Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sclavis’s Odyssey

Lost on the Way
By Louis Sclavis
ECM Records 2098

The epic poetry of Homer and modern improvised music might seem worlds apart, but there have been at least two jazz-oriented albums inspired by The Odyssey. Bob Freedman’s obscure Journeys of Odysseus featured some appealing Third Stream compositions and several talented soloists, but is somewhat marred the gimmicky excesses added by the producer. Louis Sclavis need not worry about such treatment working with producer Manfred Eicher, whose ECM Records enjoys a peerless reputation among artists and audiophiles. Lost on the Way, the latest fruit of Sclavis’s productive ECM tenure also features familiar Homeric references, as well as the French clarinetist’s restless musical spirit.

While far less electronic than his previous release, L’Imparfait des Langues, Sclavis retains the services of electric guitarist Maxime Delpierre and longtime drummer François Merville, both of whom definitely add a pronounced jazz-rock flavor to the proceedings. Yet Lost feels more intimate and conceptually unified than most rock-influenced improvised music.

The spritely “De Charybde en Scylla” opens the journey with the leader’s bass clarinet and Matthieu Metzger’s soprano saxophone somewhat evoking the spirit of the old world, but counterbalanced by Merville’s funky backbeat. After the brief interlude, “La Première île,” Sclavis darkens the mood on the tempestuous title track, taking a searching solo that quivers and quavers with power.

“Bain D’or” also has an exotic pastoral vibe, fitting to Odysseus’s Mediterranean journey, further distinguished by a striking solo from bassist Olivier Lété, layered over Delpierre’s spare comping and Merville’s hypnotic rhythm. Likewise, Merville’s insistent drumming has a trance-inducing effect on the snaky, distorted “Aboard Ulysses's Boat.” However, his funkiest moments might be represented by his cymbal work on “Des Bruits à Tisser,” which also offers Delpierre the opportunity for a nice power-fusion solo. Sclavis again shifts gears from the preceding ultra-modern sounds, with the brief “L’Absence,” a fittingly elegiac coda to the ancient journey.

Though it has its contemplative moments, Lost is an intense, darkly hued musical statement from Sclavis. Yet despite his experimental impulses, it is melodically accessible, performed with vigor and crispness. Sclavis has long been a musician who can radical alter the way listeners think of the clarinet. Now he also offers a distinctively fresh musical perspective on Homer’s epic with the compelling Lost.