My first listening to Asian Fields Variations, from clarinetist Louis Sclavis, violinist Dominique Pifarely and cellist Vincent Courtois, was at 5:00 AM, well before sunrise, walking through dark, tree-lined streets a half hour after a rainstorm, not a car in sight, moodily still. Perfect!
That setting and Sclavis wouldn’t always be a great match. Sclavis on the ECM label tends to be very different from Sclavis on, for example, FMP (aka Free Music Production), and one of those recordings would actually have been better-suited to the cold rainstorm I’d just missed (I enjoy rainstorms). Sclavis’ made plenty of bracing, demanding and uncompromising free and freeish jazz, the kind of stuff most of your family members probably don’t like even if you might. “You call that music?” is something fans are used to hearing from friends with hands covering ears. One of the label's early releases (by Peter Brotzmann) is titled Machine Gun, aptly. That’s FMP.
ECM is another world. With a strong personality of its own, much of the jazz music they release (with plenty of big exceptions) is contemplative, introspective, open – more palatable to many, but those are only surface differences
Below the waterline, ECM’s mellower music can be just as demanding as any other jazz, just a bit quieter.
And that’s what we have here. Sclavis, a Frenchmen as are his bandmates, has recorded literally dozens albums with a wide range of colleagues, including Pifarely and Courtois, who have been Sclavis collaborators stretching back decades. My focus on Sclavis is not really fair – this is a complete trio, not a couple of guys backing a leader. All three compose and are virtuoso improvisers, each with their distinctive styles. But what they share is the ability to go beyond the expected and deep into the “sound of surprise” that is one of the great definitions of jazz (thanks Whitney Balliett).
But probably the reason I’m concentrating so much on Sclavis is strictly personal because the clarinet might be my favorite instrument. The expressive tone bores directly into my heart and soul. Clearly I’m not alone.
Jazz from its birth and through every change and development and moment since has included exceptional clarinetists. Since Mozart’s masterpieces for the basset horn (an early version of the clarinet), it’s been a core classical instrument. Klezmer? Required. High-volume arena fusion? Try the Flecktones’ Jeff Coffin. Even rock has had notable clarinet moments (the Beatles used three on When I’m 64). And if classical or jazz players each feel like their music is the rightful owner of the clarinet, Ivo Papasov might tell you Bulgarian Wedding Band music is the clarinet’s true home. Sclavis is right there with the best of them, technically, musically and imaginatively.
Beyond those essential qualities, Sclavis is among the tiny group of musicians who have etched a sound and approach that straddles, effectively, more than one form of music -- in his case most obviously, but not exclusively, jazz and classical. If you want to hear him, with his simpatico trio, doing just that, give Asian Fields Variations a try. Especially on a dark, deserted street.
Dave Royko’s Music Rambles