Louis Sclavis - Characters On a Wall

Label: ECM Records, 2019

Personnel - Louis Sclavis: clarinet, bass clarinet; Benjamin Moussay: piano; Sarah Murcia: double bass; Christophe Lavergne: drums.


15 years after Napoli’s Walls (ECM, 2004), French clarinetist Louis Sclavis revisits the street art of Ernest Pignon-Ernest, using it as an inspiration for his musical journeys. At odds with that first chapter - shaped with reeds, cello, electronics, vocals, guitar, and brass - this more comprehensive new work, titled Characters On a Wall, features the clarinetist leading an acoustic quartet whose musical richness is exalted by pianist Benjamin Moussay, a frequent collaborator, and two younger talents, bassist Sarah Murcia and drummer Christophe Lavergne.

The ensemble is found at its most lyrical on Sclavis’ “L’Heure Pasolini”, using their instrumental sensitivity to describe interesting sceneries. In fact, the four instruments are felt as one, such is the integrity and intimacy revealed in their playing. This first track is the longest piece on the album and encapsulates a rubato intro before adjusting to a melancholic 4/4 chamber pop cycle that transfigures into a brighter waltz during its last quarter.

A simmering sense of groove (in seven) is brought to Moussay’s “Shadows and Lines”, encouraging discipline and creative freedom alike. The shifts in rhythm bring the group’s rock-solid foundation to our attention, while the immersive bass clarinet takes us to pure avant-garde delight. Likewise, the graceful brushed details timely tossed out by Lavergne establishes a strong affinity with what’s happening around him. His maturity and finesse deserve acclamation.

Introduced by piano, “La Dame de Martigues” flows with a chordal chain that evokes poignancy, romanticism, and illumination within a mix of delicate classical erudition and modern composition. The icy-warm harmonies employed here differ from the urgency of “Prison”, a 5/8 Eastern-tinged dance with impeccable unisons and extraordinary solos from double bass and bass clarinet. The bandleader's compositions traverse musical, cultural, and emotional boundaries, and the closer, “Darwich Dans La Ville”, deliberately jumps into world fusion, motivated by portraits of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich stuck to the walls of Ramallah. Infusing a great deal of color while grooving in seven, the quartet shapes this tune with a thumping and exotic percussive drive and swift bass-piano runs, which have the company of the clarinet in specific segments. It also features Murcia and Sclavis at their most creative as they stretch out with soulful inspiration.

Spacious, amorphous, and completely improvised, “Esquisse 1” and “Esquisse 2” clock in at two minutes each. The former is particularly attractive, radiating an air of mystery through the deep, dark tones of the bowed bass, obscure piano voicings with occasional string manipulation, roaming clarinet, and modest percussive aesthetics.

Sclavis’ new angle of approach is a triumph. By turns, the music enraptures, grooves, and soars, disseminating a commendable energy that fulfills even in moments of contemplative reserve or ambiguous exploration.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Shadows and Lines ► 06 - Prison ► 08 - Darwich Dans La Ville