the gritty "A Road to Karaganda" brews menacingly like the Ozric Tentacles visiting Anatolian blues. "I wanted to compose a kind of story, something mysterious with a very simple groove. It's a road to somewhere. Karaganda is a small town in the middle of nowhere in Kazakhstan. For me, it's an imaginary town. It was very exciting to compose a very simple melody with few notes. It's like a mystic walk. You don't have to be brilliant in this kind of composition; you just have to follow the groove." It's the longest track on Sources, though it feels like it could run and run. "In concert, we can play this for twice as long," says Sclavis, laughing.

Louis Sclavis Lost on the WaySeveral of Sclavis' recordings for ECM in the last decade have been made without drums or bass, though the clarinetist is certainly not averse to working in a more conventional rhythmic setup. "I like very much to play with a classic group with bass and drums, and I've done it a lot," says Sclavis. "I have two trios: one with [drummer] Aldo Romano and [bassist] Henri Texier for 20 years, and I used to have another with Bruno Chevillon on bass and [drummer] Francois Merville. But sometimes to progress with the music, I need to have different combinations of instruments in my bands. With this band, I have been obliged to find a new solution, and I like this," Sclavis says.

While the combination of instruments has posed a new challenge for Sclavis, the solution, as he describes it, was very much in the hands of all three musicians. "The musicians bring a lot to my music, and they are involved 100 percent in the creative process," explains Sclavis. "That's what I need. I need musicians who are able to bring their own personality to the music. The result is very collective."

The different musical personalities of the Atlas Trio combine to create a wealth of textures, moods and sounds. Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African vibes are suggested, though rarely overtly. North Africa and the African continent seem to have colored a fair amount of Sclavis' playing over the years, though he doesn't seem to feel any special affinity with African music: "Sometimes in my music, there is a sound that could be African, but it's only illusion. It's not really an influence. My relationship with African music is not so important for me."

This statement may come as a surprise to many who have listened to Suite Africaine (Label Bleu, 1999) and African Flashback (Label Bleu, 2005) or seen Sclavis perform over the past decade with Nigerian oud player Majid Bekkas, with whom Sclavis also recorded on Makenba (Igloomondo, 2011), but Sclavis is nothing if not honest about the limits of his knowledge. "I've done a lot of concerts in Africa, but I've never really studied African music. There are so many different styles and so much diverse music. I don't know any African music very well," he admits. "I take care with this kind of music. I take care with all folk music because folk music is very sophisticated. It's not simple music; it's very sophisticated. For example, in Nigeria there are some rhythms that take many years to understand, to learn and to play. I don't like too much this World Music scene because usually they have just simplified the original music. The original music is always much more sophisticated."

The old argument as to whether some folk music may be better left in the hands of the natives will no doubt run and run. "I played with him [Bekkas] last week in Italy," says Sclavis, "and we were speaking about the special rhythm of Gnawa music. He told me that when European musicians—even if they are very good—when they play the kakaboo, an iron percussion instrument with a very special sound, they don't play exactly the right way. He can hear that the musician is not from Nigeria."
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