Louis Sclavis – Asian Fields Variations
(ECM 573 2668. CD review by Brian Marley)
Expect the unexpected would seem to be the motto of clarinettist Louis Sclavis. His is a restless creativity. Although he started off playing free improvisation and jazz (and also, in the early 1980s, soprano saxophone in addition to clarinets large and small), his interests have developed year on year and he’s spread his net wide. If, according to diktat, all CDs had to be filed under genre, Sclavis’ would probably end up in the racks for either world music or instrumental music, both categories being so splendidly vague they’re all-encompassing and all but meaningless. Of course, his music is still heavily based in improvisation, but he’s long been a sophisticated composer for ensembles of all sizes, although, as his discography shows, he seems to prefer working with groups no larger than a sextet.
On Asian Fields Variations, working in trio with violinist Dominique Pifarély and cellist Vincent Courtois, the music is stripped back to basics. Sclavis has had a long, fruitful association with both players. In the case of Pifarély, going back as far as the album Chine (IDA, 1987). Courtois, by comparison, is a relative newcomer, first appearing with Sclavis on L’affrontement des Prétendants (ECM, 1999). Both were members of Sclavis’ quintet for the recording of music written to accompany Charles Vanel’s silent movie Dans la Nuit (ECM, 2000), but Asian Fields Variations is their first recording as a trio.
All three have submitted compositions to the project, pieces that reflect not only their own interests but also the interests of their fellow trio members. Despite Sclavis’ name being featured on the spine of the jewel case, this is a democratic enterprise. Unsurprisingly then, no particular voice dominates the mix, and it’s not always easy to tell who composed what, or whether particular material is composed or improvised. A case in point is Sclavis’ tripartite composition Mont Myon, which is followed by three brief solo tracks, one by each player that, in terms of tempo and tone (wistful, mournful), seem to use aspects of Mont Myon’s second and concluding sections as stepping stones to another place. The solo tracks are wholly improvised, but they’re so tightly focused you might easily be misled into thinking otherwise.
The simple dancing figure that underpins the start of the title track is made more rhythmically complex as it progresses. Even when it’s not there, it’s there. You can feel it running, unstated, barely even hinted at, beneath Courtois’ elegant unaccompanied pizzicato solo. Musical ideas flow into one another and seem to cross from one piece to the next or are reprised, with subtle variations, several tracks later. The melody of Courtois’ Fifteen Weeks seems, for example, to feed into Pifarély’s Sous Le Masque. It’s this sense of continuity and ceaseless invention that makes Asian Fields Variations hard to just dip into. Start at the beginning and you’re likely to want to play it through to the end.