Louis Sclavis: Maps of the Mind

Ian Patterson By

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Nevertheless, Sclavis is keen to continue his occasional, 10-year musical relationship with Bekkas, though typically enough Sclavis would like to shake things up a little: "I like playing with Majid, but I would like to develop something more personal with him in the future. I would like to quit a little bit the Gnawa folk music and do something a little bit more original, as he did in the trio with [pianist] Joachim Kuhn [Out of the Desert (ACT Music, 2009)]. It's a very good trio because it's between jazz and Gnawa music and many things. I will try to compose for him, because he can play many, many different kinds of music. We don't work together often, but from time to time we play some concerts or some small tours, and now I understand better what I can propose to him. We appreciate each other very much, and I think that in the future we can continue to collaborate."

The music on Sources strikes a fine balance between form and freedom, two areas that Sclavis has immersed himself in over the years. Sclavis had developed the tag of being a free-jazz musician early on in his career and cemented this reputation in the '80s and '90s, owing to his association with the Free Music Production and collaborations with saxophonists Evan Parker, Hans Koch, Peter Brötzmann and John Zorn, drummers Tony Oxley and Han Bennink, pianist Cecil Taylor, cellist Ernst Reyseger and bassist William Parker.

Louis Sclavis L'imparfait de langues"I still play completely free sometimes," says Sclavis. A good example of this ongoing love affair with freely improvised music was the handful of gigs in a bass-less trio with pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey, which spawned the live recording Eldorado Trio (Clean Feed, 2011). "It was very exciting to do something with these two guys together. They are great players," enthuses Sclavis. "It wasn't a new project for me, because it was just a small tour of three or four concerts, and that was it. I like very much the CD we did together, because it's not sophisticated; it's very brute," says Sclavis, reverting to French to find the right word. "I liked very much the sound of the group, which was a little bit dirty and not perfect, but it's burning. The music was always in and out. I like very much to play the music this way. I need also sometimes to make CDs like this."

In an interview with All About Jazz in 2009, Taborn—one of the most fearless of contemporary improvisers—described improvisation as the willingness to face the possibility of failure. Sclavis has his own take. "Everybody has their own thinking about improvisation," he says. "For me, it's simpler; since I started learning clarinet, improvisation has been something completely natural, like eating, drinking or walking. I don't always improvise in the same way, though, it depends on the musicians. It's like breathing. I cannot think more about this because it's what I am."

Sclavis was never cast in the role as leader on those Free Music Production collaborations, but when he does hold the reins, his way is another. "When I do my own projects, I am interested in building something quite strict," he explains. Two of Sclavis' most captivating works during his long career to date have also been among the most carefully constructed: first, Dans La Nuit, composed for the silent 1929 movie by Charles Vanel and second, Napoli's Walls, based on the striking street art of Ernest Pignon-Pignon.

Sclavis has composed a lot of film soundtracks, but Dans La Nuit was his first silent movie. "There are three different kinds of relationship, especially when you work with a silent movie: firstly, the relationship with the characters—you need to love them. Then you need to have a connection with the movie maker, the director. When he's dead, it's a very strange relationship," says Sclavis, laughing. "I tried to have a relationship—not a mystical one—but an imaginary dialog with Charles Vanel. And finally, sometimes you have to be really inside the movie and sometimes very far—to let the movie have its own life. You always have to change the focus. When I compose for a movie, I change the focus very often, to create a dynamic, you know?"

Sclavis presented Dans La Nuit intermittently for 10 years, an unusually long life for such a project. "I only wanted to play it in very good venues," explains Sclavis. "So I wasn't interested in playing it too much. If you play this kind of thing too much, it is boring." He adds, "These days, we don't play it a lot, but there are still some festivals which ask for this project." Napoli's Walls had a five-year lifespan, and Sclavis describes how he performed it "almost everywhere it was possible to play."

The discipline involved in such extended works as the two aforementioned and the balance between sound and silence are things that Sclavis has clearly carried over to his other ECM projects, including Sources. "I would like to use more silence, but I am not ready to use more silence in the music," he explains. "I use more and more space than some years ago, and now I begin to be able to do this on stage and to begin to think of silence and space as notes."

