Monday, May 14, 2007

L’Imparfait des Langues

L’imparfait des langues
By Luis Sclavis
ECM 1954

If one instrument has an image problem in modern jazz it is the clarinet For many, the instrument is fatally associated with its nebbish practitioners, like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and (have mercy) Woody Allen. However, Louis Sclavis, along with a handful of musicians like Perry Robinson and Don Byron, has consistently defined and redefined modern contexts for clarinet. In L’Imparfait des Langues, a work commissioned by the Printemps des Arts de Monte Carlo, whose premiere was delayed by the death of Prince Rainier, Sclavis again creates fresh soundscapes that defy preconceptions of the clarinet’s role.

Sclavis also employs his bass clarinet and soprano for what was his first session with a very contemporary group deliberately assembled to challenge the leader. Together they cover a great deal of stylistic territory, while still sounding all of one piece.

“Premier imparfait (a)” is the brief, but fitting introductory track, that conveys a sense of portent and features the spacey reverb often associated with the ECM sound. “L’idée du dialecte” begins with Sclavis’ clarinet in an almost traditional setting, but Marc Baron’s alto solo gives the proceedings a freer, more abrasive vibe, which is picked up by the guitars and electronics for a rock interlude, resolving back into the head, featuring Sclavis again.

There is definitely a dialectical sense to many of Sclavis’ compositions here, as we hear thesis-antithesis-synthesis play out between the musicians. “Archéologie” similarly starts with a quirky melody that seems to hold echoes of trad. jazz, but heads out quickly with a searching solo from Sclavis. Again, Maxime Delpierre’s guitar and François Merville’s drums segue into a driving rock passage that takes over for the duration of the tune.

“Convocation” is essentially a guitar prelude that leads into “Palabre,” a composition constructed over a guitar riff. The tight soprano and alto unison heads hint at a traditional folk sound, before veering off for some free-ranging call and response.

Sclavis gives his new sidemen the latitude to define much of the atmosphere of L’Imparfait, as on the concluding title track. While Sclavis provides a certain film noir undercurrent on bass clarinet, the track is dominated by the Paul Brousseau’s electronic effects.

Language is indeed imperfect when attempting to describe music. L’Imparfait is particularly arresting for its stylistic and emotional variations, which seem almost deliberate in their attempts to elude linguistic constructs.