Louis Sclavis: Maps of the Mind
“ 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 labeland his first with his exciting new Atlas Triowhat 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 thatwith the exception of a few long-standing, ongoing collaboratorsSclavis 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.
"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 Bartsch'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.
Several 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 musicianseven if they are very goodwhen 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."
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 Brotzmann and John Zorn, drummers Tony Oxley and Han Bennink, pianist Cecil Taylor, cellist Ernst Reyseger and bassist William Parker.
"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, Tabornone of the most fearless of contemporary improvisersdescribed 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 charactersyou 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 relationshipnot a mystical onebut an imaginary dialog with Charles Vanel. And finally, sometimes you have to be really inside the movie and sometimes very farto 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 TrioCoronado and Moussayalso 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."
In 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 timenew 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 musicianslike everybody elsehave 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 Europeis 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."
After 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.
"I never have big project ambitions," expands Sclavis. "I don't dream of playing with 30 musicians or anything like that. I just need to meet one musician, and if it's a good one at the right time, for me, it's perfect. Not only musicians, because I work a lot with comedians, with writers, and I also do photography. I have a new exhibition in September with my photos, and I am quite excited about this. My father was a photographer, so I've been into photography since I was born. It's like composing music, for me," he explains. "The last two ECM CDs, Sources and Lost on the Way, are my photos. I am very proud to have my own photos on ECM covers."
As with every other project Sclavis has turned his hand to, photography presents another challenge, another leap into the unknown. "It's something new for me. Perhaps I am more proud of this than the music," Sclavis says, laughing. He's probably kidding, but who knows? They'd have to be some damned good photographs, that's for sure.
Louis Sclavis Atlas Trio, Sources (ECM, 2012)
Jean-Pierre Drouet/Fred Frith/Louis Sclavis, Contretemps etc (In Situ, 2011)
Louis Sclavis/Craig Taborn/Tom Rainey, Eldorado Trio (Clean Feed) (2011)
Majid Bekkas, Makenba (Igloomondo, 2011)
Louis Sclavis, Lost On The Way (ECM, 2009)
Aki Takase/Louis Sclavis, Yokohama (INTACT, 2009)
Louis Sclavis, L'imparfait des Langues (ECM, 2007)
Aldo Romano/Louis Sclavis/Henri Texier, \African Flashback (Label Bleu, 2005)
Louis Sclavis, L'affrontement des Pretendants (ECM, 2004)
Dave Douglas/Louis Sclavis/Peggy Lee/Dylan Van Der Schyff, Bow River Falls (Premonition, 2004)
Louis Sclavis, Napoli's Walls (ECM, 2002)
Louis Sclavis, Dans La Nuit (ECM, 2002)
Aldo Romano/Louis Sclavis/Henri Texier, Suite Africaine (Label Bleu, 1999)
Louis Sclavis/Bernard Struber Jazztet, Le Phare (Enja, 1998)
Louis Sclavis, Acoustic Quartet (ECM, 1994)
Klaus Konig Orchestra, At the End of the Universe: Hommage a Douglas Adams (Enja, 1991)
Louis Sclavis, Chamber Music (Label Bleu, 1990)
Cecil Taylor Orchestra, ALMS/TIERGARTEN (SPREE) (FMP, 1988)
Peter Brotzmann Clarinet Project, Berlin Djungle (FMP, 1987)
Louis Sclavis, Clarienttes (IDA, 1985)
Henri Texier Quartet, La Companera (Label Bleu, 1983)
Chris McGreggor's Brotherhood Of Breath, Yes Please (In And Out, 1981)
Jean Bulcato/Louis Sclavis, Champ de Frigg (ARFI, 1979)
Le Marvelous Band, Ibijau (L'Oiseau Musicien, 1977)
Le Marvelous Band, Chant Libre (Move, 1975)