Sclavis' fellow musicians in the Atlas Trio—Coronado and Moussay—also exhibit a heightened sense of the use of space, and Sclavis is full of praise for them as well as for the young generation of French jazz musicians in general. "In France, there are a lot of very good young musicians, very strong players with a rich culture and big technique. There is a lot of original, exciting music," enthuses Sclavis. However, his optimism is tempered by the harsh realities facing musicians today. "The only problem is to find a place to play," says Sclavis, "because in France, like everywhere now, there is less and less money for the arts and fewer and fewer places to play."

Louis Sclavis Dans la NuitIn the 40 years that Sclavis has been composing and performing, he has witnessed great changes in music and the business of recording, promoting and marketing music. However, one of the greatest changes in this period, in Sclavis' opinion, is the situation of the musicians. "One thing which has changed a lot is the situation of musicians today, and this has a big consequence on the music," Sclavis states. "Fifteen, twenty years ago, when you had a project, you could play 40 concerts throughout Europe with your band. You could play your music often. You could really play it and develop it. It was possible to go really deep into your music. Today, you have 10 or 20 concerts maximum, sometimes fewer. So you cannot think about the music in the same way, and this has changed music a lot. You cannot develop your project as you could 20 years ago.

"My first group played together for 12 or 13 years," continues Sclavis. "These days, after three or four years it's over, and you are obliged to change because the promoters always ask you to bring something new every time—new musicians and new projects. I think it's more difficult for musicians these days to develop their own way. And there is a lot of homage to Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, et cetera. And I don't like this too much, because when you are a jazz musician, you don't have to play homages; you have to create your own music. Now, the promoters ask you more and more to play homage to this and homage to that, or to have a special guest, a famous American guest, in order to get a gig. I don't want to go this way. I continue to try to make music as I want, though it's not always so easy.

"The promoters today are a little bit afraid," Sclavis ventures. "They are afraid of many things. They don't trust the public enough. The public is able to understand and to listen to every kind of music. Promoters think the public is a little bit stupid and doesn't have a lot of culture and needs something very simple with very famous musicians. But this is wrong. In every country, at every festival. there is a public that is curious and ready to take a risk to hear something new and to hear something different. But the big festivals in Europe continue to program always [pianists] Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. There are two big festivals in France, and it's always these kinds of musicians who play there. It's a pity, because it's good to have a mix."

Sclavis' complaint will no doubt resonate with the more outré groups who feel they haven't got a snowball's chance in hell of getting exposure at the big jazz festivals, but Sclavis refuses to fall into the trap of self- pity. "When you play this music, you can't complain," he says. "When you decide to play this music, you know that you will have to fight and fight all your life. To today's musicians, I say, 'Don't complain, fight!' If you begin to complain, this is the end. And you shouldn't complain because you made this choice. Nobody obliged you to do this. So, it's important to fight for everything. Every morning when I wake up, I fight. But I don't complain."

While Sclavis doesn't lack fight, he also remains utterly realistic regarding the sociopolitical and socioeconomic climate in which musicians—like everybody else—have to work. "Twenty years ago, the political and social situation was very different," says Sclavis. "We thought that the future would be better, and today everybody knows that the future will be worse," he says, laughing. "Today, the mentality is that everybody is a little bit afraid to lose their job, and the arts situation is connected directly to the political and social situation. We are not in the clouds in the sky. We are in the reality, and the reality today— especially in Europe—is very bad. The promoters are also in this world, and there is less and less money from governments in all of Europe in the arts. In France, the government has cut almost 25 percent in the arts. The situation is quite difficult, so I think we have to fight some years more."

Louis Sclavis L'Affrontements des pretendentsAfter 40 years composing for duos, clarinet trios and jazz quartets, after decades exploring improvisation, composing for cinema and multimedia projects, the question arises: what musical ambitions remain for Sclavis? "I am ambitious when I meet new musicians," Sclavis explains. "I want to continue this trio but in a new project with the percussionist Keyvan Chemirani, an Iranian classical percussionist. We did a concert with him this year, and it was very good.
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