Louis Sclavis: Maps of the Mind
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."