Louis Sclavis : Napoli's Walls (ECM Records. 038 504-2)
Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble : Memory/Vision (ECM Records. 038 117-2)

In whatever setting I find Sclavis, whether soloing on various clarinets, in the company of a big band, or with one of his own groups, I can always be sure that the music produced will be original and inventive. It is never just another Louis Sclavis recording. Now, following on from the exceptional line-up that produced ´L'affrontements des pretendants' he has gathered a new, smaller band to create newer, equally arresting music. This quartet retains cellist,  Vincent Courtois, from the previous line-up but brings in guitarist, Hasse Poulsen and multi-instrumentalist, Mederic Collignon alongside Sclavis' array of clarinets/saxophones.

This time the compositions are a response to the work of intervention artist, Ernest Pignon-Ernest, who has been leaving his impressions in numerous French, and other, locations since the 1960s. Specifically, the Sclavis quartet have shaped their music around his images created on the walls of Naples. Several of these are reproduced in the accompanying booklet to give you some idea of what Sclavis et al have been inspired by. In a way it made me wish it had been released in the old vinyl LP format, just for the size of the prints, but never mind. Since the music is my prime focus, I'll just say the visuals are intriguing in themselves and suggest fertile ground for collaborations.

So, what of the music ? Sclavis is ostensibly a jazz player but increasingly his compositions draw on other genres, other voices and inevitably that haunting cello recalls something of a more European origin, a stark and often deeply emotive voice that can be found in both modern chamber and the free end of the jazz spectrum. This is initially in evidence on ´Colleur de nuit' and is made all the more effective when joined by the dark ululations of the bass clarinet as Sclavis explores the range of this most expressive instrument. Guitar and percussion provide a subtle backdrop for these explorations.

The title track features a gathering of voices; soprano sax, cello, Collignon's ethereal trumpet, and, most unusual of all, some scat vocalese from the trumpeter, as though a voice or two had escaped from the stained walls of the city to button-hole the unsuspecting passer-by. He indulges in some unison work with Sclavis and, duets most memorably with Courtois, his voice is as wordless, manic and unclassifiable as it is exciting. Collignon's performance here is something of a revelation and a joy.

He also adapts a more operatic persona on ´Divinazione moderna II', the second of two versions of a theme which when played solely by cello and clarinet exudes melancholy. When he takes hold of it becomes a vehicle for some mischievous, puckish vocalising, as he whispers and insinuates hoarsely over the more sprightly rendition of the tune, dueting with himself along the way.

As might be expected from an ECM recording there are moments of sustained beauty, as cello, trumpet, sax and clarinet construct a reflective, almost hymnal theme. ´Les apparences' is one such instance, as well as offering space for Poulsen to unravel some intricate solo lines. ´Merce' is another good example of this approach and, in turn, leads into a further tune, perhaps the closest to a ´jazz' theme on the cd. ´Kennedy in Napoli' is dedicated to Mingus and features a playfully elliptical motif and ecstatic, electronically treated playing by Collignon over driving acoustic guitar, standing in for the absent bass.

Throughout parts of the album electronics are used, discreetly, as a way of adding another dimension to the overall sound. They do not become intrusive - only two members of the group use them - but they bring a slightly other-worldly veneer to tracks like the closer ´Il disegno smangiato d'un uomo' and Collignon's contributions, in particular, on the Courtois composition, ´Porta segreta'. It's all integral to Sclavis' on-going examination of what his music is and can become; a constant absorption of influences as part of an evolution towards further liaisons within and around a jazz base.

Evan Parker's standing in the world of jazz/free impro/spontaneous composition is unquestioned. His voice is usually immediately discernible. He's been at the forefront of this music for decades and has acquired such a formidable reputation that, I suspect, many more have heard of, rather than heard him. A recent Sunday supplement review of this latest cd  reminded me of that. The reviewer was at pains to re-assure readers that although this music may usually be enough to scare listeners away now it will appeal to ´everyone with an interest in experimental music who doesn't want to do their head in'. Really ?

There are other questionable statements too but my question was: Why should this manifestation of Parker's work be more easily digestible than other examples ?  Maybe it's got something to do with the fact that there is much sonic manipulation via sound processing, sampling and use of electronics, something encountered more in our daily listening than free improvisation, perhaps. Does this use of computer generated sound soften the more challenging features of music such as Parker's ?  On listening to this, I don't think so. And why should it anyway?

In fact, if the initial trio of Parker, Guy and Lytton was once pretty formidable in itself, then the addition of Philipp Wachsmann's violin and newest member Agusti Fernandez on piano & prepared piano makes for an even more uncompromising line-up. But what has pushed this music further away from the assumed terrors of ´free jazz' is the expansion of the so-called electronic ´shadow' assigned to each player. Aside from those I've just mentioned there are four others whose sole roles are to take sounds as they are played, re-shape and return them to the palette as bases for further improvisation. It sounds too simplistic, put that way, I know, but what results is a far more dense, unclassifiable cauldron of real and processed sounds than ever before. At times it is unfathomable, a coruscating synthesis of natural and unnatural sounds whose provenance is not clear.

There are moments when the presence of an individual instrument takes some of the foreground, Fernandez' trenchant piano is raked, hammered and throws off splinters early in the piece and both Guy and Wachsmann can be heard bringing ´human' voices to the improvisations. Parker, as you'd probably expect, does not attempt to grandstand but allows himself some controlled but unmistakable forays where the clarity and shape of his soprano rises out of the ensemble. But this work is not about soloing and derives its  overall power from the interactions of all concerned, the electronic and the acoustic.

It is a cohesive statement containing moments of great calm, once in particular, featuring mainly soprano and piano, as well as some spine-tingling rides into a terrain where the mixture of electro-acoustic ingredients shimmers and threatens to explode in unpredicted ways. I hope it will tempt more listeners to listen to what Parker and the ensemble have to offer, after all it is a rewarding experience, but don't expect any soft options or gentle electronic ambience. This is still music that demands to be listened to.

© 2003Paul Donnelly